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Lou Cannon: GOP Dominates Legislative Races But Democrats Take Aim at Governorships

The last four years have been golden for Republicans in the nation’s statehouses, and GOP fortunes appear to shine brightly in the 2014 state legislative elections. But Democrats have hopes of dulling the Republican luster in the Nov. 4 balloting by taking several governorships away from the GOP.

Entering the election, Republicans have a 29-21 edge in governorships. The GOP controls both legislative chambers in 27 states compared to 19 for the Democrats. Legislative control is divided in three other states.

Republicans are better off than these numbers. Nebraska has a unicameral Legislature that is technically nonpartisan but Republican in all but name. Coalitions favorable to Republicans control the state senates in New York and Washington, even though Democrats have slight majorities in these chambers.

Democrats hope to win an extra Washington Senate seat, which would enable them to scrap the coalition. They are also striving to win the Iowa House, which Republicans now control by three votes.

But Republicans have more opportunities in this year’s legislative elections, said Tim Storey, a political analyst for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislators. GOP prime targets include the state senates in Colorado, Iowa and Nevada and the state houses in Kentucky, Minnesota, New Hampshire and West Virginia, all held now by the Democrats.

History is on the Republican side. Since 1900, the party in power in the White House has never gained legislative seats in the sixth year of a president’s term. A recent ABC News/Washington Post Poll put President Barack Obama’s approval rating at a record-low 40 percent, the same as President George W. Bush when Democrats swept the 2006 midterm elections. GOP candidates are also often helped by low voter turnout, which Gallup predicts will be the case this year.

Nonetheless, Democratic prospects are bright in several governor’s races, especially in Pennsylvania, where Democratic businessman Tom Wolf leads incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett by a wide margin. The average of polls by RealClearPolitics, a political website, puts Wolf ahead by 15 percent.

In normally Republican Kansas, polls say that Democrat Paul Davis, a leader of the House of Representatives, is virtually tied with incumbent GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. The conservative Brownback cut taxes deeply but was forced to slash spending when anticipated revenues didn’t materialize, igniting a bipartisan backlash.

Democrats are competitive in five other states — Florida, Georgia, Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin — now governed by Republicans.

Republicans are favored to win the governorship in Arkansas, an open race in a state now in Democratic hands, and have opportunities in five other states governed by Democrats: Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois and Massachusetts.

Of the GOP-held states, Georgia is most problematic for the Democrats because of a state law requiring a majority for victory. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal is slightly ahead of state Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, but third-party candidates may prevent either from winning a majority. Deal would be favored in a Dec. 6 runoff because Republican turnout is usually higher in such elections.

The race in Florida between incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott and challenger Charlie Crist — a onetime GOP governor turned Democrat — is tied in recent polls.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has received high marks for fiscally reviving Michigan and helping to rescue bankrupt Detroit but has received a stiff challenge from former Democratic Rep. Mark Schauer, backed by organized labor because Snyder signed “right-to-work” legislation. Snyder leads by 3.5 percent in the RCP poll average.

Even more disliked than Snyder by organized labor is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who in 2012 survived a union-led recall effort. Nipping at his heels is Democratic challenger Mary Burke, a wealthy businesswoman and member of the Madison school board. Recent surveys show a virtual tie.

In Maine, Democratic state Rep. Michal Michaud is trying to unseat Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a Tea Party favorite. Michaud would be the first openly gay candidate to be elected governor of any state. His task is complicated by the presence of independent Eliot Cutler, who narrowly lost to LePage four years ago. This time Cutler seems cast in the role of spoiler. Recent surveys put Michaud slightly ahead of LePage but well within the margin of polling error.

Maine demonstrates the potential liability to Democratic candidates of Obama’s low approval ratings. Obama overwhelmingly carried Maine two years ago but now has a high disapproval rating among the independents Michaud needs to win. First lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton have campaigned for Michaud, who has not asked Obama to do the same.

Among Democratic-held states targeted by Republicans, Arkansas seems most likely to change partisan hands. The candidates are two former congressmen, Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross. Hutchison has led all the way; Ross trails him by a commanding 6.4 percentage points in the RCP average.

Beyond Arkansas, the best chance for a GOP gubernatorial victory in a Democratic state may be Connecticut, where Gov. Dan Malloy and Republican challenger Tom Foley, a former ambassador to Ireland, are staging a rematch of their close 2010 race. Gun control is an issue. After the Newtown school massacre in 2012, the Legislature passed strict gun-control laws that Foley wants repealed. Malloy, slightly ahead in recent polls, has struggled to unite his own party after raising taxes and cutting pension benefits for government workers.

Republicans also have a chance in normally Democratic Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick is retiring. The race pits two 2010 losers, Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who lost a U.S. Senate race, and Republican Charlie Baker, who lost to Patrick last time. The lead in this race has switched hands several times in the polls.

Party loyalty could be decisive in Democratic-leaning Illinois, where polls show Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn to be unpopular. He nevertheless holds a slight lead over his Republican challenger, businessman Bruce Rauner.

Colorado is another tossup. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has been on the defensive in a campaign focusing on a reprieve granted by Hickenlooper to the murderer of four Chuck E. Cheese employees in 1993. Hickenlooper favored capital punishment when he was elected but now opposes it. His challenger, Republican Bob Beauprez, who lost a race for governor in 2006, said he will let the execution proceed if he wins. The two candidates have traded leads in recent polls.

In Hawaii, perhaps the only competitive state in which Obama is not a liability for Democrats, state Sen. David Ige routed Gov. Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic primary. He leads Republican Duke Aiona by 3.6 points in the latest RCP poll average. But the presence in this race of independent Mufi Hannemann adds a note of uncertainty, as does the lack of recent polls.

Alaska, normally Republican, could be lost to the GOP but won’t go Democratic. Republican Gov. Sean Parnell was so far ahead of his Democratic opponent, Byron Mallott, that Mallott withdrew and threw his support to independent Bill Walker. Recent polls put Walker slightly ahead.

Democrats overall stand better chances in governors’ races than in the battle for control of legislative chambers because Democratic voters tend to be concentrated in urban areas, while Republican voters are dispersed in smaller towns and rural areas. This helps Democrats in statewide races but gives Republicans an advantage in district elections for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures. Republicans won many legislatures in the 2010 midterm elections and padded their advantage in 2011 with skillful but partisan redistricting.

Illustratively, Republicans control both legislative chambers in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states twice carried by Obama in which Democrats are now mounting strong gubernatorial challenges. Storey observes these states are politically similar to Iowa, another state twice carried by Obama.

But Iowa, unlike the other three states, has nonpartisan redistricting. As a result, legislative control is split, with Democrats narrowly holding the Senate and Republicans the House. Both chambers are in play in this election.

National media attention is understandably focused on Republican efforts to win the U.S. Senate, but the state elections may matter more. Regardless of which party controls the Senate, Republicans seem assured of holding onto the House of Representatives. This means divided government in the nation’s capital and the gridlock it produces for at least the remainder of Obama’s second term. In contrast, in a convincing demonstration of federalism, states with single-party control have shown in the past four years that they are willing and able to act.

Republican-run states have cut taxes, limited abortion, tightened voting rules and restricted unions. Democrat-run states have expanded health care under Medicaid, granted in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrants and raised the minimum wage. Republican-run and Democratic-run states alike have authorized massive new spending for transportation and higher education and attempted prison reform.

The domestic direction of American government in the next two years will be determined most by the governors and state legislators voters will choose in next month’s elections.

Lou Cannon, a Summerland resident, is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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