Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Beyond Congressional Battleground, Close Gubernatorial Races Lurk

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Even with the tightening of the presidential race and renewed GOP excitement, Democrats are still widely expected to gain seats in the House and the Senate in November. But Republicans could actually see a net gain of seats in this year’s small crop of gubernatorial races.

Only 11 states are electing a governor this year, and really only four of those races are up for grabs. The competitive races are divided evenly between the two parties, with the most likely outcome ranging from Democrats gaining a governorship to Republicans gaining one.

North Carolina is proving to be a battleground up and down the ballot. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are battling for the Tar Heel State’s electoral votes, and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) is in the fight of her political life for a second term.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R) are locked in a tight race to replace outgoing Gov. Mike Easley (D). Poll results over the past three weeks range from each candidate being up by a couple points to a dead heat. Historically, Republicans aren’t usually in this position.

Perdue won the Democratic nomination by a convincing margin over a well-financed statewide officeholder. McCrory got into the race late, but he overtook the underwhelming GOP field with high name identification and a large geographic base.

North Carolina has had only two Republican governors in the past 70 years, but if McCrory can put together the money to compete in a state with expensive TV markets, he could make this a race until the end.

In Missouri, Republicans caught a break when unpopular Gov. Matt Blunt (R) decided not to run for a second term. Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R) subsequently won a bitter primary, and Republicans are still healing their wounds.

State Attorney General Jay Nixon (D) has yet to put the race away, despite a divided GOP and the fact that he’s been running for more than two and a half years. An Aug. 13-17 Public Policy Polling (D) survey and a July 29-31 SurveyUSA poll showed Nixon with an identical advantage over Hulshof, though he was leading with less than 50 percent. Nixon still has the edge, but it looks to be a close race in a state McCain should win.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) made some unpopular decisions during his first term as governor, and he once looked like a prime Democratic target. His Democratic opponent, former Rep. Jill Long Thompson, narrowly won her primary (50.6 percent to 49.4 percent) against a wealthy opponent, but she’s having difficulty keeping up with Daniels in the polls and in fundraising.

An Aug. 29-30 Howey-Gauge poll had the governor ahead 53 percent to 35 percent. Almost two weeks earlier, SurveyUSA showed Daniels up 52 percent to 38 percent. And a July poll for the governor’s campaign had him up by 18 points. He’s not out of the woods, but Daniels is a good campaigner and it will be tough for Thompson to set the tone without more resources.

Meanwhile in Washington, Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) can’t shake her 2004 opponent, former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R). The two battled to a near draw four years ago, with Gregoire prevailing by 133 votes. Almost four years later, the race remains virtually unchanged.

Gregoire and Rossi were within 3 points of each other in all but one of six public polls since July. And because of Washington’s new “top two” primary, the two faced the voters on Aug. 19. Of course, Gregoire edged out Rossi, 48 percent to 46 percent.

Rossi outspent the governor in August, but Gregoire should enjoy a financial advantage during the stretch run. Obama is expected to carry the state easily, but Rossi is certainly still in the game, and that’s all Republicans could hope for at this point.

Finally, in Delaware, state Treasurer Jack Markell proved that “change” is still a potent message. His opponent, Lt. Gov. John Carney, had the support of outgoing Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D), organized labor and most of the establishment. But Markell prevailed in Tuesday’s Democratic primary and is the heavy favorite in November.

This story first appeared on Roll Call.com on September 12, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.