Governors' Races Are Turning the National Political Map Upside Down

Democrats are playing defense in deep-blue states like Hawaii, while Republicans are worried about holding on in strongholds like Georgia.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is behind in the polls. (Tim Shaffer/Reuters)

Democrats are bullish about their opportunity to win the governor's mansion in Kansas. Republicans have sent staffers out to Hawaii for what they view as a promising opportunity to turn the state red.

Those statements may seem surprising given both states' political leanings—but they're a testament to the fact that the 2014 gubernatorial map has shifted considerably in recent months, a new reality that may cause both parties to move resources to places they never expected at the beginning of the year.

Unlike the 2014 Senate map, which has remained relatively static over the course of the cycle, the gubernatorial map looks quite different than it did when the year began. Some races that were previously seen as competitive, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, are dropping off the map. Others that were low on the national radar, like Kansas, Hawaii and Connecticut, have turned into real races.

Of the initially competitive races that are falling off the map, two swing states with GOP governors running for a second term—Ohio and Pennsylvania—have seen the starkest changes.

In Pennsylvania, unpopular Governor Tom Corbett is likely to become the first Keystone State governor ousted in the state's history, giving Democrats a near-automatic pickup. While Corbett was always expected to face an uphill battle to get reelected, no one thought he'd be more than 20 points down on Labor Day. A Franklin & Marshall poll released last week put Corbett at just 24 percent—a full 25 points below Democratic challenger Tom Wolf.

Corbett is "a known entity: He was attorney general, he's been governor for three and a half years, he has established his public image and it's not a good one," said Chris Borick, who conducts Muhlenberg College's Pennsylvania polling. "For Corbett to, as an incumbent, change the race is going to be a challenge—and up to this point it's seemed he is simply going to be unable to do that."

Following the release of the F&M poll, Corbett's campaign leaked a memo showing the incumbent down just 7 points—far closer than any public polling, but still a sign he's in deep trouble. The Republican Governors Association (RGA) has contributed millions to help Corbett flood the airwaves with ads this summer, but unless the race tightens the group could end up spending its money elsewhere.

On the other hand, Ohio Governor John Kasich, originally expected to face strong opposition, will now coast to a second term in November: Democrat Ed FitzGerald, his opponent, has run one of the worst campaigns of the year, giving national Democrats little hope he can salvage the race. The Cook Political Report earlier this week moved the race to "Solid Republican."

FitzGerald had already struggled to raise money and raise his name ID across the state, both efforts that were completely tanked by a series of damaging headlines about the candidate's conduct. One story said he was found in his car at 4:30 a.m. with a woman who wasn't his wife; another noted that he didn't have a valid driver's license for a decade. Most of FitzGerald's senior staff left in an exodus earlier this month, and remaining staffers have announced the campaign will be shifting its resources toward helping the party's down-ballot candidates in November, a sign of surrender.

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Emily Schultheis is a political reporter for National Journal.

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