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.
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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.

Meanwhile, there have been surprises in at least a half-dozen deeply liberal or conservative states, where races that were barely on both parties' target lists are now highly competitive.

Hawaii, for example, is a solidly Democratic state, but unpopular Governor Neil Abercrombie has helped turn the state's gubernatorial race into a barnburner—enough so that the Republican National Committee sent additional staff there and the RGA is likely to spend on former Lieutenant Governor Duke Aiona's behalf.

Abercrombie was defeated in the state's August 9 primary, which gives Democrats hope that their new nominee, state Senator David Ige, can be a clean slate for Democrats this fall. But the combination of bipartisan ire toward the Abercrombie administration and a three-way matchup with Democrat-turned-independent Mufi Hannemann make this a real race.

Republicans point to Colorado and Connecticut as other places they think they'll have a legitimate chance this fall—which, given the organization's plan to spend $100 million in the final 100 days of the campaign, gives them new places to spend that money. Both races feature Democratic incumbents—Connecticut's Dannel Malloy and Colorado's John Hickenlooper—whose approval ratings have declined and who face stronger-than-expected GOP challengers.

Recent polling shows Colorado to be about as close as can be: The three most recent public surveys, from Quinnipiac, Public Policy Polling, and YouGov, all showed the race statistically tied.

Democrats, too, have seen unexpected gubernatorial opportunities materialize in recent months, which has caused Republicans to spend in places and defend candidates they may not have anticipated. Chief among them is Kansas, where GOP Governor Sam Brownback is facing backlash from within his own party over his fiscal stewardship. Most public polling there has put Democrat Paul Davis in the lead—and even Brownback's own internal polling, released in late August, gave the incumbent just a 1-point lead.

"A combination of gross fiscal irresponsibility, a disturbing lack of ethics, an abandonment of public schools and students, and strong Democratic challengers has made [Georgia Governor] Nathan Deal and Sam Brownback seriously vulnerable," said Democratic Governors Association spokesman Danny Kanner.

The RGA went up with an ad attacking Davis in Kansas last week, calling him too liberal for the state.

"Name the tax or fee and Paul Davis probably voted to hike it, keep it, or stop it from being cut," the ad's narrator says. "Kansas just can't support him."

Georgia, too, gives Democrats hope that they can compete in a red state: GOP Gov. Nathan Deal has faced ethics investigations, and Democrats' candidate is Jason Carter, Jimmy Carter's grandson. The RGA spent more than $500,000 on an ad there earlier this summer. The Cook Political Report moved that race from "Likely Republican" to "Toss-Up" last week.

Even in Nebraska, Republicans are spending to boost Republican Pete Ricketts, running an ad calling Democrat Chuck Hassebrook a "liberal" who "personally supported Obama for president." What little polling that has been done there suggests Ricketts still has a high single-digit lead, making this a likely hold—but it could be close enough that Republicans want to nail it down early.

To be sure, many of the initially competitive races have remained close: Democrats are excited about opportunities in Florida, Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all of which feature GOP incumbents elected during the 2010 wave in states that voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. Republicans, meanwhile, feel good about their chances in Arkansas and Illinois, as they have since the cycle began.

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Emily Schultheis is a political reporter for National Journal.

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