University of California (San Diego) political science professor Thad Kousser, coauthor of The Power of American Governors: Winning on Budgets and Losing on Policy, says this phenomenon is nothing new.
"This is completely in the tradition of governors. Unlike senators or members of Congress, they don't have to go to Washington every week and toe the party line on the national issues of the day. This gives them the ability to craft their own politics in their state," Kousser said. "They can take positions at odds with party leaders, and party leaders have no ability to whip them."
The relative freedom to pursue their own agenda is especially apparent in states where gubernatorial and Senate races overlap, like Georgia.
"The challenge for [Michelle] Nunn is that she's running for a seat in the Senate, and for a Senate that hangs in the balance," said Bryan Thomas, spokesman for gubernatorial candidate Carter, of the state's Democratic Senate nominee.
The constant need to answer to the actions of an unpopular Congress, an unpopular president, or items in the national news cycle is "just not something that's part of our campaign," said Thomas, adding that generally speaking, "running for the governor's job instead of running for something in Washington, you're a little bit more protected from some of that partisan prejudging."
Carter, for example, sports an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, while Baker in Massachusetts is one of few Republicans who openly and emphatically support gay marriage. In Illinois, the GOP's Rauner attended a gala thrown by the American Civil Liberties Union in celebration of abortion rights in May, while Democrat Davis is opposing tax cuts passed by Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback not by proposing any increases, but by pitching a "freeze" on current rates.
For Rauner and Baker, particularly, making it clear their stances on social issues jibe with those of the many progressive voters in their states has been a necessary precursor to selling their agendas on fiscal and economic issues, which is still an arduous task. Rauner repeatedly insists he has "no social agenda," and has enlisted his wife Diana, a Democrat, to help make his case, while Baker's campaign emphasizes the personal nature of his positions. "When it comes to marriage equality, for Charlie it's a personal issue," said Baker spokesman Tim Buckley, pointing out that the Massachusetts Republican candidate has a brother who is gay. On the flip side, Davis and Carter in Kansas and Georgia are keeping nearly silent on social issues to allay potential conservative unease, and have kept their focus squarely on local issues concerning education and the economy, though their opponents are doing what they can to nationalize their races and tie them to President Obama.