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Governors' races 101: What's at stake outside Washington in 2010 election

Governors' races are happening in 37 states in the 2010 election. The candidates focus on different issues depending on their states, but one stands out – state budget deficits.

By Scott BlandContributor / August 12, 2010

Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee watched as Paul Iannotti of Warwick, R.I., pledged his support July 10 for Mr. Chafee as an independent candidate in that state’s race for governor. Chafee now leads in polls.

Joe Giblin/AP


Heading into the midterm elections, all eyes are on Washington. The political world is already abuzz with speculation about who will control Congress come January. But this preoccupation overlooks a significant set of contests: governors' races.

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Much of the governing that affects everyday life happens at the state level, and hundreds of candidates are contending for the opportunity to serve as state chief executives. Levels of funding for education and public services, and long-term solutions to many states' failing finances, could depend largely on these elections.

How many governors' races are there?

Most states hold the contest for governor in the same year as congressional midterm elections. There will be 37 gubernatorial races in 2010. Nineteen of those seats are currently held by Democrats and 17 by Republicans. (Florida Independent Gov. Charlie Crist was elected as a Republican in 2006, but he left the party this year.) The incumbent chief executive is running for reelection in only 13 states. With 24 open races, a loss by only one incumbent will mean that at least half of the country's governors would be new to the job in 2011.

Why are so few incumbents running?

Seventeen of the sitting governors are precluded from running by term limits, but that is hardly the whole story. A recession is a bad time to be a governor. "Usually, being a governor is great," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. "But when it's bad, it's really bad. There's increased demand for services and less money, so their choices are to raise taxes or cut services."

Most states have gone for cutting services, often in critical programs like Medicaid and education. This makes all parts of state government unpopular during economic trouble, none more so than the person in charge. Public Policy Polling has tracked approval of senators, governors, and President Obama in 25 states this year; in 13 of them, the governor was the least popular figure.

What are the main campaign issues?

It is hard to pick common issues out of governors' races in the same way that key national topics can dominate the congressional elections. Every gubernatorial election will have a local flavor. In Arizona, immigration will surely dominate the conversation as the state tussles with the federal government over Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's illegal-immigration law. In Illinois, corruption is a hot topic as voters try to make sure their governor doesn't go the way of Rod Blagojevich.

However, there are some common threads. The major one is the economy. Most states have had to deal with shortfalls by making deep cuts, and a few are in truly precarious scenarios. Collectively, states will be over $600 billion behind in their budget obligations by 2012, meaning that the next set of governors will need to act quickly.

Health care may also be a common issue. Republican attorneys general running for governor in both Florida and Pennsylvania have signed on to a lawsuit against the federal health-care reform package.