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.

Joe Giblin/AP
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.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Thirty-seven states will have governors' races this November. With open races (no incumbent running) in 24 states, only two losses by sitting governors would mean that over half of US states would have a new chief executive in 2011.

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.

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.

What are the differences between the states' political environment and the national one?

The political landscape is never the same locally as in Washington. Year after year, Democrats and Republicans challenge for governorships in states where the parties barely even bother campaigning during presidential elections. Democrats have held the governor's mansion in Wyoming and Oklahoma for two terms apiece, while Republican governors have been at the helm in deep-blue states like California, Hawaii, and Rhode Island for most of the decade.

State parties – and as a result, gubernatorial candidates – tend to be more closely aligned with local sensibilities than with the national parties.

Who are the candidates?

Despite the talk about 2010 being a year for political outsiders, most of the gubernatorial candidates come from within the political system – five former governors are trying to reclaim their seats. Of the candidates already nominated by their parties at the time of this writing, four are lieutenant governors, four are state attorneys general, and many of the rest are state representatives and senators, along with a few congressmen and mayors.

Already, eight of the nominated candidates are women. (The record is 10, and women are favored in some of the remaining primaries.) Only two races for governor have been all-female before. There are two in this election cycle – in New Mexico and Oklahoma.

It will not be possible to gauge the full impact of third-party candidacies until they all materialize in the fall, but this is shaping up to be an election cycle full of outsiders who could affect governors' races. Genuine three-way races are ramping up in Connecticut and Maine, and independents in Massachusetts and Colorado – former Democrat Tim Cahill and former Republican Tom Tancredo, respectively – could swing elections by leaching support from their former parties.

Four races to watch


(D) Attorney General Jerry Brown

(R) Meg Whitman

To stitch up the black hole that is the state budget, Californians will choose between two types of management experience: Mr. Brown’s previous stint as governor 20 years ago, and Ms. Whitman’s successes as the CEO of eBay.


(D) Gov. Pat Quinn

(R) State Sen. Bill Brady

California gets all the attention for dysfunction, but Illinois has a massive budget deficit and adds a political culture reeling from corruption. Mr. Quinn, the former lieutenant governor who took office after Rod Blagojevich was impeached, barely survived his primary.


(D) Attorney General Terry Goddard

(R) Gov. Jan Brewer

How big a role will the immigration controversy play in this election? It already led Governor Brewer to remove Mr. Goddard, who opposes Arizona’s new immigration statute, from the state’s defense of a federal government lawsuit.


Primary: Sept. 14

Which is more surprising: that Independent former Sen. Lincoln Chafee pledged to raise taxes as he launched his campaign, or that voters responded by giving him a bump in the polls? Mr. Chafee leads a three-way race.

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