Governors under pressure: In 2014, being an incumbent is little help

Some 11 governors seeking reelection are at risk, including eight Republicans and three Democrats. If voters oust even six of them, it would match numbers not seen in two decades.

Christopher Millette, Erie Times-News/AP
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett was at the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority's facility in Erie, Pa., on Oct. 29, 2014, to announce $30 million in state funding for the second phase of the bus facility's expansion plan.

An unusual number of governors could be ejected from office by restive voters in next week’s election, signaling an anti-incumbent mood that goes well beyond the “Obama effect” that weighs on Democrats.

In fact, the Republicans have the most governor's mansions to lose.

Some 11 governors seeking reelection are at risk – including eight Republicans and three Democrats in states that crisscross the country from Maine to Colorado, from Alaska to Florida.

If voters oust even six of them, it would match numbers not seen in two decades. And seven or more governors haven’t gone down in one year since 1962, according to a tally cited by the PBS show “NewsHour.”

Incumbents are endangered for several reasons.

Some are saddled with weak economies or budget problems (this applies to Republicans Sam Brownback in Kansas and Nathan Deal in Georgia and to Democrats Pat Quinn in Illinois and Dannel Malloy in Connecticut).

Others have pushed conservative or liberal agendas too hard in the eyes of voters. That problem emerged for John Hickenlooper (D) in Colorado after fellow Democrats took over the legislature in that politically middle-of-the-road state. In moderate to left-leaning Pennsylvania, education cuts are one factor dragging down Tom Corbett (R). And it’s a reason why Republicans Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Paul LePage in Maine are in trouble. 

For some Republicans, a challenge is that they hold office in states that aren’t natural strongholds for their party. Wisconsin and Maine are examples again, and this issue is a head wind for Rick Snyder in Michigan. 

Scandal or ethical questions also can serve to put races in play. In Alaska, incumbent Sean Parnell (R) is in trouble partly because of perceptions that he failed to confront abuses (including sexual harassment) occurring in the state’s National Guard.

An overarching theme: No matter the party or the part of the country, voters seem happy to consider fresh faces for the job.

Or even not so fresh faces. Florida’s race pits current Gov. Rick Scott (R) against former Gov. Charlie Crist, lately of the Democratic Party. A tide of negative ads seems to have made it a race to the bottom – all about which man voters dislike the least. 

Unlike in congressional elections, where Republicans are attaching the name Obama as a millstone around Democrats, governors are being judged on their individual merits.

They can take heat for perceived fiscal flaws in either direction. Governor Quinn in Illinois is under attack for raising taxes too much, while Governor Brownback has the opposite problem: The Kansan’s tax cuts left a revenue gap in the state budget – and a hole in his electoral support.

Republicans simply have more governors up for review than Democrats, which helps explain why more of them are in tight races.

Still, since both parties have races in play, it’s not clear if the election will result in any big swing in the overall number of governorships that each party holds.

“At this point, it would be a surprise if the Republicans ended Election Night with more governorships than when they started it,” write analysts at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a website tied to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Their forecast is for little net change, anything from a GOP gain of one seat to a Democratic gain of two seats. But even that outlook involves the potential for multiple incumbents to lose.

It’s worth emphasizing that not all governors seeking reelection are in trouble. Even in swing-state Ohio, Republican John Kasich has solidified his position to avoid tossup status, for example.  

Of 36 gubernatorial races at stake on Nov. 4, some 28 have incumbents running, and polls show 17 as clearly favored to win.

Still, those 11 sitting governors at risk add up to an unusually volatile year.

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