It’s been said that the states are 50 political laboratories, and indeed, some of the most important policymaking
in the country occurs at the state level. But with the attention of the media and the public fixed on the presidential contest and the battle for control of Capitol Hill, the 11 gubernatorial races taking place on Nov. 6 have been largely overlooked. That’s just wrong — these races have the potential to significantly alter politics and policy for the coming years. Ri
ght now, the 11 contests can be broken down into three broad tiers of competitiveness.
I’ll call the four non-competitive races Tier Three. In these cases, the incumbent governor will be reelected handily: Gov. Gary Herbert (R-Utah), Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R-N.D.), Gov. Jack Markell (D-Dela.) and Gov. Peter Shu
mlin (D-Ver.) all benefit from the significant partisan leans of their respective states, and are shoo-ins for another term in office.
The only remotely interesting campaign of these is actually occurring in Vermont, a state whose strong Democratic lean at the national level is often deceptive: it has a long history of liberal Yankee Republicans, such as former Gov. Jim Douglas and former Sen. Jim Jeffords. In fact, Shumlin was elected over Republican Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie by a margin of less than 2 percent in 2010 (in Vermont and New Hampshire, a gubernatorial term is two years). Vermont Republicans have a compelling candidate in State Senator Randy Brock, a former State Auditor who is black and in the Rockefeller Republican tradition. If any of these races is to be an upset, look for Brock to pull off a major surprise
in notoriously unpredictable Vermont. I wouldn’t put money on it, though.
Tier Two includes races that are much more competitive. In West Virginia, voters face a rematch from the 2011 special election after former Gov. Joe Manchin was elected to the U.S. Senate. Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin, the acting governor and president of the state senate, defeated Republican businessman Bill Maloney by less than 3 percent. Tomblin is now seeking a full four-year term, and should probably win again over Maloney. But Maloney is running a well-funded campaign that muscularly links Tomblin to the highly unpopular President Obama, particularly on regulation of the sacrosanct coal industry. The outcome of this race will show whether West Virginians, traditionally Democratic at the state level, are finally beginning to gravitate to the GOP at all levels.
On the other side of Appalachia, Missourians are likely to reelect Gov. Jay Nixon, a moderate Democrat. Nixon is a popular incumbent facing a challenge from St. Louis businessman Dave Spence. After state Republicans pressured Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder (R-Missouri), who had openly frequented strip clubs and tussled with e
mployees, to leave the race, Spence seized the GOP mantle. He has left much to be desired, running a gaffe-riddled negative campaign. While he could knock off Nixon, I am skeptical, and believe Missourians would be wise to reelect their governor.
Finally, Indiana features a fascinating contest to succeed the term-limited and hugely popular Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-Ind.). Congressman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) is primed to keep the governor’s mansion in GOP hands. He has been running a smart, polished campaign that has simply dominated his Democratic opponent, former State House Speaker John Gregg (D-Ind.). Gregg is an affable candidate whose campaign logo is his iconic bushy mustache, and, as a relatively c
onservative Democrat, he certainly is a credible contender. But the combination of a Romney romp in Indiana and Democratic energy focusing on the tossup senate race, Gregg faces a steep climb.
Tier One is where things really start to get thrilling. Four states have contests that will go down to the wire. Republican Pat McCrory (R-N.C.), the popular former mayor of Charlotte, increasingly looks like North Carolina’s next governor. After losing by the skin of his teeth to incumbent Gov. Bev Perdue (D-N.C.) in the Democratic tidal wave of 2008, McCrory looks like he can capture the governor’s mansion with his pro-business, pragmatic policy prescriptions. Facing tremendous unpopularity over her weak tenure in office, Perdue opted to retire rather than run for reelection, ceding the Democratic nomination to Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton (D-N.C.). Dalton is likable and folksy, and the type of moderate Democrat who traditionally wins in North Carolina. Yet his ties to Perdue have hindered his campaign. If Obama runs well in North Carolina, he could put Dalton over the top. Otherwise, it’s McCrory’s race to lose.
Another swing state, New Hampshire, is also choosing a new governor. This time voters are pick
ing a successor to the very popular Gov. John Lynch (D-N.H.). Frankly, neither candidate is wildly impressive. Democrat Maggie Hassan, former majority leader of the state senate, is a textbook Democrat. Her campaign commercials are uninspired, and she is not a particularly strong speaker. Her Republican opponent is Ovide Lamontagne, whose political experience includes failed bids for governor in 1996 and the U.S. Senate in 2010. Lamontagne is smart and likeable, and his campaign has raised significant cash. Yet as a staunch social conservative, Lamontagne is generally too conservative for the majority of New Hampshirites. The two have been deadlocked in the polls, and I honestly can’t predict who will win the day.
The election in Montana is tight, as well. Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-Mont.) is stepping aside due to term limits, but has expressed serious interest in running for president in 2016. Keep an eye on him. His party benefits from a strong candidate for his replacement in Attorney General Steve Bullock. Bullock is young, telegenic, a tough prosecutor and loyal to Montana values on guns and land issues. Republicans nominated a relatively underwhelming former congressman, Rick Hill (R-Mont.). Hill benefits from the overall conservative lean of the state, but Bullock is a better candidate with a superior campaign. Either could become the state’s next governor.
My favorite gubernatorial race this time around is in Washington state, where voters will replace retiring Gov. Christine Gregoire (D-Wash.). In a state that has not elected a Republican governor since 1980, this looks to be the GOP’s best shot yet. Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna (R-Wash.) is wonky, personable, effective and moderate. While Washingtonians strongly supported Obama in 2008, they gave an even larger reelection victory to McKenna, who consistently has proven his ability to attract Democratic support. Democrats nominated former Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who frankly is not a flickering flame of intellect. Inslee is a generic liberal Democrat, who won a small victory over McKenna in the nonpartisan blanket primary held in August. The two now advance to the general election with Inslee holding a miniscule lead in the polls. If McKenna can tap into voters’ desires for independent-minded change —especially in the vote-rich Seattle area — he will eke out a win, and Washingtonians will be better for it.
States that are big and small, red, blue and purple will elect governors in two weeks. The decisions voters make in these races, particularly compared to how they behave in elections for president and Congress, will reveal a great deal about the political character of our country. On Election Night, you’ll have your work cut out for you: the returns from these 11 races are not to be ignored.
Sam Dulik is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.