With everyone busy guessing about the scope of a possible landslide in Washington this fall—will Republicans pick up one chamber, or two?—it’s easy to forget how consequential the 2010 governors’ races will be. For one thing, governors have a hand in the redistricting that will occur after the 2010 Census; congressional delegations poised to lose seats will welcome the presence of a pal in the governor’s mansion who can help ease the pain. For the lucky states growing in size, a statehouse ally can help expand his party’s representation through some wise maneuvering. What’s more, everyone knows that governorships have historically been a far better launching pad for the White House than Congress, at least in recent memory.
Right now the statehouses are nearly evenly split—Democrats control 26, to the GOP’s 24. Pundits expect more Democrats to lose than Republicans; at the moment, the betting is that the GOP will gain somewhere between six and eight seats. Term limits and retirements (at least six incumbents are stepping down) factor into what is shaping up to be an unprecedented level of turnover in governorships. But alongside the newbies, there may be some familiar faces; five former governors are running to get their old jobs back.
So which are the key races to watch? The Daily Beast surveyed the landscape.
The Golden State features the highest profile matchup of the fall as heavyweights Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO, and longtime California politician Jerry Brown vie to fill the job Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves behind in Sacramento. Heading into Labor Day, the trend line doesn’t look promising for Brown, California’s attorney general, but the race remains a toss-up. Whitman has plunked down more than $100 million of her personal fortune on the campaign. The race could turn on whether Brown’s long career is seen by voters as an asset or a liability.
With Republican—make that independent—Gov. Charlie Crist exiting to run for Florida’s open Senate seat, the GOP battle for the party’s nomination proved a doozy. Establishment favorite Bill McCollum, state attorney general, lost to free-spending health-care executive Rick Scott. Scott leads Democrat Alex Sink in one early poll. Scott will have to overcome the pummeling he took during the primary over allegations that his company committed Medicare fraud (the matter was settled with a $1.7 billion fine). Sink, a former bank executive and Florida’s CFO, is hampered by the fact that more than half of voters don’t know who she is, with the election just three months away.
As Maine goes, so goes the nation. Or so the saying goes. If politics there garner national attention, it’s usually because one of the state’s two Republican senators—Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe—is flirting with supporting the Democrats. But the state’s governors' race has caught the interest of the political cognoscenti because Eliot Cutler, an environmental lawyer and former Edmund Muskie aide, is running a convincing campaign as an independent. It’s an auspicious time to mount such a bid, in a year when fatigue with both parties is running high, and the state has a history of favoring independents. For the moment, though, he’s being outgunned by a gaffe-prone Republican, Paul LePage, and Democrat Libby Mitchell.
Gov. Deval Patrick’s political fortunes have risen and fallen in rough parallel with Barack Obama’s; the two men share advisers, a similar message, and even some aspects of their biographies. Patrick, elected in 2006, struggled this year, just as President Obama has—but in a portend the Democrats can only hope holds true nationally, the Massachusetts governor has regained momentum in the race. Republican challenger Charlie Baker, who as an adviser to Gov. Bill Weld became known as “the smartest man in state government,” appeals to the same moderate Republicans and independents who helped propel Scott Brown to victory in the 2009 special Senate election. A wild card in the race is independent candidate Tim Cahill, whose presence in the race has angered the Republican Governors Association. Concerned that Cahill could siphon off Baker’s support, the RGA has spent a fair amount of money on ads attacking the independent.
The battle for New Mexico’s statehouse is a toss-up at summer’s end. Republican District Attorney Susana Martinez, one of Sarah Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies,” is leading Democrat Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who served with term-limited Gov. Bill Richardson. Whichever candidate wins will become the 32nd female governor in the nation’s history. For those looking to see how identity politics plays in the Southwest, where immigration has become a leading issue, Martinez’s campaign could prove a bellwether. As a Hispanic woman, Martinez would be a welcome addition for national Republicans eager to carry on the Bush-era legacy of broadening the party’s appeal.
Standing an inch shy of seven feet tall, Chris Dudley would become one of the rangiest governors in U.S. history—if the former NBA shot-blocker can put an end to the Republican dry spell in Salem. His opponent is Democrat John Kitzhaber, one of the five former governors who are running for their old seats this fall (incumbent Democrat Ted Kulongoski is stepping down). Throughout the summer, Dudley has held a tight lead. According to The Oregonian, Dudley has maintained his edge by ignoring hot-button issues like immigration and staying focused on the economy.
Is there room in the GOP for old-school, Rockefeller Republicanism? If you ask former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, his answer would be no. But since getting bounced from the Senate by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse (Chafee occupied the seat once held by his father John), the moderate hasn’t given up on politics. Thanks to the strength of the family name and an open governor’s seat, Chafee, now an independent, is hanging around in the race for the statehouse against Republican John Robitaille, an aide to current Gov. Donald Carcieri, and Democrat Frank Caprio, the state treasurer. Democrats are hoping that Chafee’s past service to the GOP will scare off independents, and help them reclaim the office.
Most people don’t expect Houston Mayor Bill White to loosen Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s grip on Austin, but watching White get within striking distance will prove highly entertaining. The Harvard-trained mayor has moved the race into toss-up territory with his cutting attacks on Perry, saying the governor is too lazy to do the job. With his veiled threats at secession, Perry personifies the throw-the-bums-out ethos that is aimed at Washington this fall. It would be quite the irony if the anti-incumbent tide catches the governor in its undertow.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.