Sabato's Crystal Ball

Three Republican Governors Face Increasingly Tough Election Contests

Ratings changes in Arizona, Illinois, and Iowa

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball July 19th, 2018



— The Crystal Ball has three ratings changes in gubernatorial contests, all shifts in the Democrats’ direction: Arizona moves from Likely Republican to Leans Republican, Illinois moves from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic, and Iowa moves from Leans Republican to Toss-up.

New ratings in Arizona, Illinois, and Iowa

Arizona and Iowa have few obvious things in common, but they do both have incumbent Republican governors seeking election in November. Another commonality is that the Crystal Ball now views both states’ gubernatorial contests as increasingly competitive, prompting ratings changes that move the Arizona race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican and the Iowa race from Leans Republican to Toss-up. In addition to these two changes, we are also shifting Illinois’ gubernatorial contest from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic, another downgrade for Republicans.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes

Governor Old Rating New Rating
Doug Ducey (R-AZ) Likely Republican Leans Republican
Kim Reynolds (R-IA) Leans Republican Toss-up
Bruce Rauner (R-IL) Leans Democratic Likely Democratic

Map 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) is seeking his second term, having won a comfortable 12-point victory in 2014. Given the Grand Canyon State’s Republican lean and Ducey’s incumbency, he started the 2018 cycle as a relatively strong favorite to win reelection. However, that is no longer the case. In a state that President Donald Trump carried by only 3.5 points, there are signs that the gubernatorial race could be quite competitive, though Arizona’s late August primary means that we do not yet know who Ducey will face in November. This assumes that Ducey will defeat former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett (R) in the Aug. 28 Republican primary; Ducey easily dispatched Bennett (and others) to win the GOP nomination back in 2014, so this seems likely.

Back in April, the Republican Governors Association — tasked with supporting GOP governors — caught our attention by making a television ad buy on behalf of Ducey. The ad focused on Ducey’s efforts to strengthen education in Arizona, coinciding with a teacher strike in the state that led to a legislative deal to raise Arizona educators’ wages. The timing of the ad made sense, but the fact that Ducey might need outside help seemed notable. This development came on top of the fact that Arizona is set to have a very competitive race for U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket. Polls in that race suggest a Democratic-leaning environment, with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ-9) leading every nonpartisan general election survey testing her against three possible GOP contenders, led by Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2). Ducey’s incumbency should help him to some degree, but the first nonpartisan survey of the gubernatorial race found Ducey neck and neck with the two most notable Democrats trying for the governorship. Gravis’ recent survey, released in early July, found Arizona State University professor David Garcia (D) up 42%-41% on Ducey and state Sen. Steve Farley (D) trailing Ducey 42%-39%. While more polling obviously will be needed, these data and related information about the political environment suggest Ducey may find himself in a dogfight come the fall. The incumbent remains favored, and he will have a large financial edge in the race: Ducey had $3.5 million in his campaign account at the end of June compared to $490,000 for Farley and about $250,000 for Garcia. News broke on Tuesday that the RGA is spending $1 million on attack ads against Garcia, who lost a close race for state superintendent of public instruction in 2014, and Kelly Fryer, a nonprofit leader and activist also seeking the Democratic nomination. This buy both indicates the GOP’s concern for Ducey but also the resources the party can bring to bear to help Ducey and other Republican candidates. The race remains an uphill battle for Democrats, but our new Leans Republican rating reflects our view that the November contest could be quite competitive.

First elected in 2010 as lieutenant governor on a ticket with Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and reelected in 2014, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) succeeded to Iowa’s governorship in May 2017 following Branstad’s confirmation as ambassador to China. She is now seeking a full term as governor in her own right this November, having been unopposed in the GOP primary in June. Along with Govs. Jeff Colyer (R-KS), Kay Ivey (R-AL), and Henry McMaster (R-SC), Reynolds is one of four “successor incumbents” who took over governorships in 2017-2018 when the previous governor stepped down and now hope to win four more years this November (among that group, only Colyer has yet to win renomination — Kansas’ primary is on Aug. 7). In the general election, Reynolds will face businessman Fred Hubbell (D), who handily won the Democratic nomination.

Some fundamental factors play a role in our ratings change in Iowa. First, the overall environment continues to lean in Democrats’ direction, with Morning Consult finding the president’s approval underwater in Iowa in June (46% approved, 50% disapproved), which squares with other polling. A recent congressional poll, albeit a Democratic campaign internal, found incumbent Rep. David Young (R, IA-3) trailing Cindy Axne (D). While we always look at internals with great skepticism, the lack of GOP pushback in IA-3 and elsewhere may be another indicator of a favorable environment for Democrats. If the Democratic candidate might be ahead in a district Trump carried by 3.5 points, statewide races may be more competitive than in 2016, when the president carried Iowa by nine points against Hillary Clinton. Additionally, as mentioned above, Reynolds is a “successor incumbent,” a group that has a mixed record of electoral success in the post-World War II era. Of the 62 successor incumbents who sought elections for governor in that time, 39 went on to win the general election, a success rate of 63%, which is worse than the 74% reelection rate for elected incumbent governors since the Second World War. More specifically as it relates to Reynolds, successor incumbents who were not directly elected to their previous statewide post before becoming governor — Reynolds was on a ticket in Iowa as lieutenant governor, not elected separately from the governor — have performed worse than those who did have a prior statewide election track record. Whereas 69% of successor incumbents who had previously won a statewide office in their own right went on to win in November, just 54% of those who came by the gubernatorial office without winning in their own right eventually found success in the general election.

There is little horserace polling to go on in the Hawkeye State, though a January Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey conducted by noted Iowa pollster Ann Selzer found Reynolds ahead of Hubbell 42%-37% well before the June primary. As for her job performance numbers, Morning Consult data for the first quarter of 2018 showed Reynolds had a net positive approval (42% approved, 35% disapprove). While not spectacular, Reynolds’ numbers suggest that she will not be easy to beat. Moreover, she had $4 million cash on hand just prior to the June 5 primary compared to Hubbell’s $115,000. Still, Hubbell is personally wealthy, and he has given his campaign millions of dollars while raising a total of almost $7 million prior to the primary. Assuming Hubbell continues to spend his own money at a rate similar to how he did during the primary, Reynolds’ cash advantage may shrink or even cease to exist. All in all, we feel there is sufficient uncertainty in Iowa to make Toss-up a more appropriate rating for the gubernatorial contest.

To the east, the Illinois gubernatorial contest appears increasingly uncompetitive. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-IL) began the 2018 cycle as the most endangered incumbent Republican in the country and his position has really only worsened since then. Rauner only narrowly won renomination in the March primary against state Rep. Jeanne Ives (R), indicating the GOP base’s frustration with the incumbent. Following the primary, the Crystal Ball shifted its rating in Illinois from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. Since the primary, every general election poll has found billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker (D) comfortably ahead of Rauner. While Rauner has a great deal of personal wealth, Pritzker’s bank account has an extra zero in it, and the Democratic nominee outspent Rauner $20.1 million to $7.8 million in the second quarter of 2018. What’s more, because many Republicans are displeased with Rauner, political space has opened for the third-party bid by state Sen. Sam McCann (R). As the Conservative Party nominee, the state senator is running to the right of Rauner on fiscal and social issues, though McCann has a pro-union record. McCann seems likely to peel at least a few Republican votes away from the incumbent, making Rauner’s reelection path even more difficult. The Crystal Ball typically gives incumbents the benefit of the doubt, but there has been no good news for Rauner in 2018. The Land of Lincoln contest is now rated as Likely Democratic.

With the three ratings changes in Arizona, Illinois, and Iowa, the Crystal Ball now rates nine gubernatorial races as Toss-ups, with 18 others favoring Republicans to some degree and nine more favoring Democrats to some extent. We now view Illinois as the likeliest party flip among the 36 gubernatorial contests in 2018.

Despite the bad news for the GOP in our ratings, we will add an important caveat to close: The RGA continues to have a substantial money edge on its rival, the Democratic Governors Association. Granted, the RGA is defending a lot of ground — Republicans already control 26 of the 36 governorships on the ballot this year — but the committee has the financial wherewithal to move the needle and potentially snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in some close races. The RGA’s deep pockets are always a factor to consider in close gubernatorial races.

New Poll: Americans Strongly Support Term Limits for Judges

UVA Center for Politics July 19th, 2018


Whatever price elected Republicans eventually pay for standing by President Donald J. Trump — and every party eventually pays at least some price for holding the White House — one could argue that Republicans have already gotten enough from Trump to justify backing him. In his always-interesting quarterly report, GOP lobbyist Bruce Mehlman has compiled some of the ways Trump has kept the Republican coalition together.

The biggest prizes for the right may be Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and potential Supreme Court Justice-To-Be Brett Kavanaugh. Assuming Kavanaugh’s confirmation, he and Gorsuch could be on the court for decades thanks to lifetime appointments. Anguish from the left over these appointments may lead to further escalations of the judicial wars in coming years, such as a future Senate majority mimicking and extending Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) successful 2016 gambit to not even hold a hearing on a nominee from a president of the other party, or a future president and Congress attempting to alter the size of the court for partisan gain.

Whatever happens, this much is clear: Lifetime federal court appointments are among the most valuable of partisan political spoils, and they are only increasing in value.

But does it have to be this way? Is there a way to de-escalate the judicial wars?

One possibility might be judicial term limits.

As part of a recent poll on money in politics conducted by Ipsos in conjunction with the Center for Politics (details on that previously released poll are here), we asked Americans what they thought about judicial term limits. More than two-thirds of respondents (70%) said they supported the idea. The details are in Table 1.

Table 1: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? “Supreme Court Justices should have term limits.”

Source: Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics national poll of American adults, conducted July 5-6, 2018.

Reuters/Ipsos found similar levels of support for a Supreme Court term limit of 10 years in a 2015 poll. Back then, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling mandating same-sex marriage in all 50 states, Republicans were a bit more supportive of Supreme Court term limits than Democrats. Now, after the Kavanaugh nomination has increased the odds of a durable conservative court majority, Democrats are a little bit more inclined than Republicans to back SCOTUS term limits. As is often the case in politics, where you stand is based at least in part on where you sit.

That said, Americans typically support the idea of term limits, for judges or otherwise. For instance, term limits for Congress routinely attract levels of support as high or higher than what our poll with Ipsos found in support of judicial term limits. Currently 15 states have term limits for state legislators, most of which were implemented in the early 1990s as part of a national movement. Many states also tried to apply term limits to Congress, but the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against congressional term limits in 1995, arguing that term limits could not be applied to Congress without a constitutional amendment.

Judicial term limits face a similar constitutional hurdle, and amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress and support from three-quarters of the states. So are judicial term limits likely even though they are popular? No. But in a time of horrific partisan rancor and growing government dysfunction and partisanship, the American political imagination should open itself to at least considering seemingly drastic reforms.

In his 2007 book A More Perfect Constitution, Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato considered a slew of ways to change the United States’ guiding document. One of the proposals he considered was judicial term limits: specifically, a 15-year lifetime term for Supreme Court justices. What follows is a condensed and edited excerpt of the section of A More Perfect Constitution laying out his argument:

The constitutional principle of lifetime tenure during good behavior for federal judges is noteworthy, especially given the fact that almost all of the 50 states appoint or elect their judges for limited terms.

Not all state-based ideas are worth replicating at the federal level. The practice of electing judges is highly questionable. These races have become increasingly vicious, forcing judicial candidates to get down in the muck and attack their opponents on personal character matters. Partisan judicial battles can also produce a real conflict of interest by pushing future judges to take positions, while stumping, on issues coming before their courts later on.

Fortunately, we have no such problem at the federal level, where all judges are appointed — nominated by the president and confirmed (or rejected) by the Senate. Yet in recent years, the federal courts have become divisive for different reasons.

The “least political branch,” a variation on Alexander Hamilton’s description of the judiciary often used by the civic texts, has become exceptionally political. How else to explain why every appointment now receives the kind of intense scrutiny formerly reserved for presidents, senators, and governors?

Some solutions can be found in the states, and several common practices there ought to be applied to the federal judiciary. First, lifetime tenure should be abolished. Some observers already insist that federal judges are not guaranteed lifetime tenure by the Constitution, which states only that judges should “hold their Offices during good Behaviour.” Others have noted that the president or Senate could request a commitment from any nominee to serve a limited term; but any such commitment would not be legally binding, and it is difficult to see a set of circumstances that would compel a president or Senate to request a term limit.

In truth, the custom of lifetime tenure is now so entrenched that only a change in the Constitution can alter the practice. The late chief justice William H. Rehnquist once defined “during good Behaviour” as “mean[ing], for all practical purposes, for life.”  Because of this, and as the judiciary has become almost as polarized along partisan lines as the elective branches, presidents have been seeking out younger and younger judgeship appointees at every level of the judiciary, hoping to influence the courts long after they leave the White House. The data on length of judicial service also clearly show that Supreme Court justices are serving in their positions longer, too. The first chief justice, John Jay, stayed a mere five years, and his two immediate successors had even shorter tenures. Compare that with the 33 years served on the Court by Rehnquist. It is true that the fourth chief justice, the revered John Marshall, set the precedent for Rehnquist by staying on the Court for 34 years, but Marshall was the great exception in the Republic’s first century. The first 10 justices stayed on the Supreme Court, on average, a bit under eight years each, and the first 90 justices left the pre-1970 Court, on average, after 15 years at age 68. By contrast, tenure of 20-plus years has now become the norm. As one Court observer calculated, Justices who left the Supreme Court in the period 1971 to 2000 served an average of 25.5 years!  Further, the average age of departing justices over that period increased considerably, from about age 70 to approaching the age of 80.

The insularity produced by lifetime tenure, combined with youthful appointment and long service, often means that senior judges represent the views and outlooks of past generations better than the current day. Therefore, a nonrenewable, lengthy term of 15 years is an attractive innovation, and the limit would apply to all federal judges, from the district courts all the way up to the Supreme Court. At the district and appellate levels only, judges approaching the 15-year limit could apply to the Senate for a five-year extension. These judgeships, while important, are a great deal less critical and powerful than the Supreme Court posts, so the prospect of five extra years for those judges who wish to apply for the extension seems reasonable and might ease somewhat the confirmation burden on the Senate. One suspects that many lower-court judges, nearing retirement or preferring to rejoin the more lucrative private legal sector, probably would not request an extension. For those who ask for another five years, the Senate would need to reconfirm the judges by the customary majority vote. Much as we observe in the process of reconfirmation at the state level, though, many judges would be extended in office without controversy and with a streamlined procedure, given the short length of the extension. The ones who are weeded out might well follow the state pattern; that is, overwhelmingly, the only judges not reelected or reconfirmed by the legislatures are those who have demonstrated serious personal problems or have proven tone-deaf to ethical challenges during their terms.

Undoubtedly, given the partisanship in the modern U.S. Senate, other judges would be denied extensions by being in the minority party in the Senate, assuming that party control of the upper chamber had switched in the fifteen years since first appointment. This is not a bad thing, since one of the arguments for term limits for judges is to ensure that the judiciary more accurately reflects the current makeup of the nation. After all, a single laggard branch can stymie reforms that the American people have decisively voted for; a Republican-dominated Supreme Court overturned much of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts to combat the Great Depression, for example. Still, with some exceptions, the Senate would be unlikely to tie itself in knots about short-term extensions for most lower-court judges, even if partisan control of the Senate has changed hands over the 15-year period. Far more pressing business would normally take precedence.

Supreme Court slots are far more critical to the nation, and for that reason, the 15-year limit should be absolute — a lifetime limit. This is a long time to serve — nearly four current presidential terms, or about a third of the average American’s working life. At the same time, it is short enough to prevent justices from becoming too detached and generationally removed from the American mainstream. And as noted earlier, it is about the length of time the first 90 justices served (on average) in the Republic’s first 18 decades. Fifteen years is also long enough to permit both institutional memory and collective wisdom to develop within the Court, yet short enough to deter most justices from evolving a dramatically different philosophy or deteriorating beyond tolerable limits. The term might also ensure that presidents — and the rest of us — get what they have bargained for, whether a liberal or a moderate or a conservative. With the notable and rare exception of a justice like David Souter, who started affiliating with the liberals on the Supreme Court just a few years after his appointment as a supposed conservative, ideological evolution of justices usually takes considerable time, somewhat longer than a decade. While it is their right to evolve, there is also a touch of arrogance involved, not to mention the complete lack of accountability. Judicial independence must be honored and valued, but not to extremes.

Tremendous authority has been concentrated in the federal courts’ hands, especially in the Supreme Court, so much so that it is hard to believe that the founders would not have limited them in some ways had they realized what the courts would become in time. It is now appropriate to carry forward the founders’ preferences for checks on all centers of great power by making these constitutional changes in the Supreme Court and lower courts. It is time to bring the judiciary down from Mount Olympus — not to sea level but to an elevated pedestal within sight of the America they are sworn to serve.

Center for Politics/Ipsos Poll: Just Half of Americans Believe Elections Are Fair and Open

New national survey shows Americans critical of big money in politics, supportive of disclosure, but skeptical of judicial intervention

UVA Center for Politics July 17th, 2018



Editor’s Note: This is the first of two issues of the Crystal Ball this week. We will also have an issue Thursday, July 19.


Only about half of American adults believe elections are fair and open, and large majorities of Americans express skepticism about big money in politics and favor disclosure of donations. However, as the Senate considers President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the public offers mixed signals about judicial intervention that could either tighten or loosen the law concerning money in politics.

These are some of the takeaways from a national poll conducted by Ipsos in conjunction with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

By a 51%-43% margin, those surveyed agreed with the statement that “American elections are fair and open.” However, there was a partisan gap, as 68% of Republicans but just 43% of Democrats agreed with the statement. Couched opinions — those who just “somewhat” agreed or disagreed with the statement — were more common than strong opinions from Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

Table 1: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? “American elections are fair and open”

Americans largely agreed with several other statements dealing with mandated disclosures of who paid for televised or online political advertisements and whether interest groups should follow the same campaign/election laws as candidates. Unlike with the fair elections questions, there was little difference among partisans on support for these statements, which are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Do you agree or disagree with the following statements:

Respondents also expressed concern about a recent large, anonymous, and legal donation made to an outside political group (this question relates to this story). When asked which of two statements was closer to their views, nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed more with a statement that the donation is an “invitation to corruption,” while a little over a quarter of respondents agreed more with an alternative statement that “People should have a right to give as much as they please, and do so anonymously.” Democrats (78%) and Independents (76%) were likelier than Republicans (62%) to agree with the first statement expressing concern about the large donation.

Table 3: “Recently a political committee aligned with one of the nation’s top leaders accepted over $24 million from a single individual. The donor is anonymous, and the law permits that. Which statement comes closest to your views?”

Finally, respondents were asked whether the Supreme Court should intervene to either tighten or loosen campaign finance laws. Democrats were generally a little more supportive of the first three suggested Supreme Court actions — proposed restrictions, as described in Table 4 — than Republicans. The fourth item, asking if the Supreme Court should eliminate donation limits and thus loosen campaign finance laws, attracted little support across the political spectrum.

Table 4: Do you think the Supreme Court should… (Select all that apply)

These findings come from an Ipsos poll conducted on July 5-6, 2018. For the survey, a sample of roughly 1,006 adults age 18+ from the continental U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii were interviewed online in English. The full results, methodology, and crosstabs are available here.

This poll represents the latest collaboration between the University of Virginia Center for Politics and Ipsos, an international, independent marketing research firm over the last year and a half. The Center for Politics and Ipsos released two polls on Americans’ attitudes toward recent presidents, and the Center and Ipsos, along with Reuters, released a poll on Americans’ racial attitudes in the wake of a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville last year.