Sabato's Crystal Ball

Checking in on 2015’s Gubernatorial Races

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 12th, 2015

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Barring a surprise special election, the only statewide contests of note this year will take place in three small southern states that have voted comfortably for Republican presidential candidates in at least the last four elections: Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

While these states are reliably Republican now at the presidential level — Mississippi hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter in 1976, while Kentucky and Louisiana voted for Bill Clinton twice — they, like other Southern states, have long histories of Democratic governors, harkening back to the Democratic “Solid South” era that lasted from the end of Reconstruction (1877) through much of the 20th century. The gubernatorial history of all three of these states since Reconstruction is of course dominated by Democrats, but that history has little value now that the region has trended heavily Republican.

Kentucky is an exception in that it is one of the few Southern states to support a Democrat for governor while President Obama has been in the White House: Gov. Steve Beshear (D) won reelection in 2011. If one defines the South as the 11 states of the former Confederacy — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia — along with two border states with Southern characteristics, Kentucky and Oklahoma, then Democrats are 3-19 in the region’s gubernatorial races since the start of Obama’s first term in 2009. The Democratic victors were Beshear, reelected Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas in 2010, and Terry McAuliffe in an open-seat race in Virginia in 2013. The Democrats’ gubernatorial performance in this region improves a bit if one further expands a definition of the South to include Missouri and West Virginia: The former reelected Jay Nixon in 2012, and the latter elected and then reelected Earl Ray Tomblin in special and regular elections in 2011 and 2012. (How exactly to define the South beyond the old Confederacy is an open question: See my Twitter timeline — @kkondik — from Tuesday to see how several sharp observers define it.)

Let’s go with the former definition, which excludes Missouri and West Virginia. Democrats’ 14% winning percentage in Southern gubernatorial races in this period is roughly a third of Democrats’ 38% winning percentage in all gubernatorial races conducted under Obama (34-56, with two wins by independents set aside as not counting for or against either major party). By comparison, the record for Republicans in all gubernatorial elections held while George W. Bush in the White House was 52-53, a roughly .500 batting average. In the 13 Southern states identified above, Republicans were 15-11 during the Bush years: a good record but not nearly as dominant as the party’s record during the Obama years. Given how reactionary federal politics is — the president’s party has now lost ground in the House in 36 of 39 midterms conducted since the Civil War — it makes sense that the identity of the occupant of the White House seems to play a role down the ballot at the state level, too.

Of this year’s Southern-tinged gubernatorial contests, Mississippi appears to be the most open-and-shut case. The Magnolia State has some of the most racially-polarized voting in the country, and there are simply more whites, who are strongly Republican, than blacks, who are strongly Democratic. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) should have little trouble winning a second term, although lurking in the shadows is state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who nearly unseated Sen. Thad Cochran (R) in a runoff last year. McDaniel may run for higher office and perhaps even challenge Bryant, who is closely aligned with the establishment forces that saved Cochran last year. On the Democratic side, Attorney General Jim Hood (D) seems likelier to run for reelection or retire, and ex-Rep. Travis Childers (D) just lost to Cochran in the general election for the Senate. We’ll know the lineup here soon: The filing deadline is at the end of the month, but Bryant is a big favorite in a Safe Republican race.

The actual field of contestants for the open-seat contest on the other side of the Mississippi will take longer to finalize. Louisiana’s unique open primary system — regardless of party all candidates run on the same ballot in November, and there’s a runoff if no one gets over 50% — means that the filing deadline is not until Sept. 10. But Sen. David Vitter (R), the closest thing the Pelican State has to a modern-day Kingfish, is the leader to win the governorship and take over for his term-limited rival, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Other Republican candidates include Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, with state Treasurer John Kennedy, an unsuccessful challenger to ex-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) in 2008, also considering the race. The only Democratic candidate so far is state Rep. John Bel Edwards, and national Democrats would assuredly prefer New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, brother of the former senator and a former lieutenant governor, over the relatively unknown Edwards.

Looming over the race is Louisiana’s perilous financial situation — the state faces a $1.6 billion deficit — and Jindal’s probable presidential candidacy, which means that the state will have to cut to make up the shortfall because Jindal won’t back a tax increase for obvious political reasons.

Election as governor would represent another triumph for Vitter, whose career once was imperiled by his 2007 admission that he had used a DC prostitution service. Because of the uncertainty of the late open primary, this is just Likely Republican for now.

The race that should feature the fiercest two-party competition is the final contest, in Kentucky. As noted above, Gov. Beshear is one of the few Democrats to win statewide in the South while Obama has been in office. And he didn’t just win in 2011 after his 2007 defeat of incumbent Ernie Fletcher (R): He romped by 20 points. Beshear remains popular, though his main focus this cycle will probably be helping his son Andy get elected to the attorney general’s post.

The current AG, Jack Conway (D), will be the Democratic nominee. The filing deadline is now past, and only perennial candidate Geoff Young is challenging him in the primary. On the Republican side, there are several top contenders: Agriculture Secretary James Comer, wealthy former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, former state Supreme Court Justice Will Scott, and, after having made a surprise late entry, businessman Matt Bevin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R) primary challenger last year. The primary is unpredictable, but one thing’s clear: McConnell and his forces will want nothing to do with Bevin, who didn’t even endorse the incumbent in the Senate general election last year.

History doesn’t help us much here: In fact, it argues for the Democrats. Since World War II, the state has only elected two Republican governors. And despite a smashing reelection victory for McConnell in 2014, Democrats held control of the state House of Representatives last year. In fact, they didn’t lose any seats, unlike in neighboring and culturally similar West Virginia, where both houses of the state legislature went Republican for the first time since 1928.

Still, we think the open-seat dynamic favors the GOP in a conservative state with Obama in the White House. Another wild card: The overflowing coffers of the Republican Governors Association, which might have made the difference in some key governors’ races last cycle (the RGA often has resources far superior to its Democratic counterpart).

The race Leans Republican, but perhaps Kentucky bucks its peers once again. If it does not, Republicans will likely end 2015 with 32 governorships, tying 1970 and 1998 for their post-World War II high in total number of governorships controlled.