Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Other “House” Elections: Statehouses ’08

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics August 7th, 2008

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Leave the presidential contest aside for the moment. At other levels of politics, the Republicans may eventually file the 2008 campaign under the Double Jeopardy category of “It Just Keeps Getting Worse”. Surely, GOP House strategists are asking themselves whether they are cursed this year.

Just take a look at New York’s 13th district, which has been a Republican stronghold on Staten Island. GOP Congressman Vito Fossella was breezing to his sixth full term until the wee hours of May 1st, when Fossella was arrested for drunk driving. The House member claimed he was rushing to see his sick child–a child that turned out to be a daughter fathered with his mistress. The career of yet another “family values” Republican quickly unraveled and Fossella announced he would not seek reelection on May 20th.

The GOP still had a good chance to hold the seat, and coalesced around a wealthy, retired Wall Street executive named Frank Powers. Poor Mr. Powers, only 67, dropped dead of a heart attack on June 22. Now the various GOP powers-that-be in the unlucky 13th are having trouble finding a worthy successor. The probable choice, former state Assemblyman and “hot dog restaurateur” Robert Straniere (R) couldn’t even get the top GOP officials to come to his “unity rally” a few weeks ago. And almost by default, the Democrats now have a good chance to capture the seat with New York City Councilman Mike McMahon, their probable nominee.

As a result of this and pro-Democratic changes in several other contests, the Crystal Ball is lifting our estimate of Democratic House gains to a range of +9 to +16, which will take Democrats to a total of 245 to 252 seats (only 218 are needed to control the chamber). Keep in mind that when we started our projections for this cycle in late 2007, we had Democrats picking up +6 to +12.

Fortunes can change quickly in politics, and by the late autumn, we could move the estimate in the other direction–or expand Democratic gains further. But if Democrats are headed for a good November, how low could the Republicans go? Given current trends in both the House and Senate elections, it’s far from impossible that the Democrats in 2009 could approach the margins they last enjoyed after the 1992 election, before the Republican landslide of 1994. The Congress that met in 1993 and 1994 was comprised of 258 Democratic House members and 57 Democratic U.S. senators.

Enough of the U.S. House of Representatives for now, and onto another set of “houses”. In recent weeks in the Crystal Ball, we have covered not just the November elections for U.S. House but also the U.S. Senate match-ups and the presidential battle for the Electoral College. The last category of noteworthy national politics is state-based. There are eleven governorships up for grabs from coast to coast, six currently held the Democrats and five by the Republicans:


State Incumbent Last Election Percentage Candidacy Status Dem. Nominee GOP Nominee
Delaware Ruth Minner 51 term limited Primary on 9/9 Primary on 9/9
Indiana Mitch Daniels 53 running Jill Long Thompson Mitch Daniels
Missouri Matt Blunt 51 not running Jay Nixon Kenny Hulshof
Montana Brian Schweitzer 50 running Brian Schweitzer Roy Brown
New Hampshire John Lynch 74 running John Lynch Joe Kenney
North Carolina Mike Easley 56 term limited Beverly Perdue Pat McCrory
North Dakota John Hoeven 71 running Tim Mathern John Hoeven
Utah Jon Huntsman, Jr. 58 running Bob Springmeyer Jon Huntsman, Jr.
Vermont Jim Douglas 56 running Gaye Symington Jim Douglas
Washington Christine Gregoire 49 running Christine Gregoire Dino Rossi
West Virginia Joe Manchin, III 64 running Joe Manchin, III Russ Weeks

It is easy to forget about these eleven contests since:

Yet there are some fascinating slugfests developing in this year’s gubernatorial prizefights, and about half of them are genuinely competitive Despite the overall Democratic drift of 2008, there will be no party sweep of the statehouses. The GOP is very likely to hold four governorships it currently possesses, and it has fair to good chances in three other states. However, the Crystal Ball would not be surprised to see the dust settle in November with the Democrats continuing to hold six of the eleven, or even with a net gain of one statehouse for the Democrats. Let’s take a look at the races, one by one:

DELAWARE: Two-term Democratic Gov. Ruth Minner is finishing up her final year, and despite her relatively weak popularity, the Democrat is very likely to win here. Who will that Democratic nominee be? Lt. Gov. John Carney is favored, but he is receiving a vigorous challenge from state Treasurer Jack Markell in the primary on September 9th. The GOP nominee apparently will be retired Superior Court Judge Bill Lee, who nearly denied Minner a second term. That was due to Minner’s lackluster performance, not Lee’s strengths. Plus, Barack Obama is a lock in Delaware, providing coattail for the Democrat. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC TO HOLD.

INDIANA: First-term Governor Mitch Daniels has had a difficult four years, not least because of a bad economy but also because of some policy missteps. While an upset cannot absolutely be ruled out, he is still favored for a second term over Democratic nominee Jill Long Thompson, who squeaked by a male primary opponent to gain the party’s nod in May. Thompson is a former member of the U.S. House, best known for having grabbed Dan Coats’ seat in 1989 after he was appointed to the Senate in 1989 to replace Vice President-elect Dan Quayle. Thompson lost her House seat in the 1994 GOP landslide, and failed in a comeback attempt in 2002. Should Barack Obama choose Sen. Evan Bayh to be his running-mate, Thompson might well benefit from coattail. For now, LIKELY REPUBLICAN TO HOLD.

MISSOURI: This was supposed to be Governor Matt Blunt’s run for reelection, but the freshman Republican incumbent surprised his state by deciding to retire. Whatever his motive, it is doubtful Blunt could have won a second term since his ratings were consistently low. In Blunt’s stead on the GOP ticket will be U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who won a relatively close (49 to 45 percent) victory over state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, in an August 5th primary. Most Show Me State observers think the contest is competitive, but that long-time Democratic state Attorney General Jay Nixon has the edge. Nixon has lost previous contests for the U.S. Senate, but this may be the year for yet another Nixon comeback–a “new Nixon”, this time a Democrat. (Those of us who grew up with Richard Nixon running in his five national elections for President and Vice President–1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, and 1972–are having a fit of nostalgia.) Should McCain capture Missouri by a decent margin, the GOP gubernatorial nominee might benefit. So far, though, Missouri is shaping up to be a close battleground and Obama’s competitiveness may remove a potentially major obstacle to Nixon’s election. LEANS DEMOCRATIC (TAKE-OVER).

MONTANA: There’s no real contest here. Popular incumbent Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) is on his way to a very comfortable reelection to a second term. His Republican opponent, state Sen. Roy Brown, is reasonably well known but has very little chance to dislodge Schweitzer, whose broad appeal may even help Barack Obama in this normally deep Red state. SOLID DEMOCRATIC TO HOLD.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: This state will feature another slam-dunk reelection for a Democratic incumbent, Gov. John Lynch. First elected over a GOP incumbent in 2002, Lynch has remained very popular as this once-Red state-turned-Blue. The Republicans will be running State Senator Joe Kenney, but it hardly matters. Even should John McCain stage an upset in the Granite State in November, Lynch will win handily. SOLID DEMOCRATIC TO HOLD.

NORTH CAROLINA: Incredibly, in a state we think of as basically Republican because of its presidential and congressional voting patterns, the GOP last elected a governor exactly two decades ago. The Republicans have a shot of doing so this year, with Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who is bright, able, and not associated with the far right. Still, at least for now, the Crystal Ball’s money is on Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, who handily won her May 6th primary against serious opposition with a memorable TV ad from Andy Griffith, reprising his fabled role as sheriff of Mayberry, N.C.: “She’ll make a goo-oo-ood governor!” (Our puzzled younger readers need to spend less time on video games and more time watching “Nick at Nite” re-runs so that they can absorb vital historic popular culture. If you don’t know about the elected Sheriff Taylor, his Deputy Barney Fife, his Aunt Bea, and his son Opie, you’ve missed critical bits of Americana.) Barack Obama is targeting the Tar Heel State, and while he may not win it, he is less of a burden than Democratic presidential candidates usually are for the down-ticket. Gov. Mike Easley (D) is finishing up two terms in fairly good shape, so that’s also an assist for Perdue. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC TO HOLD.

NORTH DAKOTA: Barely a race. Republican Gov. John Hoeven is running for his third four-year term, and given the popularity of his first two, he’ll win in a landslide against the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Tim Mathern. SOLID REPUBLICAN TO HOLD.

UTAH: Another non-contest. GOP Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. will sweep to his second term in the heavily Republican Beehive State. The Democratic sacrificial lamb is Salt Lake City businessman Bob Springmeyer. SOLID REPUBLICAN TO HOLD.

VERMONT: One of the fascinating aspects of both the two-party system and American federalism is the ability of the minority party to win some key statewide elections under the most adverse conditions. Vermont couldn’t be more liberal and Democratic, yet Republican Governor Jim Douglas is likely to win his fourth term. It helps that Douglas is a moderate, of course. His Democratic opponent, state House Speaker Gaye Symington, could be assisted by the expected Obama landslide, but she’s hurt by the siphoning of left-wing votes likely to end up in the column of Progressive party nominee Anthony Pollina. In the Green Mountain State, the Progressives are a real force–appropriate for a state that elects a socialist to the U.S. Senate (Bernie Sanders). SOLID REPUBLICAN TO HOLD.

WASHINGTON: Who doesn’t love a good rematch between champions? This year the “other Washington” has claim on the best gubernatorial contest in the nation. Few in politics will forget the excruciatingly close race between Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi in 2004 for the open governor’s chair. At first, and against the odds in a big Democratic year in the state, Rossi appeared to have scored an upset, leading Gregoire by a fingernail. He was even declared Governor-elect by the state. But after two recounts, several controversial court rulings, and hundreds of “found” ballots in heavily Democratic King County–hotly protested by Republicans–Gregoire captured the statehouse by 129 votes out of 2.8 million cast: 1,373,361 for Gregoire to 1,373,232 for Rossi. In unison, Republicans cried, “we wuz robbed,” and vowed to avenge the loss in 2008. Sure enough, Rossi is running a second underdog campaign. Gregoire is now a four-year incumbent, though she has never been especially popular. However, while the state’s two female U.S. senators endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, Gregoire struck up an alliance with Barack Obama that may be paying off. Obama will win Washington State easily, possibly by more than John Kerry’s 53 percent in 2004, and this should help Gregoire. Early polls show her ahead of Rossi beyond the margin of error. At the same time, there may be a hidden sympathy vote for Rossi once the circumstances of the 2004 election are replayed for voters during the fall campaign. In addition, the Washington ballot has been restructured so that the general election is a run-off between the top two finishers in the free-for-all primary. This guarantees that Gregoire and Rossi will be facing off directly, and it eliminates the Libertarian candidate who could have been expected to take votes disproportionately from Rossi. Washington’s is the least predictable of the nation’s 2008 gubernatorial contests, and it is the only one we are calling a TOSS UP, at least for now.

WEST VIRGINIA: Yet another non-contest. Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin III will easily win a second term with minimal GOP opposition. The state Republican party’s weakness is surprising in light of a serious scandal whereby Manchin’s daughter was awarded a master’s degree she did not earn by West Virginia University. This outrageous corruption of higher education forced out the president of WVU, but so far no one has been able to tie the governor to it directly–though the university president was a crony of Manchin’s. SOLID DEMOCRATIC TO HOLD.


The long and the short of this gubernatorial analysis is that, appropriately, Washington State will determine whether the eleven races of 2008 are a partisan wash or not. Should Rossi defeat Gregoire, there will be no change in the overall line-up of six Democrats and five Republicans. If Gregoire beats Rossi, then the Democrats’ likely pick-up in Missouri will net them one more statehouse.