2014 Gubernatorial Races: An Early Take- Part 4

In the Midwest races, five in number, the five current seats are held by Republicans with one- Dave Heineman in Nebraska- being term-limited. Other than perhaps Iowa, all are fairly reliable red states: Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and South Dakota.

The dynamics in South Dakota are dictated by the open senatorial race due to the retirement of Tim Johnson there. The Democrats have to defend this seat against former GOP popular governor Mike Rounds. Most likely, the national Democratic apparatus may not concentrate too much on retaining this seat and simply concede it and divert resources elsewhere, like the senatorial races in Iowa, Arkansas and Louisiana- all seats they must win in order to have any chance of keeping the Senate in Democratic control. Dennis Daugaard has not announced his intention to run for another term, but it is hard to imagine a person with a 60% approval rating turning down another run. In fact, at this point, he is the only name being mentioned. If he runs, it is all over. It is even conceivable that he will run unopposed.

A similar situation is occurring in Oklahoma where current governor Mary Fallin who enjoys a 65% approval rating is eligible for reelection, but has not officially announced her candidacy. The Democratic Party is virtually non-existent in Oklahoma. Should Fallin run for a second term, it is likely she will spend considerably less than the $4.1 million she spent in 2010 to win an open race. It is even possible that she may run unopposed although she is taking no chances and is still fundraising. Like Republican strategy in blue states, it may be in the best interests of any eventual Democratic candidate to simply run for name recognition for a possible future run.

In Kansas, former Senator and current Governor Sam Brownback faces a different scenario. Brownback has a 36% approval rating, the lowest for a Republican incumbent governor in a red state. Most disconcerting for Brownback is the fact that 30% of Republicans surveyed disapprove of his performance thus far. Among independents- admittedly not too many of them in Kansas- it is a 70% DISapproval rating. Fortunately, because of strong GOP voter registration in Kansas, this ideological part of the electorate is not as strong as in other states. There are some problems, however, with this polling of approval ratings. CNN conducted an identical poll after the 2012 election in November and found that Brownback had a 52% approval rating while the most recent polls indicate a 36-37% approval rating.

Without getting into an indictment of polling, it is hard to see how a Republican governor in a Republican state can show a 15% decline in favorability ratings from the November CNN poll and the March, 2013 PPP poll (Disclaimer: PPP is a Democratic-leaning polling firm). There have been no scandals and not much controversial legislative action. Regardless, that PPP poll indicates that despite that 37% favorability rating (if we accept it at face value), Brownback would win reelection against any hypothetical Democratic candidate. The best of the lot would be Carl Brewer, the first black mayor of Wichita. Also being mentioned are Tom Holland who ran against Brownback in 2010 and got his ass handed to him. Former governor Mark Parkinson and Joe Reardon, the mayor of Kansas City have also been mentioned. The most interesting name mentioned thus far is Kathleen Sebelius, the current HHS secretary. Don’t laugh- she was once elected governor of Kansas. And she certainly knows how to raise funds. It is difficult to see her running, though, in the midst of the implementation of the bulk of Obamacare and her connection to that unpopular (in Kansas) program. One expects Brownback to run for another term most likely against someone like Brewer, but that he will prevail in 2014. There are only two differences: Brewer will increase his political profile for a future run and Brownback will not garner over 60% of the vote like he did in 2010.

In Iowa, incumbent Terry Branstad has not yet officially declared that he will run for another term, but with approval ratings north of 50% he would almost be assured of reelection. If he decides against a run, it is almost equally assured that Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds will run, although they have been mentioned as a possible GOP nominee to run in the open Senate seat being vacated by Tom Harkin. Candidates do not have to declare their candidacy until early 2014 so there is still plenty of time. That open Senate seat is what is complicating things right now. Branstad would serve as a tough foe for presumptive Democratic nominee Bruce Braley. So would Reynolds.

With the Republican field in limbo depending on Branstad, there is a relatively deep Democratic bench in Iowa, especially now that Braley is running for the vacant Senate seat. This may very well create a very crowded primary field for his congressional seat. Thus far, there are no declared candidates for Governor as Braley’s vacant congressional seat may seem more alluring to some potential candidates. Still, it is interesting to note the number and quality of candidates passing on a gubernatorial run starting with ex-Governor Tom Vilsack. Also, state senators Jeff Danielson and Liz Mathis along with state representative Kevin McCarthy have decided to run for their current seats in 2014. Among those with an outside chance and not in the top tier of potential challengers are Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie, Rob Denson, state treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, state senator Mike Gronstal, state representative Janet Petersen, and insurance executives Fred Hubbell and Andy McGuire.

Those who appear they are aligning themselves more seriously are state senator Jack Hatch who recently opened a new campaign account. State senate president Pam Jochum, who ruled out a run for Braley’s Dubuque-based congressional seat, may see a gubernatorial run as more likely. State senator Rob Hogg has been cagey in his aspirations, but some sources say he relishes a run for governor. However, state representative Tyler Olson has been more active gauging Democratic support for a gubernatorial run. All could be for naught if one of the two big names in Iowa Democratic circles steps forward: former Governor Chet Culver who is said to be seriously considering a run and the ever-present Christie Vilsack, wife of former governor Tom Vilsack. Having eliminated herself from a senatorial run, speculation has risen that she is seriously considering a run for Governor. Obviously, some Democratic choices will be dictated by Branstad’s eventual decision. One suspects that second tier and top tier recruits among Democrats would be more willing to enter the race if it was open. Even then, there is no guarantee of success in November, 2014.

That leaves only Nebraska in the bread basket of the United States where Republican incumbent Dave Heineman is term-limited creating an open race. Democrats concede that it will be difficult to win statewide here in Nebraska in either the gubernatorial or the open Senate races. Still, an open Governor’s race presents their best opportunity in many years. Thus far, it has been somewhat tough going to find a Republican candidate. The field started with three with only state senator Charlie Janssen still in the mix. Former Nebraska speaker Mike Flood dropped his bid due to his wife’s illness while Lt. Governor Rick Sheehy, who was endorsed by Heineman, dropped out amid a possible marital infidelity scandal. The resignation of Sheehy further complicated the political landscape for Republicans in Nebraska. Heineman has to choose a Lt. Governor and the hope wass he would choose one to finish out Sheehy’s term with no gubernatorial aspirations (he has and the replacement has no intentions of running for Governor in 2014).

The Republican primary can get crowded as there are still several potential names including former state senator Philip Erdman and Mike Foley, a close personal friend of Heineman. State senator Beau McCoy and 2006 senatorial nominee J. Peter Ricketts are also in the mix. One dark horse name would be that of Midland University President Ben Sasse. Sasse recently went on a statewide “listening tour” to gauge a possible run. From what I hear out of Nebraska from both establishment types and at the grassroots is that, in essence, Sasse would have nothing to lose with a run. At 41, he has a lot to offer and little to lose. In fact, should he run, most say that the big loser would be Midland University. Also, if the Democrats have their Vilsack, the Republicans have the ever present Don Stenberg who lost senatorial bids three times in the past. He is the current state treasurer. Many wanted Tom Clare, Regent of the University of Nebraska, to run but he ruled that out as has Nebraska AG Jon Bruning who lost to eventual winner Deb Fischer in the 2012 Nebraska senatorial primary. The bottom line is that Heineman’s ultimate endorsement will hold great sway among Republicans where he holds high approval ratings across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, Heineman himself ruled out a run for Johann’s seat and would have been a shoo-in for that office.

For the Democrats, they sense an opportunity to win this seat. Thus far, only Chuck Hassebrook has declared his candidacy. He sought the Democratic nod in the 2012 senatorial race, but dropped out under assumed pressure from above when former senator Bob Kerrey entered and got spanked by Fischer in the general election. He may get some company in the field as several names are considering a run believing that a gubernatorial run has a greater chance of success than a senatorial run. There is no secret that state senator Steve Lathrop has been eyeing the job and positioning himself for a run ever since 2012. He said that his interests are more in the state, not at the national level. He has an impressive list of legislative accomplishments to his credit after serving in six sessions of the unicameral legislature. Omaha attorney Mike Meister, who lost in 2010 to Heineman, has formed an exploratory committee. In 2010, he entered the race after the original nominee abruptly dropped out leaving Meister at a serious disadvantage. Finally, there is former Lt. Governor Kim Robak who has not definitively ruled out a run. However, she is also mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for the open Senate seat.

This writer’s general sense of the race is that it will be hard fought by Nebraska standards. The Democrats would dearly love to take a Governor’s office in red Nebraska in the heart of the Republican national stronghold. I expect a three-way race among the Democrats between the declared Hassebrook (unless Kerrey comes back again to Nebraska and tells him he can’t run), Kim Robak and Steve Lathrop. Pressure from Democratic operatives may be too great on Lathrop to resist. Robak will have to deal with her former connections to losers like Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson. On the Republican side, it will also likely be more crowded. Besides Janssen, who is the default candidate right now, Republicans are hoping that Flood’s wife makes a speedy recovery in her battle with breast cancer and he re-enters the race. From a purely ideological point of view and the fact that he has excelled in business, politics and academia, Ben Sasse may be the best unknown among Republicans not only in Nebraska, but nationally. On June 9th, 2013, “The Weekly Standard” ran a piece on him as a possible successor not to Heineman, but to Johann. If he opts for that route or to stay put at Midland University, then the GOP better get someone better than Janssen, especially if Lathrop enters the race on the Democratic side. If there is any race for a seat currently held by a Republican in a red state to worry about, it may very well be Nebraska of all places.

Next: The upper Midwest area- Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio- some of the most fiercely contested states in the country.

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