2014 Gubernatorial Races: An Early Take, Part 6

In Alabama, Republican incumbent Robert Bentley will seek another term. With approval ratings above 60%, one would think he would face no primary challenge, but Stacey Lee George, a former Morgan County commissioner, has entered the race calling Bentley “weak” and “reactionary, not proactive.” It is interesting to note that with the Democratic Party in decline in Alabama with no realistic chance of success in this race, the Republicans would be fighting among themselves for a very winnable seat. This is where the ability of the GOP to shoot itself in the foot electorally really irks this writer. In fact, the GOP primary may actually become crowded should other names enter the race. This only works to the advantage of the eventual Democratic nominee who is likely to emerge unopposed in a primary because, quite frankly, there are so few potential Democrats capable of winning statewide office. Terri Sewell is the brightest of the Alabama Democrats but is not leaving the House. Some have suggested Tuscaloosa mayor Walter Maddox or former Rep. Bobby Bright who may lure some independents away from Bentley. However, the name that most interests the Democrats is former state Supreme Court chief justice, Sue Bell Cobb. My guess is that she will run against Bentley and Bentley will prevail, but that Cobb is a face to watch in Alabama, especially if the unlikely happens any time soon- Shelby or Sessions leave the United States Senate.

In Tennessee, incumbent Bill Haslam can run for reelection, but has time to make that official. Most experts believe he will run for a second term. In 2010, he won with 65% of the vote and his approval rating at the beginning of 2013, despite some “controversial” legislation signed into law, stood at 61%. For his part, Haslam has heeded the Mitch Daniels formula in Indiana by focusing on the fiscal issues facing the state. Thus far, he has done an admirable job in that area cutting taxes, promoting businesses in the state, balancing the state budget, and actually increasing state employee pay. His theory is not necessarily anti-government but “getting a dollar’s worth of state government for every tax dollar paid.” He has voiced some frustration over social legislation passed by the Republican legislature and described them as “distractions” from the true fiscal issues that worry the residents of Tennessee. Still, he fought to defund Planned Parenthood and negated a Nashville ordinance designed to advance gay rights while breaking up an Occupy Nashville protest in that city.

His likely opponent will be Democrat state house minority leader Craig Fitzhugh who as early as 2012 announced interest in the race, but has yet to declare. He likely has seen the Haslam poll numbers. In effect, he is arguing for clawing the Democratic Party back into significance in Tennessee. Any campaign would be quixotic at this point in time. Most polls of hypothetical match ups against Haslam indicate reelection with about 65% of the vote yet again.

Like Tennessee, incumbent Georgia Governor Nathan Deal is eligible for another term, but has not officially declared yet. Deal survived a contentious, crowded primary in 2010 that led to a runoff against Karen Handel and won by only 2,500 votes. He then went on to defeat Roy Barnes in the general election. If he decides to run, he will not face a large primary field like he did in 2010 when the race was for an open seat. However, Dalton mayor David Pennington is considering a run and said a decision will likely be made by the end of June, 2013. His argument is that Deal has not done enough.

Due to the changing demographics of Georgia, Democrats are optimistic but in a bind in the short term. Most put 2018 as the breaking point year when state demographics will favor the Democratic Party in statewide races. There are two key names mentioned for 2014- state representative Scott Holcomb and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed. In late 2012, Reed was sounding less like a mayor and more like a governor. That has led some to speculate that he will challenge Deal. This would no doubt energize the traditional Democratic base- unions, blacks. Perhaps the future of Georgia politics is demonstrated in Deal’s approval ratings numbers which stands at 37% approve and 41% disapprove- an almost even split. Truth is that Deal is skating on thin ice for a Republican governor in a red state. The latest polls show Deal winning reelection in hypothetical match ups.

One of the most interesting races in 2014 will be in South Carolina where incumbent Tea Party darling Nikki Haley has not yet announced her intentions. Everything points to another run at this point as top aid Scott Pearson has left her staff ostensibly to run her reelection campaign. Additionally, she remains an active fundraiser. However, South Carolina is a notoriously tough state when it comes to politics and there will likely be a primary challenge since Haley is not much liked by Democrats and there is animosity towards her from within the Republican Party. The most battle-tested GOP hopeful would be Mick Mulvaney, but he is likely to return to the House. William Wilkins, a former conservative federal judge, has expressed interest, but would likely not challenge Haley. Three names most likely to challenge are state AG Alan Wilson, the son of firebrand, popular congressman Joe Wilson. Speaker of the state house, Bobby Harrell, is also considering a run, but his fiscally liberal positions could be a liability. The name most mentioned is Lt. Governor Glenn McConnell who assumed the office after the previous one resigned amid scandal. He did not want the ceremonial post, preferring the more powerful state senate seat. He surprised everyone by announcing he would fulfill the Lt. Governor’s term and not seek reelection to the state senate thus leading to speculation that he will take on Haley in a primary. It is no secret that there is no love lost between Haley and McConnell stemming from the 2010 campaign. Considering that Haley barely won the general election in 2010, McConnell can position himself as the GOP’s most assured hope for the governor’s office. According to most grassroots Republican groups in South Carolina, only Jim DeMint is held in higher statewide esteem than McConnell.

This is especially true since assuming no one else enters the Democratic primary, 2010 loser Vincent Sheheen will run again in 2014. His loss in 2010 against Haley did nothing to discourage a run in 2014. Furthermore, Haley has had a few missteps along the way and there has been some gubernatorial overreach which has grated the nerves of Democrats and Republicans alike in South Carolina. Politics in this state can get real ugly real fast and race is always on the table. One way or another, Haley, to survive, would have to pull another victory out of thin air and faces the real chance of a tough primary fight (tougher than 2010) and an even tougher general election fight. Her days as governor may very well be numbered.

In Arkansas, Democratic governor Mike Beebe is term-limited creating an open race. Arkansas has drifted relentlessly into the Republican column in recent national office elections. Still, this is the state that gave us Clinton and Beebe. The recent Democratic losses suffered in Arkansas have created a logjam for aspiring Republicans. For the Democrats, two candidates have declared: Bill Halter and former US representative Mike Ross. Halter waged a fierce primary campaign against Blanche Lincoln in 2010 attacking her from the Left in a conservative state. Mike Ross held the seat currently held by Tom Cotton and is perhaps the perfect conservative Democrat for Arkansas. There is some potential for the Democratic field to widen before the primary is held with state highway commissioner John Burkhalter, state senator Keith Ingram and businessman Michael Malone said to be considering a run. For the Democrats, their best chance for keeping this office in Democratic hands would be Mike Ross.

For the GOP, businessman Curtis Coleman and former representative Asa Hutchinson have declared their candidacies with the potential for the field to widen. One would have to believe that Hutchinson is the front runner right now with the greatest name recognition among Republicans. However, most of this changes should Tom Cotton decide to run for Governor. To state that he is a rising star in the Republican Party is an understatement as he is being pressured to consider challenging Mark Pryor for his Senate seat. Thus far, Cotton has not made a decision in any direction. With the other three Republican congressmen have ruled out a gubernatorial run. Debra Hobbs, a term-limited state legislator, will likely enter the race and speculation is that house speaker Davy Carter will also now that he resigned his position at a bank. Missy Irvin, a state senator, is also considering a run although she is being portrayed by Democrats at this time as too conservative even for Arkansas. The bottom line: this is Cotton’s race to win in the primary, Hutchinson otherwise.

Finally, there is Florida. The office is occupied by Rick Scott, the Republican incumbent with the worst approval/disapproval numbers in the country at 34/54- a 20% differential. This is very troubling. Scott has announced that he will seek reelection in 2014. Thus far, no Republican has stepped forward to challenge him in a primary with only Will Weatherford, speaker of the state house, announcing that he is keeping his options open. In hypothetical match-up polling against other potential Republicans, Scott comes out ahead. But when “Someone else” is an option, that “someone else” beats Scott. Some of the bigger names in Florida Republican circles such as any US representative have declined a challenge, as has former congressman Allen West. Three names mentioned as rising stars- attorney general Pam Bondi, agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam and former attorney general Bill McCollum- have also declined a primary challenge. Instead, their fortunes may lie further down the line or sooner if Bill Nelson considers a gubernatorial run. Thus, it would appear that the Republicans will have to rally around Rick Scott.

With the growing minority population of Florida, Democrats see a real opportunity to take down a relatively unpopular Republican governor. Thus far, only Nan Rich, the former minority leader in the state senate, has announced their candidacy. However, that field may widen as several potential challengers are weighing their political options. Alvin Brown, the mayor of Jacksonville, is considered a rising star, but 2014 may be too soon while liberal congressman Ted Deutch has not removed his name from the list of possibilities. Many thought state senator Jeremy Ring ripe for a run in 2014, but he is recovering from open heart surgery. And former Miami mayor Manny Diaz would be an interesting introduction into the mix.

But most of the intrigue on the Democratic side involves the Kendrick Meek- Alex-Sink- Charlie Crist troika which would be a replay of 2010 intrigues that vaulted Scott into the governor’s office and Marco Rubio into the Senate. Crist is the former Republican governor of Florida turned independent turned Democrat. He basically infuriated the Democratic Party in 2010 by running an independent campaign for Senate siphoning votes from Kendrick Meek which, the Democrats complain, allowed Marco Rubio a clearer path to the Senate. Crist is said to be itching to get back in the governor’s office and sees Scott ripe for a defeat. However, Meek is also itching for statewide office feeling that the Senate race was stolen from him by Crist and he is said to be relishing a primary challenge should Crist enter the race. Forgotten in that intrigue is the fact that Alex Sink barely lost to Scott in 2010 and would likely also love to run against him again now that Scott has four unpopular years under his belt. That is, there is more to attack. In hypothetical polling in a Democratic primary, it comes down to Sink or Crist with Meek playing the role of spoiler. He would likely appeal to the minority vote while it is believed that many Democrats have not forgotten or forgiven Crist for his 2010 exploits thus moving Sink into the top position.

In hypothetical polling match ups between Sink and Scott, Sink consistently comes out ahead although the margin of victory is not that great- on the order of 5%. In a Scott-Crist match up, Crist consistently comes out on top several times breaking the 50% ceiling. Although Crist may be the best candidate to run against Scott, he would have to get out of the primary first a winner. That is not guaranteed. Incidentally, all this Democratic infighting can only help Scott, especially if he runs unopposed for the GOP nod.

All of this is purely speculative at this point since neither Crist, Meek, or Sink have announced anything yet. Against the lone Democratic declared candidate, Scott wins in polling thus far,again not by much. Other than South Carolina politics, those in Florida are perhaps the most intriguing to watch. Ironically, it may be the Democratic Party shooting itself in the foot in Florida come 2014, not the Republican Party!

Next: Races in the Middle Atlantic region- Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York

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