Updating the 2014 Gubernatorial Races- Part 2: The South

There are seven gubernatorial races in the South in 2014. Six of those states are led by Republican governors, none term-limited although one (Rick Perry in Texas) is not seeking another term. The lone Democrat- Mike Beebe in Arkansas- is term limited.

First the easy races. In Tennessee, Bill Haslam enjoys astronomical approval ratings at 76%. Six months ago, he was at 61% according to Gallup Polling. Clearly, he is doing something right in Tennessee and no one- Republicans, independents and Democrats- appear to want to upset the apple cart. Practically every Democrat of consequence (and there aren’t many of them) have declined a run against Haslam, which is wise. Prediction: Republican retention (possibly unopposed)

In Alabama, Bob Bentley will seek reelection. In 2010, he had to survive a runoff in the primary against Bradley Byrne then defeated Ron Sparks in a romp. Thus far, he has not drawn any declared Democratic opposition although Morgan County Commissioner Stacy Lee George will mount a primary challenge against him from the right. One poll shows that Bentley would likely win a primary against George. On the Democratic side, there are a few names tossed about as potential candidates with Alabama supreme court chief justice Sue Bell Cobb the most noticeable. Still, considering that Bentley’s approval rating has consistently hovered at or above 48%, it would appear he is headed for reelection. Prediction: Republican retention

In neighboring Georgia, Republican Nathan Deal is vulnerable in both a primary and a general election. State school superintendent John Barge and Dalton mayor David Pennington will challenge Deal for the GOP nod. Most polls indicate Deal would prevail, so let us assume he will be the Republican candidate. Incidentally, Pennington polls the closest to Deal. On the Democratic side is state senator and grandson of former Georgia governor and President Jimmy Carter. When Carter entered the race, he essentially cleared the field and he appears poised to be the Democratic nominee. It is really difficult to discern a victor here based on hypothetical match-up polling. Some have Carter up by at least 5 points while others show Deal ahead by as much as 15 points. In other articles, I have alluded to the fact that Georgia is demographically changing to the advantage of Democrats. Thus these races today- for the Senate and Governor in 2014- take on added importance to lay the groundwork to thwart Democratic gains in the future. Today, Georgia remains red enough to reject a Democratic governor at this point. Nathan Deal may not be the most popular choice- he stands at 39% approval, a slight improvement from 37% six months ago- but he should be the winner. This may not be Carter’s year, but look for him in the future. Prediction: Republican retention in a tight race

In Arkansas, Mike Beebe, a Democrat, is term-limited. As has been noted before in statewide elections, Arkansas has drifted towards the Republican Party having twice voted against Obama and dethroning a Democratic US senator in 2010. Additionally, all four of their congressional districts are represented by Republicans. The GOP enjoys large margins in both congressional houses in Little Rock. The only area where Republicans have not made inroads is in the governor’s office. Once former Democratic congressman Mike Ross declared his candidacy, the rest of the field cleared and he will be the likely candidate.

On the Republican side, three names have emerged- former Senate candidate Curtis Coleman, state representative Debra Hobbs, and former representative Asa Hutchison. All three have a roughly equal shot at the nomination. However, one would have to give Hutchison the early nod at this time. In hypothetical match ups against Ross, Hutchison would prevail in a close vote. Given the dynamics of the political trends in Arkansas, one would have to… Prediction: Republican pick up

In Texas, Rick Perry is eligible for another run but has declined fueling speculation that he will run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. Thus, we have an open race and, perhaps, a crucial one. It is no secret that the national Democratic apparatus is trying to “Turn Texas Blue.” As a result, they believe they have recruited a good test candidate, state senator and abortion Barbie, Wendy Davis. On the GOP side, it would appear that popular GOP state attorney general Greg Abbott would have the inside track to the nomination, although perhaps only Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken presents any challenge.

It is my firm belief that despite some Democratic US House seat pick-ups in Texas in 2012 after redistricting, the efforts of the Democratic Party are misplaced and they have a greater chance of turning either Georgia or Florida blue rather than Texas. Let’s assume an Abbott-Davis match up in the general election. Unless something dramatically changes, every poll has Abbott ahead, mostly in double digits and no less than 8 points in the worst case scenario. For the Democrats, that worst case GOP scenario still equals a Republican governor. That being said, many predict this will be a close race. I tend to think otherwise.

Davis is a one-trick pony candidate and, quite frankly, will need a large Latino turnout. As she is finding out in the fund raising area, Texas Latinos are more conservative than those in other states. For example, in her most recent campaign finance filings, she has raised only $700 from donors in the Latino-rich Rio Grande Valley area of Texas. The pro-choice message is not resonating there. Additionally, those same financial filings show that Davis is receiving almost 70% of her donations from groups and individuals outside Texas, especially from liberal strongholds like California and New York. Yes, she is raising funds but, no- they are not coming from Texans. The source of funds is a more accurate indicator in statewide races despite the total amounts raised. That bodes well for Abbott who receives most of his donations from Texas itself. Therefore, for a variety of reasons, Prediction: Republican retention.

In South Carolina, Republican incumbent Nikki Haley seeks reelection. One has to consider that in statewide elections, this is one of the most conservative states in the country which would spell a Haley reelection victory. Still, she is viewed as a somewhat controversial figure inside and outside Republican circles. There is no use rehashing the events of 2010 other than to point out that South Carolina politics can get down and dirty at times. She will likely face a rematch against state senator Vincent Sheheen. In 2010, before the election, Haley led Sheheen by about 11 points in the polls, but by Election Day, he closed that gap to a 5% loss. However, most of that could have been attributable to the rancor in the GOP at the time.

Most importantly for Haley, she came into office with high expectations that were not immediately fulfilled. Thus, her approval ratings actually drifted under 40% at times- not a good sign for a Republican governor in a decidedly red state. Six months ago, she had elevated those ratings to 40% and now 6 months later, she stands on the precipice of the safe area at a 45% approval rating. Thus, Haley is trending upwards, a good sign. Also, besides the approval rating is the trend and this looks good for her. Just to indicate the volatility of polling, two Democratic-leaning sites have Sheheen leading by as much as nine points while GOP-leaning pollsters have Haley up by the same number of points. In the end, I would expect Haley to actually improve upon her 2010 performance. Prediction: Republican retention

Which brings me to Florida where Rick Scott, the incumbent Republican, faces a tough challenge. The fact is that Scott has not enjoyed high approval ratings throughout his tenure and it seems to cut across party lines. Scott defeated Alex Sink in 2010 by less than 100,000 votes of over 5 million cast and ended up with less than 50% of the total vote. Perhaps the only interesting primary opponent will be conservative activist Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder. There are two other declared primary opponents. It is interesting to note that a year ago, Florida Republicans preferred someone else 53-30% versus Scott. Today, he has narrowed that deficit to 42% for Scott and 43% someone else. If a big name Florida Republican would enter the race, it is doubtful Scott would survive a primary. However, all of those “potentials” have declined.

On the Democratic side, it will likely be a 2-way race between state senate minority leader Nan Rich and former Republican governor turned Democrat Charlie Crist. The most recent poll shows that Democrats prefer Crist over Rich 60-12%. This would represent a formidable mountain for Rich to overcome, but I personally believe that margin may not be as wide as the polls indicate. But, we should assume a Scott-Crist general election match up come November, 2014.

Rick Scott’s approval ratings are not great and currently stand at 38%, although that is an improvement from six months ago when it stood at 34%. Florida is a political geographical microcosm of the United States. You have the panhandle which resembles the deep South and the liberal southeastern coast area which has a Northeast US flavor. There is the demographically changing central area around Orlando like the Southwest, and the more Midwestern-style pragmatic conservative area along the west coast near the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. This will be a very tough race to prognosticate which is why most of the expert political pundits currently rate it a pure toss-up.

If Scott can increase his approval rating over the next few months and can correctly characterize Crist as a turncoat who cannot be trusted again in Tallahassee, but doing so without going over the line, Scott may just pull this off. Prediction: Pick-em, because this is perhaps the toughest gubernatorial race to predict in 2014. One misstep by either candidate can change the whole dynamic. Scott has the advantage of incumbency, but that is a double-edged sword. If I had to (under threat of death), at this point despite Scott’s not-so-great approval rating coupled with the close polling against Crist, something tells me Florida voters may not be willing to switch in midstream, especially by going back to Crist. There is something in those polls indicating hesitation. Crist should be further ahead than he is. Thus (under threat of death): Republican retention

Next: The Midwest