Update on 2014 Gubernatorial Races- Part 4: The West

Out west, there are ten gubernatorial races. Four of those offices are held by Democrats and all are running for reelection. Of the six Republican offices, only one (Arizona) is term-limited. So let’s just start there where Jan Brewer will have to step down. There are four declared GOP candidates: secretary of state Ken Bennett, Christine Jones, state senator Al Melvin, and Maricopa County attorney Andrew Thomas. Of that bunch, perhaps Bennett could be considered the front runner at this early stage. Assuming things stay as they are now, I expect a Bennett vs. Fred DuVal match up in November 2014 which is good news for the GOP. The fact is that several high profile Democrats like Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton and state house minority leader Chad Campbell have ruled themselves out. Some polls showed Campbell beating any potential GOP rival. So, being in a holding pattern, Prediction: Republican retention

In neighboring New Mexico, incumbent Republican Susana Martinez defies the odds in a fairly blue state. With an approval rating of 66% and trending upwards, she seems destined for an easy reelection. However, that is not stopping at least five declared Democratic opponents lining up to take her on. Gary King, the state’s attorney general, is the most high profile of the bunch and the likely Democratic candidate. Martinez may take some dents along the way, but there is enough of a cushion for her to fall back on. Still, a victory with about 57% of the vote is not out of the question. Prediction: Republican retention

Slightly north in Nevada, Republican incumbent Brian Sandoval also has approval ratings above 50% (currently 54%) although that is down from six months ago. It is still safely in the area for reelection. The only declared Democrat is unknown businessman Chris Hyepock. Tom Sisolak, a Clark County Commissioner, is said to be considering a run and would be the best bet for the Democrats. Still, Sandoval has consistently performed above the coveted 50% mark in hypothetical match up polls thus far and there is no reason to suspect any backsliding at this point. Prediction: Republican retention

Wyoming receives little mention as incumbent Republican Matt Mead has the highest approval rating in the country at 80%. Any Democrat would be suicidal to take him on. Prediction: Republican retention

One would think the same thing about Butch Otter in Idaho especially considering the fact that there is not exactly a plethora of viable Democrats. But state senator Russ Fulcher is mounting a primary challenge against a man who enjoys a 62% approval rating. The only declared Democrat is Boise School District official A.J. Balukoff. The big question now is how badly either Fulcher or Balukoff will get beaten. Prediction: Republican retention

The last Republican incumbent to consider is Sean Parnell in Alaska who leads all potential Democratic opponents in polling with greater than the coveted 50% of the vote. In June of this year, Parnell’s approval rating was around 46% but has since rebounded to 50%. Only former Juneau mayor Byron Mallot has declared his candidacy on the Democratic side, but is considered a very long shot at best. Ethan Berkowitz’ name is still in the mix for the Democrats, but he consistently trails Parnell by double digits in the polls. He may just wait four years and have a better chance. Prediction: Republican retention

In California, Jerry Brown seems poised for another four years at the helm of California. With approval ratings of 56% for a Democratic incumbent in a blue state, and actually trending upwards, the best any Republican can do is “come close.” Brown has technically not declared his candidacy, which may be the best hope for the GOP. Regardless, the Republicans have two declared candidates- state assemblyman Tim Donnelly and former Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado. Assuming Brown runs, this is like any other liberal state where the likelihood of a GOP victory is very small. Thus, it would be best to run a conservative candidate and just see what happens. Prediction: Democratic retention

In Hawaii, Democratic incumbent Neil Abercrombie will run for reelection in 2014, although he has drawn a primary challenger in state senator David Ige. Abercrombie plucked some Democratic nerves when he appointed his Lt. Governor Brian Schatz to replace the deceased Daniel Inouye to the US Senate. Allegedly, Inouye wanted congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa to be his successor. Given Inouye’s stature in Hawaii politics and Democratic circles, this appeared a slap in the face. As a result, it sets up a potentially contentious Democratic primary for the US Senate this year between Schatz and Hanabusa. No Republican has declared and there are only two names of consequence- 2010 candidate and former Lt. Governor under Linda Lingle Duke Aiona (great name for a candidate from Hawaii, dude) and former GOP congressman and fairly popular Republican Charles Djou. There is an outside chance for the GOP here if they capitalize on the rancor in the Democratic Party. Schatz stands at 45% in his approval rating in a blue state. Assuming he doesn’t drop any further and has hit his floor, he would seemed poised for reelection. But, if the battle between him and Ige develops into something contentious, then GOP chances increase even more. At this point…Prediction: Democratic retention

In Oregon, John Kitzhaber entered office with a narrow victory over Republican Chris Dudley in a final tally that mirrored the polling up to that point. Since then, he has not been a particularly popular governor with approval ratings hovering no higher than 48%. Like Maryland, the GOP is a victim of political geography. In 2010, Kitzhaber won only seven Oregon counties and still prevailed. If a Republican can take one of those western counties, the results would be different. One would hate to say this, but any GOP candidate to have a chance would have to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. One person who may fit that bill is Allen Alley who has worked for Democratic governors of Oregon and is currently head of the Oregon Republican Party. In 2010, he lost the GOP primary to Chris Dudley. Thus far, rancher Jon Justesen and state legislator Dennis Richardson have declared their candidacies. However, neither of them meet the criteria to steal at least one of those western counties. In 2010, Kitzhaber did not win by a large margin against Dudley which should give the GOP some hope. Given his approval ratings and the inability of a viable GOP candidate to emerge, Prediction: Democratic retention

Last, but certainly not least out west, is the race for Governor of Colorado. Earlier this year, incumbent Democrat John Hicklenhooper enjoyed approval ratings above 60%, more than enough to ensure reelection. What a difference 6 months and an ill-advised gun control effort make. His approval rating has drifted down a startling 11 points to 50%. Additionally, his death penalty reprieve for a convicted mass killer has angered voters in Colorado, an electorate that favors capital punishment. When you put the two together- going after law abiding gun owners yet reprieving a convicted killer- it has clearly taken its toll on Hickelenhooper and the Democratic brand in Colorado.

On the GOP side, there is a field of six declared candidates. Both Steve House and Jim Rundberg are relative unknowns statewide and start with that disadvantage. A third, former congressman Tom Tancredo is perhaps the best known, but also a lightning rod that may turn off independent and moderate voters in Colorado. That leaves current secretary of state Scott Gessler who was reprimanded by state authorities for ethical violations which will surely figure into the campaign should be prevail. State senator Greg Brophy has taken on the Colorado ACLU while also building up some legislative accomplishments in educational reform, agricultural development, and tort reform. Finally, probably the stealth candidate here is former state senator Mike Kopp who likewise had some high profile legislative accomplishments. There are still some other potential Republicans sitting on the sidelines should any of the declared candidates self-implode. The two the Democrats most fear are congressman Cory Gardner, a fierce campaigner, and state treasurer Walker Stapleton. Both have declined a run and will instead seek reelection to their current respective offices.

A PPP poll this December shows the problems for Hicklenhooper. Although Hicklenhooper led against them all, Brophy trailed by only 1 point, Gessler by seven and both Kopp and Tancredo by 8 points. All these deficits are certainly not insurmountable for any of these candidates. The fine folks at DailyKos Elections are fretting this one. And for the sake of comparison, before the gun control legislation, Hicklenhooper was ahead by double digits against all hypothetical opponents. This is a race to watch as 2014 drags on. The large drop in the governor’s approval rating is based primarily on these two aforementioned actions. If the GOP can keep these acts in the limelight throughout the campaign, they may just steal this race. Outside the more urban and college-dominated cities, Republicans hold a clear advantage. The goal is to go not that far over the line and alienate moderate, independent voters along the way. However, at this point, Prediction: Democratic retention.

To summarize nationally, Republicans lose the Governor’s office in Maine and Pennsylvania while picking up two in Arkansas and Illinois. They (the GOP) stand at least a 40% chance in Connecticut, Oregon and Colorado of defeating Democratic incumbents. Most damaging psychologically to Democrats will be the loss of Wendy Davis in Texas and the trio of GOP victories in the upper Midwest- Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. The states where Republicans stand the greatest chance of an upset loss to the Democrats are Florida, Georgia and Arizona- the latter an outside chance, but one that needs to be factored into the equation.