2010 Gubernatorial Outlook Shows Voters’ Desire for Change

December 10, 2009 · 8:00 AM EDT

Voters were angry in 2006, frustrated with the costs of the war in Iraq, dissatisfied with the Bush administration (particularly its response to Hurricane Katrina) and responding to Democratic calls for change. Four years later, the public’s mood is even worse, as kitchen table issues have moved to the forefront of public concern.

With unemployment at 10 percent nationally and significantly higher in many states — to say nothing of state budgets being squeezed by greater needs and lower revenues — most state electorates are once again responding to calls for change.

That has created something of an anti-incumbent — or anti-incumbent-party — mood in many states, likely resulting in far more party switches in gubernatorial races next year than we have seen in a long time.

Four years ago, the number of total party switches was small, and voter anger was directed primarily at the GOP.

In the 2006 elections, only six of 36 gubernatorial seats switched parties, all of them flipping from Republican to Democrat. Republicans held onto control of 16 of 22 governorships that they started with, while Democrats held onto all 14 of their states.

This cycle, 12 to 18 seats could turn. And unlike four years ago, each party could lose at least half a dozen seats, reflecting the bipartisan nature of voter dissatisfaction.

The 2006 flips occurred disproportionately in open seats and in states that were normally Democratic but had a Republican chief executive. Only one incumbent lost, Bob Ehrlich in Maryland, and the GOP lost governorships in states such as New York and Massachusetts, which strongly favor Democrats in normal times.

This time, most of the turnout will again occur in open seats. Ten of the 12 seats currently most likely to flip parties don’t have incumbent governors seeking re-election, in most cases because state law prevents them from running again.

Only two incumbents seeking election next year look to be in very serious trouble, Chet Culver (D) in Iowa and Jan Brewer (R) in Arizona, who ascended to the state’s top office after Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) joined President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.

A couple of other incumbents could still find themselves in the same shape next year (Colorado’s Bill Ritter and Ohio’s Ted Strickland, both Democrats), while two other incumbents, Nevada Republican Jim Gibbons and New York Democrat David Paterson, will either lose in primaries or drop out of their re-election bids before that happens.

And as in 2006, many (though certainly not all) of the expected flips will occur in states where a member of the minority party is giving up the governorship. For example, Democrats are well-positioned to pick up the top offices in California, Connecticut, Hawaii and Vermont, while Republicans are favored in Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming (if the governor doesn’t seek another term). Democratic Rhode Island would also fall Democratic, though former Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s Independent candidacy for governor is a complicating factor.

In difficult economic times, and with the “wrong” party controlling the governorship, it’s easy for voters to both switch parties and support the nominee from the party with which they are normally more comfortable anyway.

Only nine of this cycle’s 37 gubernatorial races are currently regarded as “safe” (less than one-quarter of all the seats up), compared with 2010 Senate races, where as of Oct. 30, 22 of 37 Senate races (almost 60 percent) fell into the “safe” category for one party or the other.

The greater vulnerability among governors is important to note, and it also explains why it is incorrect to read the anti-incumbent attitude among voters in gubernatorial contests also as an anti-incumbent attitude among voters regarding Members of Congress.

Governors are like presidents. As the state’s chief executives, they are seen by voters as “in charge.” Except in relatively rare circumstances, it is difficult for them to avoid responsibility for state issues, including state budgetary problems. They cannot simply blame the national economy, though it certainly is a factor that is playing out in individual states.

At times, sitting governors have blamed state legislators or the White House, just as presidents in the past have tried to blame Congress for the nation’s ills. But that doesn’t work very often, particularly during an extended economic downturn. In most cases and for most voters, the governor is seen as in charge and responsible for the direction of the state.

Congress and Congressmen are viewed differently by voters. Members of Congress can blame their colleagues, the opposition party or even the executive branch for the nation’s problems. And as we’ve seen for years, constituents can have a low opinion of Congress as an institution and yet see their own Member of Congress much more favorably.

Democratic gubernatorial defeats last month in Virginia and New Jersey reflect voters’ desire for change, as well as their inclination to blame the party of the incumbent governor. That was a clear warning for ’10 in gubernatorial races, but it does not extend, at least to this point, to Congress, where partisan affiliation, not incumbency, is likely to be the main factor in voter decisions.