Four years ago, Republicans snatched away 10 governorships from Democrats, securing a majority of statehouses that have acted as a robust check on President Barack Obama’s administration.
Their success in 2014 will be defined largely by whether voters validate those decisions in six states that Obama carried twice: Pennsylvania, Florida, Maine, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.
As 43 of the nation’s governors descend upon Washington this weekend for policy discussions, political strategy meetings and donor massaging, an additional underlying current will be the role of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in this campaign cycle. While the chairman of the Republican Governors Association has seen his popularity dented amid the George Washington Bridge controversy, he remains a powerful draw for the deep-pocketed campaign contributors that fuel the committee’s fundraising prowess.
RGA Executive Director Phil Cox says it’s “without question” that Christie will campaign with GOP candidates across the country later this year, but emphasizes that his real utility will be persuading supporters to write big checks.
“The job of the chairman of the RGA is to raise money and so what we’re doing for the next month is no different than what we’ve done with other chairmen of the RGA. So when he goes to Illinois, has five meetings and raises $1 million, that’s a good day for us,” says Cox.
This weekend, rather than asking for dollars, Christie will be rewarding top donors with a flurry of private meetings and roundtables, with the intimacy of the setting tied to the size of the contribution. Between meetings at the National Governors Association, he’ll huddle with GOP governors, but it’s not clear if he’ll interact with the media.
The RGA -- which regularly raises double the amount of its counterpart, the Democratic Governors Association -- has already invested significantly in two states, going on the air in Arkansas, where there’s an open seat they view as one of two pick-up opportunities and in Wisconsin, spending $972,000 on an ad flight against Gov. Scott Walker’s Democratic challenger Mary Burke.
Of all the incumbents the committee is set to defend, none is a higher priority than Walker, the survivor of a historic 2012 recall attempt and potential 2016 presidential contender.
Democratic interest groups launched a coordinated assault on Walker this week tied to the release of 27,000 pages of emails from an investigation of the governor’s time as Milwaukee County executive. Among the more embarrassing revelations was a former staffer joking about welfare recipients and the firing of a county mental health doctor because she formerly worked as a thong model.
But the deeper, more piercing disclosure is the appearance of Walker conducting campaign business on government time.
While the governor hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing, Democrats are fanning flames about the frequent contact between Walker’s county office and his campaign during official hours and the existence of a private email system that was used to communicate.
“Scott Walker's claims that he didn't know about his staff's ‘secret email network’ have fallen flat: Walker consistently received traffic from it. His days of plausible deniability are over,” said Gwen Rocco, spokeswoman for the Democratic-aligned American Bridge group.
A separate state investigation that centers around potential illegal coordination between Walker’s recall campaign and the independent groups that supported it will only add more fuel to the fire.
Walker’s polling numbers in the Badger State have hovered right below the 50 percent mark for most of the last year. Even if they can’t beat him, Democrats want to damage his reputation in case he makes a White House run. Democratic strategists see the email dump as a timely way to draw damaging parallels between Walker and Christie, whose presidential ambition is also apparent.
In Ohio and Michigan, Govs. John Kasich and Rick Snyder fall into a similar category -- two incumbents in large industrial Midwest states clinging to marginal leads over their lesser known Democratic opponents.
Kasich is viewed as a bit more vulnerable than Snyder, but boasted a 51 percent job approval rating in the most recent Quinnipiac University survey.
Like Walker, if successfully re-elected in their respective swing states, both Kasich and Snyder are expected to take a hard look at a presidential bid.
“We’re not going to give any of these guys a chance to do well,” says DGA Executive Director Colm O’Comartun. “Presidential politics will take care of themselves once we do what we need to do.”
Whereas Republicans hope to frame their races around result-oriented leadership and capitalize on the political drag of Obamacare, Democrats have a simple template they hope to apply: Turn the Republicans into Ken Cuccinelli, the unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial nominee from Virginia who lost an off-year race in November.
“These are governors who have difficulty getting above the 50 percent re-election mark and have the same liabilities as Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia. Anti-women health initiatives, economic models that provide access for the rich and raise taxes on the middle class while cooking education funding to pay for it,” says O’Comartun.
Nowhere do Democratic chances look better for gains than Pennsylvania, Florida and Maine, a trio of states which feature GOP incumbents who have been largely unpopular for most of their terms.
Former Republican turned independent turned Democrat Charlie Crist has held small but consistent leads over GOP Gov. Rick Scott in the Sunshine State and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has lagged behind a slate of prospective Democratic opponents.
Maine is a bit more complicated given the third party candidacy of independent Eliot Cutler, who could draw votes away from Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, paving the way for a second-term of the inimitable Gov. Paul LePage. LePage needed only 38 percent to win last time because of a similar three-way muddle.
Given their defensive map, Republicans will welcome any break they can get.
“Frankly, it’s dictated by the fact we’ve gone from 22 to 29 governors since 2009,” Cox says.
But they also have another powerful statistic on their side: Incumbents usually win.
According to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, since 1960, about four of every five incumbent governors who made a general election ballot have been re-elected.