It wasn’t that long ago that Virginia’s Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie of New Jersey were the GOP’s gubernatorial golden boys, sweeping the bellwether 2009 elections and even both making Mitt Romney’s veepstakes list. And they were harbingers, portending the GOP’s 2010 trouncing of the Democrats when the party not only picked up control of the House but also grabbed 11 governships from the Democrats.
Thus far, 2014 has been a cruel year for McDonnell and Christie. The former Virginia governor is facing jail time after being indicted on federal corruption charges. And while Christie is in the start of his second term, the George Washington Bridge scandal has exacted a steep toll both on his reputation – switching from can-do and blunt to, at best, doesn’t know what’s going on in his own office and, at worst, a bully. His poll numbers have mirrored that trajectory, falling sharply in recent weeks.
And what of the other first term Republican governors? None faces a scandal of the Christie-McDonnell variety, but several find themselves deeply vulnerable as they seek a second term. “If you look at the map you see that the Democrats’ problem in the Senate, having to fight in red states, is the Republicans’ problem in governors races,” says Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report. “They’ve got to fight in blue states.” Indeed, of the five GOP incumbents Cook rates most vulnerable – Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, Maine’s Paul LePage, Florida’s Rick Scott, Michigan’s Rick Snyder and Ohio’s John Kasich – all serve in states which President Obama won twice. Here’s a look at those governors’ odds.
Pennsylvania. Corbett’s “numbers have been awful since the day he took office,” says Duffy, which is why he’s generally viewed as the most endangered incumbent in the country. It doesn’t help him that Corbett was the attorney general who investigated the sexual molestation allegations against Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator. The investigation took three years and now the current attorney general, Democrat Kathleen Kane, is looking at why it took so long. A Franklin & Marshall College Poll released last week found that only 23 percent of voters thought that Corbett deserves re-election. The incumbent’s main hope lies in the fact that Democrats have an eight-way primary and could produce a nominee easily caricatured as a Philadelphia liberal.
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Maine. LePage is the definition of an accidental governor, a tea party favorite who squeaked into the governor’s office when Eliot Cutler’s third party candidacy split the blue state’s progressive vote. In office, says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, “LePage has proven to be kind of a gaffe machine.” He started his term by skipping a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and telling NAACP members they could “kiss my butt.” He’s compared the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo, and, last summer, he said that a Democratic state lawmaker wanted to “give it to the people without providing Vaseline.” Politico recently named LePage “America’s craziest governor.” A November Public Policy Polling survey gave LePage 41 percent approval and 54 percent disapproval, meaning his only hope for re-election is for Cutler to split the opposition vote again. But if likely Democratic nominee Rep. Michael Michaud can consolidate his base, LePage is destined to be remembered as a one-term novelty.
Florida. How would this be for poetic justice? Four years ago the tea party – which has made a fine art of costing the GOP Senate seats – drove then-Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party. Now he might snatch a governorship from his old party, a slowly unfolding tea party boomerang effect. If Crist wins he’ll have had plenty of help from his successor, Scott, who has cut education funding and a high speed rail project. Politico published an internal Scott poll in December showing Crist with a narrow lead, while a recent PPP poll found voters giving the incumbent only 34 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval. Scott has reportedly vowed to spend $100 million holding onto his job.
Michigan. Snyder pushed through a “right to work” law in the famously union-dominated state and also enacted a tough abortion bill – with both laws passing in a lame-duck session in late 2012. As if to underscore how much they want the race, the Democratic Governors Association weighed in last week with a very early $1 million ad buy promoting presumptive nominee Mark Schauer. He’ll need the help, having vowed to take public funding, which limits his campaign spending to $2 million. (Snyder isn’t taking public funding and has already raised more than $5 million.) While a December PPP poll had more voters disapproving (49 percent) of Snyder than approving (42 percent), it also had him leading Schauer narrowly, 44-40.
Ohio. Kasich, according to UVA’s Kondik, is “the most Republican governor that state has had in at least a half-century.” His conservatism led to some early, unpopular missteps including a law restricting collective bargaining rights for public workers, which was subsequently overturned by Ohio voters. Kasich has since steadied himself, however, and has even pushed to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, a move that has drawn him a tea party primary challenger. A November Quinnipiac poll gave Kasich 52 percent approval and a 44-37 lead over Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, his little known Democratic challenger. But that lead was down from 14 points over the summer. “Ohio to me is a great ground zero for … who’s going to get credit for an improving economy: Kasich, who believes he should, or Obama, who believes he should.” says Duffy.
Corrected on Feb. 6, 2014: The deck of this article incorrectly listed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as being listed in the story.