Democrats Play Defense in Governors’ Races

By: - September 18, 2012 12:00 am

Republican Ovide Lamontagne (left) will face Democrat Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire. (AP)

Correction at bottom

The race for New Hampshire governor has the hallmarks of the biggest gubernatorial races this fall: heavy involvement from outside groups, a national contest stealing the spotlight and messages that echo themes from this year’s presidential campaigns.

Money is already pouring into gubernatorial races in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Montana, Washington state and West Virginia, and the campaigns are just getting up to full speed.

Eleven states will choose their governors this November, at the same time voters choose between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Democrats are on the defensive in those contests. Half of the eight seats they are trying to hold on to this fall, like New Hampshire’s, are open because of term limits or retirements. Republicans, on the other hand, are losing only one incumbent.

Although New Hampshire kicked off the presidential contest in January with its first-in-the-nation primary, it did not select major party candidates for governor until last week. By the end of the week, national groups started blasting the new nominees on TV.

The Republicans picked Ovide Lamontagne, a lawyer who previously lost bids for governor and the U.S. Senate. He will face Democrat Maggie Hassan, a former majority leader in the state Senate who lost her seat in the 2010 Republican wave. The two are competing for a two-year term. The incumbent John Lynch, a Democrat, is retiring.

The latest Granite State poll, from a month before the election, showed voters knew very little about either candidate.

Groups tied to the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association moved in quickly to tell voters what they thought of their opponents. A Republican group went after Hassan for pushing a state budget that included tax hikes. Democrats responded by hitting Lamontagne for working as a state lobbyist for a tobacco company.

It is no coincidence that both parties are using the strategies used by their national candidates, says Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducts the Granite State Poll every quarter. Republicans are stressing taxes and the economy, while Democrats are pressing personalities, social issues and “extremism,” Smith says. “For both parties, that makes it easier for these candidates, because they can just piggyback on the message that is being paid for by people with deeper pockets.”

The presidential race is dominating coverage in swing states such as New Hampshire and North Carolina, but national politics are also shaping gubernatorial races in places such as Missouri, Montana and West Virginia.

Even money spent on the gubernatorial races has ties to Washington, D.C. The partisan governors groups are expected to weigh in heavily (or already have) in Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Washington state and West Virginia. Often, they will act independently from their candidates, because low contribution limits prevent them from giving directly to their candidates, says RGA spokesman Mike Schrimpf.

The outside groups, especially the RGA, can play an outsized role in state elections, as Wisconsin saw earlier this year. The Republican governors spent more than $9 million to help Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker keep his seat. “Everybody understood the stakes, and it was worth every penny of that,” Schrimpf says. Changes pushed by Walker and other Republicans have helped shape national debates on entitlements, schools and taxes, he says.

Here is a look at some of the other states with governors’ races this fall:


The long-anticipated match-up pits Jay Inslee, a Democratic congressman, against Rob McKenna, the Republican attorney general. It is one of the closest governors’ races in the country, and it could also be one of the most expensive. Republican and Democratic groups have already committed to spending $10 million combined on the contest. One of the reasons it is drawing so much interest is that it is the marquee race in the state. The presidential race is not competitive in Washington state because it’s so heavily Democratic, and the U.S. Senate contest this fall is not expected to be competitive, explains Seattle Pacific University professor Reed Davis.

In her last term, Governor Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, has struggled with state lawmakers to try to balance the state budget. The persistent shortfalls led to cuts in school funding, something McKenna has criticized. The Republican wants to increase money for schools and public universities, and Davis says that will help McKenna with suburban voters. Inslee, on the other hand, is better known for his advocacy in environmental issues and clean energy.


The biggest budget problem facing Montana is what to do with a surplus, and that could play a major role in the governor’s race, says University of Montana political science professor Jim Lopach. Republican Rick Hill, a former congressman, faces Attorney General Steve Bullock, a Democrat.

Nearly all of Montana’s statewide officeholders are Democrats, including term-limited Governor Brian Schweitzer, but Republicans outnumber Democrats. That means Democrats like Bullock have to appear more moderate to attract independents, Lopach says, while Republicans can appeal more to their conservative base, as Hill has done.

Already, the RGA has tried to tie Bullock to Obama, because the attorney general did not join a nationwide suit to block Obama’s health care law. But Hill and Bullock are competing not only against each other, but also with a U.S. Senate race that so far has attracted far more attention than the gubernatorial contest, Lopach says.

North Carolina

Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory is trying to end a two-decade stretch of Democratic control of the North Carolina governorship. He faces Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton, after incumbent Bev Perdue opted not to seek another term. The match-up has already drawn at least $3 million from the governors groups, and will likely see far more. But McCrory is better-known and Democrats face an uphill climb in the race. “After years of scandal,” Dalton said in his first general election ad, “I get why people have lost faith in their leaders.” But most of those scandals involved Democrats.


Incumbent Jay Nixon, a Democrat, faces St. Louis businessman Dave Spence, who has spent more than $3 million of his own money on his campaign so far. Nixon is emphasizing the new jobs that have come to Missouri during his term and budgets he signed with no tax increases. Spence earned fleeting national notoriety when he claimed he earned a college degree in “economics” when it was actually in home economics.

West Virginia

Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin faces a rematch against Republican Bill Maloney little more than a year after the two faced off in a special election. Maloney has tried to tie Tomblin to Obama, who is deeply unpopular in the state especially for clean-air policies that could harm the local coal industry. But Tomblin has been running against the president, too. He has not endorsed Obama and did not go to the party convention in Charlotte, N.C. He boasts of winning a lawsuit against the Obama administration over coal regulations.


Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat first elected in 2010, is an outspoken liberal who has pressed, among other things, a single-payer health insurance system for Vermont, in which one government agency would collect all health care fees and pay providers, rather than leaving the process to a variety of health care organizations. In his bid for a second two-year term, Shumlin faces Republican state Senator Randy Brock.


Jack Markell, the head of the National Governors Association and the country’s only Jewish governor, faces a relatively easily path to re-election. The moderate Democrat faces Republican Jeff Cragg, a former insurance executive, who has criticized Markell for failing to bring enough jobs to Delaware and for spending his time campaigning outside the state. Markell, whose campaign coffers are flush, touts his budget austerity and his efforts to bring more jobs to the state.


Even when Barack Obama carried Indiana in 2008, Republican Mitch Daniels had no problem securing re-election. Now the term-limited Daniels is heading to Purdue University, and Republican congressman Mike Pence hopes to replace him. He faces Democrat John Gregg, a former speaker of the Indiana House, and Libertarian Rupert Boneham. Gregg wants to eliminate the state sales tax on gasoline, while Pence favors a 10 percent income tax instead. Pence is running far ahead in fundraising and polls.


Republican incumbent Gary Herbert avoided a primary by fending off several conservative challengers during this spring’s Republican caucuses and convention. Now he faces Democrat Peter Cooke, a former Army general, in November. Cooke has distanced himself from the national Democratic party, announcing that he opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights because of his Mormon faith. Herbert, who first took office in 2009 when Jon Huntsman left to become the U.S. ambassador to China, has benefited from fellow Republican governors. The RGA paid for a pre-caucus poll for Herbert and gave $100,000 to the state party to boost turnout in the caucuses. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is headlining a Herbert fundraiser.

North Dakota

Incumbent Jack Dalrymple is running for a full four-year term after taking over for John Hoeven, who moved to the U.S. Senate two years ago. He faces the Democratic leader in the state Senate, Ryan Taylor. Dalrymple has touted the state’s budget surpluses, which were fueled by an oil boom in the western part of the state, but Taylor says that, under Dalrymple, the state has been slow to provide housing and schools to the boom areas. The two also have dueling property tax relief plans.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that there was no U.S. Senate race in Washington state this fall. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, faces a challenge from Republican Michael Baumgartner, a state senator. 

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