A Republican Wave? GOP governors facing a tough year

For much of this year, the nation’s political prognosticators have been justifiably focused on the race for control of the Senate. While the polls indicate that Republicans will have a good year in 2014, there is scant evidence to suggest it will be a great year, a la 2010. Even without historic tailwinds, the Republican Party can retake the upper chamber of Congress. Republican Senate incumbents and hopefuls may, however, be facing an unexpected drag at the top of the ticket in November: Republican governors.

According to the polling aggregator Real Clear Politics, Republicans are likely to lose the governor’s mansion in Pennsylvania while Democrats face an uphill battle to maintain control of the executive in Illinois. Republican incumbents in 2014 are defending far more territory gained in 2010 and are facing stiff competition.

RCP notes that GOP governors in Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, Georgia, and Florida are virtually tied with their Democratic opponents. Another gubernatorial race in Arizona to replace Jan Brewer is a, at best, a tossup. By contrast, the only Democrat-held governor’s mansions that can be considered tossups are in Colorado, Connecticut, and Hawaii. The open race in Arkansas to succeed Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is also up for grabs.

Yes, this would be quite the reversal of political fortunes. That is not an unlikely scenario, either.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott led former Gov. Charlie Crist in a recent New York Times/CBS News/YouGov by just 3 points at 46 to 43 percent support. That’s only a slight improvement on a SurveyUSA survey which found a 1 point race in Florida last week.

In Georgia, that same SurveyUSA poll found Gov. Nathan Deal led his challenger, the famously named Jason Carter, by just 1 point at 45 to 44 percent support.

With the exception of a YouGov poll from early August, incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback consistently trails his Democratic challenger, Kansas House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Davis. The newly embattled incumbent Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts will find his party’s gubernatorial nominee providing him with no coattails in November. The RCP average currently shows Brownback trailing his Democratic opponent by nearly 4 points.

In Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage won the 2010 race as a result of a three-way contest, a virtual repeat of those conditions in 2014 does not appear to be helping him much this cycle. A Rasmussen Reports poll released last week found LePage’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME), leading with 43 to 39 percent support.

Facing his third election in four years, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s race against Democratic business woman Mary Burke is tight. CBS/NYT/YouGov showed Walker leading Burk by 4 points at the top of the month, but other polls, including the respected local Marquette University, have shown Burke in the lead.

In Michigan, America’s toughest nerd is facing the fight of his life. That heavily polled race has found a 1 or 2 point race in Michigan for more than a month. The trends are, however, disturbing for Gov. Rick Snyder. While his average level of support among Michigan voters has remained steady at approximately 45 percent, his opponent, Rep. Mark Schauer (D-MI), has been steadily securing the support of voters in that traditionally blue state. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released on Friday found Snyder trailing Schauer by 2 points with 43 to 45 percent support.

There are some bright spots for GOP gubernatorial hopefuls, too. Governors like Ohio’s John Kasich, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez are likely to be returned by their state’s voters this year. Republicans are also enjoying unexpectedly competitive race in Massachusetts, where state Attorney General Martha Coakley may again disappoint Bay State Democrats. But the lopsided number of competitive races where GOP governors are fighting a tough battle is giving the Republican Party heartburn.

Each of these races is influenced more by local factors than the national environment. These races are far more complex than the polls reveal. One would, however, expect a year in which voters are predisposed to favor Republican politicians to be providing GOP incumbents with tailwinds that do not seem to be materializing. There is plenty of campaign left in 2014, and these and other GOP candidates can still pull off a victory, but the gubernatorial landscape for Republicans looks like a tough one.

If Republicans lose a significant number of governor’s mansions in the fall, it will upend the conventional wisdom that 2014 was a strong Republican year. It may also serve as the final nail in the coffin containing Republican Gubernatorial Association Chairman and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2016 hopes.