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If ever there was a region where incumbent Republican governors can experience the great GOP gubernatorial apocalypse, it is the upper Midwest. Three of the races involve Republican incumbents who rode the Republican wave of 2010 into office. They are Rick Snyder in Michigan, John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin. That potential loss of three Governor’s offices may be mitigated by a Pat Quinn Democratic loss in Illinois. The problem is that Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin are less red than Illinois is certainly blue.
But, let’s start in Minnesota where Mark Dayton, the incumbent Democrat, has an uncontested path to another run. He currently enjoys a 53% approval rating versus 38 disapproval rating. Thus, he would seem to be in good position for reelection.
For the GOP in Minnesota, these are troubled times. They have yet to find a viable candidate against Senator Al Franken who was seen by many as vulnerable and was targeted by the GOP early in this cycle. If they cannot find a candidate to run against a joke like Al Franken, then how can they find one to run against a fairly popular governor like Mark Dayton? Two names have come forward and neither inspire hope: investment banker Scott Honour and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. Thus far, Johnson would appear to be the front-runner. However, other names have emerged according to Republican sources in Minnesota. State senate minority leader David Hann would be the first choice, but there are conflict of interest allegations against him over health care legislation that may mar a general election campaign. The three names being mentioned more often are state senator Julie Rosen, state senator Dave Thompson and state representative Kurt Zellers. Of the three, Rosen would likely be the most formidable candidate against Dayton although likely in a losing cause.
In Illinois, incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn won in 2010 with less than 50% of the vote. Not much has improved since then as he bears the second worse approval rating of any incumbent running for reelection in 2014- 31%. Generally, that is a recipe for loss or at least a primary challenge. That challenge may come from someone the Democrats are all ga-ga over- state AG Lisa Madigan. Quinn’s troubles start with hurt feelings by the unions in the state who have been less than enthusiastic about the potential of another 4 years of Quinn. Additionally, outside Chicago, his approval ratings are dismal. If Madigan enters the race, then Quinn’s political future is at risk. However, one has to consider that the Democrats may be saving Madigan for a 2016 to challenge Mark Kirk for his Senate seat. In such a case, they will have to bite the bullet and accept Quinn.
Still, Republicans would have to seize upon that Democratic in-fighting, if it occurs at all. State senator Kirk Dillard, businessman Bruce Rauner, and state treasurer Dan Rutherford have entered the race on the GOP side. In early polling, Rutherford is the apparent front-runner. There are other names who are considering a run including 2010 GOP candidate Bill Brady and a slew of state legislators. Rutherford, however, seems to be the best bet at this point. He is well known in Illinois political circles from his time in the legislature and he is a fixture on the Chicago political circuit scene. In fact, he describes himself as “Chicago friendly” which is important in order to have electoral success in Illinois. If Quinn wins, one can imagine that there will be some shenanigans by the Democratic machine in Chicago and, regardless, he will barely break 50%.
Now for what some see as the prickly races; I am more optimistic. In Michigan, the Democratic Party has rallied around former Rep. Mark Schauer. In fact, Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson has asked other potential candidates to simply stay out of the race to avoid cost and controversy. Thus far, the lemmings have obeyed. For the Republican incumbent in Michigan, Rick Snyder, his approval ratings have been all over the place, largely in reaction to his legislative agenda. For most of 2012, he was in the 50% range which was the highest for any Republican Governor in a state won by Obama. In late 2012, that approval rating dropped to 40%, largely in response to a bruising battle over making Michigan a Right-to-Work state. Unions, especially the UAW, still hold considerable power in Michigan. But after that controversy subsided, his rating went back up to the 50% range, but has since settled at about 41% approval/49% disapproval. Some of this is due to the decision for the state government to essentially take over Detroit.
The best thing that could have happened for Snyder would have been a contentious Democratic primary. With that seemingly out of the way, he needs to not only reach out his base, but also to independent voters in the state in order to win. There is no doubt that union forces are aligning against him because of his right-to-work stance as are women and gay rights groups. In other words, this will be a classic battle of the quintessential Liberal base against everyone else. In the end, the Democrats may find themselves doing some soul-searching in Michigan and thinking, “What went wrong in 2014?”
In Wisconsin, GOP incumbent Scott Walker, having won the governor’s office, later faced a recall effort and won. In many ways, Madison- the state’s capital- is the fulcrum of Liberalism in the United States. Yet, outside the capital and some of the larger, ethnically and union-dominated cities, Wisconsin is rather conservative. Walker has decided to run for another term after a tumultuous first term. Who can forget the Democratic legislators running for the safety of Illinois in order to de facto filibuster Walker’s reforms? Or the siege of the capital by left wing groups and unions? Despite all this controversy three facts remain: Scott Walker won with 52% of the vote in 2010, he survived a tough recall election and today, he has a 50% approval rating among Wisconsin voters. These dynamics should give any potential Democratic rival pause for concern. There are others.
Being 2014, there is no presidential race at the top of the ticket. In fact, most pundits predict lower voter turnout in 2014 than what occurred during the recall election. Walker also has a compliant Republican legislature behind him this time out and he actually emerged from the recall election stronger than when he went in. Most importantly, Walker has a high national profile which means a large potential fundraising base. Case in point: Walker raised $37 million in 18 months for his recall election. Of course, having a high national profile has a flip side in that any Democrat can expect liberal national money to come pouring in. As well as Walker is liked in Wisconsin, he is despised by the national liberal establishment. And Walker can use that to his advantage.
Another complicating factor in Wisconsin is that nobody with statewide name recognition has emerged to lead the pack for the Democrats. In fact, some operatives in the state believe that any Wisconsin Democrat may be honing their craft for a more likely winnable race (in their minds) against Senator Ron Johnson in 2016. So, in effect, the Democrats are left with a list of what amounts to B-list prospects. They include Peter Barca, minority leader of the assembly and state senator Jon Erpenbach. They have been mentioned in the past, but have turned down a run then and likely will now. Biotechnology executive Kevin Conroy would have been a decent choice, but business concerns may rule him out (his company has begun vital tests of a colon cancer screening regimen). Tom Nelson, Outagamie County executive, intrigues some Democrats since he won his position in a swing part of the state and may have some cross-over appeal. They also point out that Walker himself rose from Milwaukee County commissioner to Governor. Whatever the result, Democrats find themselves with a surprisingly daunting task and Walker’s chances of reelection stand greater than 50% at this point in time.
In Ohio, Republican incumbent John Kasich will run for reelection likely unopposed for the GOP nod. Like Walker, he has tapped into a large conservative fundraising base. Thus far, only Cuyahoga County executive Ed FitzGerald has announced his candidacy for the Democrats. There is the potential for a primary challenge with two grassroots campaigns to draft former lilliputian congressman Dennis Kucinich or Richard Cordray.
FitzGerald’s campaigning thus far has been the classic painting of the GOP supporting special wealthy interests versus the middle class of Ohio. Republicans have criticized his kick off which centered on the three Big C’s of Ohio- Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus calling it an insult to the rest of Ohio. That likely will be the theme going forward. At first glance, one would think that Democrats have a chance in Ohio. After all, the state twice went for Obama and Kasich won a very close, bitter election against incumbent Ted Strickland in 2010. His restrictive collective bargaining initiative that he spent some political capital on and championed, was roundly defeated by the voters of Ohio with 61% of the vote. Still, his reaction to that outcome- “the people of Ohio have spoken and I will respect their decision”- seemed to heal some old wounds. Hence, that may explain why Kasich’s approval rating stands at about 53%. Opponents note that although the state’s unemployment rate has decreased from over 9% to 7.1% under his leadership, the poverty rate has gone up dramatically. FitzGerald is using this fact in his campaign. Also, many maintain that Ohio’s improving unemployment figures have nothing to do with Kasich’s policies, but with Obama’s, specifically the auto bail out. The reasons are hard to discern, but likely to play a role in the general election.
The most recent polls from April, 2013 indicate about a 10% victory over FitzGerald. However, in no poll has Kasich broken that magical 50% ceiling almost guaranteeing reelection. This figures to be a costly race with union money lining up behind FitzGerald and outside money sure to pour in at some point. Unless there is some flood of anti-Kasich fervor, he should survive a reelection campaign. It is likely that the 10 point gap between him and FitzGerald will tighten as the race nears an end and he should sneak in with perhaps 51% of the vote which is a little less than what he won with in 2010 against an incumbent Democrat.
In the end, although things could potentially look bleak to the incumbent Republican governors in the upper, industrial Midwest, they are actually in better position than most believe. Some pundits put these races as toss-ups. All the major pundits put Wisconsin as a likely Walker victory. Michigan is considered either a toss-up or leaning towards a Snyder victory while Ohio is in the same category. Minnesota is a likely slam dunk for Mark Dayton while Pat Quinn has some trouble in Illinois. Given the dynamics of these races, at this point and unless something dramatically changes, there will be NO great GOP gubernatorial apocalypse in this area as some have mentioned. In fact, going on a limb this early, the troika of Walker-Snyder-Kasich will survive 2014.
Next: Races in the South- Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina