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Governor races are key to 2016 election

In terms of governing, the battle for partisan control of the United States Senate is the most important political contest on this year’s ballot.  But for those trying to read the tea leaves for early signs of advantage heading into the 2016 presidential contest, the governors’ races will be the mandatory field of study.

The reason is three fold.  First, governors usually control their party’s machinery and therefore can power get-out-the-vote drives in the swing Electoral College states.  Second, several of this year’s swing gubernatorial contests are in states that the GOP must retake to have a clear path to 270 electoral votes (e.g., Florida, Colorado and Wisconsin).  Third, the Democrats are trying this year to make headway in gubernatorial races in states which they hope to turn purple by the end of the decade (e.g., Texas and Georgia), so that they can credibly stretch the 2016 Electoral College map.

{mosads}When you distill all this down and factor out the races that turn more on state politics in order to spotlight the swing states for 2016, four races loom large.  The re-elections of Democrat Hickenlooper vs. Beauprez in Colorado, and three Republican governors: Deal vs. Carter in Georgia, Walker vs. Burke in Wisconsin and Florida’s Scott vs. the former Republican, now Democrat, Crist. 

If either party can take three of these four races on Nov. 4, presidential handicappers will have their pencils sharpened charting the potential impact. 

If these races split two for each side, the gubernatorial race in Texas could emerge as the perceptual tiebreaker.  Can Democrat Wendy Davis cut the Republican Attorney General Gregg Abbott’s margin under 10 percent or does the GOP still win by margins exceeding 15 percent (the public polling data when you factor in the margins of error point in opposite directions). 

Interestingly, the Hispanic vote could play an outsized role in all five states except Wisconsin.  Conventional wisdom says the Hispanic vote will be low in these off year elections.  Yet, in 2010, stronger than expected Hispanic turnout defied that conventional wisdom and was responsible for the upset victories of incumbent Democratic Sens. Reid in Nevada and Bennett in Colorado.

This year, Georgia can become the litmus test for measuring the Hispanic vote’s impact.  The 2014 exit polls further revealed that Georgia’s electorate was 61 percent White, 30 percent Black, 8 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian

If Georgia’s Hispanic share, drops back to a 5 percent share of the electorate on Nov. 4 or in the potential run-off, that bodes well for Republican Nathan Deal’s re-election.  But what if the Hispanic share crosses 9 percent amidst low overall turnout, tracking the Hispanic trend line growth in Georgia’s electorate, Democrat Jason Carter could reclaim his grandfather’s chair as governor.

This basic arithmetic lodged in Hispanic turnout for Georgia could also re-elect Hickenlooper in Colorado and return Crist to the governor’s mansion in Florida.

Republicans sensing correctly that Hispanic voters are angry because comprehensive immigration reform has not passed in Congress, believe Hispanics will in effect say a pox on all your houses and not vote their registration weight.  This conventional wisdom is probably correct.

But what if Hispanic voters reach a different conclusion?  Namely, if a growing Hispanic share moving toward the Democrats drives the outcome in Florida, Colorado and Georgia, that could completely change the Karma of immigration politics.  If Republican governors learn to fear that losing the Hispanic vote, even in an off year elections, that could trigger a re-calculation of how the politics of immigration truly cuts.  Will Hispanic voters seize this opportunity? 

At the end of the day, serious students of governance will keep their attention on the U.S. Senate races, but presidential handicappers will focus on whether there is a purple haze forming around this year’s gubernatorial results in Florida, Georgia, Colorado, Wisconsin and perhaps the margin in Texas.  Their gaze will be upon which shade of purple hovers around our politics, heading into 2016: bright reddish magenta or the deeper blue of royal purple.  Meanwhile, the ultimate color of purple this year may harbor the subtle tint of brown.

Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an ddjunct professor of Political Science at SUNY Albany.


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