Coronavirus response could be key factor in tight governor’s races


Responding to the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic poses serious challenges for governors across the country, including the nine set to face voters in November’s 11 gubernatorial elections.

How state leaders handle their COVID-19 responses could have a particular impact in competitive races, such as those in North Carolina or Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock (D) is running for the Senate and both parties are fighting hard to replace him.

Sara Rinfret, the chairwoman of the Department of Public Administration and Public Policy at the University of Montana School of Law, said this week that voters are “watching to see how they have responded to this situation and how they are putting people first.”

“It’s one of the things you’re seeing nationally — all the governors responding to this and putting the people first,” Rinfret said.

The pandemic and how state governments are handling it has significantly raised the profile of multiple governors, particularly New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who has seen his highest favorability ratings in seven years and had to repeatedly deny that he is considering a presidential run.

But Cuomo and many others in the coronavirus spotlight, such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) or Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), aren’t facing voters in November. Others managing hot spots, such as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), have seen boosts in public polling over their COVID-19 responses, though that may not weigh heavily on the result of their races.

Inslee, a former 2020 presidential candidate, is seeking a third term in a race rated solidly Democratic by The Cook Political Report.

Seven other gubernatorial races — in Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia and Utah — are ranked as likely or solidly Republican.

In Montana, the governor’s seat is vacant as Bullock, also a former White House hopeful, seeks to move to the Senate. The campaign to replace him is shaping up to be highly competitive — the only 2020 gubernatorial race ranked a toss-up by Cook.

Two major candidates from each party are vying for their respective nominations: Democrats Mike Cooney, the lieutenant governor, and Whitney Williams, the daughter of former Rep. Pat Williams, and Republicans Tim Fox, the state’s attorney general, and Rep. Greg Gianforte.

An official for Cooney’s campaign said the lieutenant governor has been “primarily focused on supporting the state’s response to protect the public and economic health of Montana during the outbreak of COVID-19.”

Cooney postponed all in-person events in early March and pivoted his focus to reaching voters digitally, the official said. 

Fox has also shifted his campaign to digital-only while maintaining his focus on protecting Montana voters, according to a campaign official. 

“Attorney General Fox is leading multiple public safety and economic initiatives at this time, and he is focused on helping his fellow Montanans in any way he can during this difficult time,” the person said, adding that Fox is “serving Montanans by doing his job,” including “investigating alleged meat packing company price-fixing that cheats Montana cattle producers, internet price-gouging, and other scams designed to profit from the pandemic.” 

A spokesperson for the Williams campaign said Williams is also focussed on prioritizing Montanans’ health and safety during the crisis.

“As a business owner herself, she is busy reaching out to businesses and workers to make sure that our response will address their economic and health concerns as we restart the economy,” the spokesperson added.  

The Gianforte campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

The latest University of Montana poll, conducted in mid-February before the coronavirus pandemic took over U.S. daily life, found Gianforte in the lead with 35 percent support, followed by Fox at 22 percent, Cooney at 21 percent and Williams at 14 percent.

Rinfret, who oversees the university’s “Big Sky Poll,” said the focus of the election has shifted toward how leaders are reacting to the coronavirus.

“What are you doing to make sure that Montanans are safe? How are you [using] your current position to make that happen?” she asked.

Bullock issued a stay-at-home order in Montana on March 26, when the state was reporting fewer than 100 COVID-19 cases. Earlier this week, he extended the order through April 24.

Montana’s health department reported 365 confirmed COVID-19 cases and just six deaths as of Friday.

Governors across the country have generally received high marks for their handling of the crisis, compared to the response out of Washington, D.C.

A poll conducted late last month by the National Opinion Research Center for the Associated Press found 57 percent of Americans said they approved of their state’s response to the crisis, while just 38 percent said they approve of the federal government’s.

“It’s a rally-around-the-flag effect,” said Mac McCorkle, a professor at Duke University.

McCorkle, the director of the Center on Political Leadership, Innovation and Service at the Sanford School of Public Policy, said the impact the coronavirus response may have on individual governors may vary significantly state by state.

“It’s a moving train — we can’t say. But right now — we can only say right now — Gov. [Roy] Cooper’s response looks good in the public,” McCorkle said, about the North Carolina Democrat seeking reelection.

A poll from the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling released last week found 63 percent of North Carolina voters said they approve of Cooper’s handling, and just 19 percent said they disapprove. The same survey found North Carolina voters split on Trump’s handling of the crisis at 49 percent approval and 45 percent disapproval.

Cooper is facing a GOP challenge from Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Although polls have shown Cooper leading Forest — and the race is forecasted to lean Democratic by Cook — the incumbent’s challenge is amplified by the presence on the ballot of Trump, who won the Tar Heel State in 2016.

McCorkle, a former Democratic strategist, said Forest may not be a strong contender in a non-presidential year, but “if Trump is able to win the state though, he probably will still be competitive.”

Forest, meanwhile, initially criticized Cooper after he closed dine-in service for restaurants over coronavirus fears, but later walked back the comments after criticism, saying his objections were about the way Cooper announced the decision rather than the direction itself, The News and Observer reported.

About a week after shutting down nonessential businesses, Cooper increased restrictions by issuing a stay-at-home order that will remain in effect until April 29.

As of Friday, North Carolina’s health department reported 3,908 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 91 deaths.

Nearly every U.S. governor has issued stay-at-home orders at this point, but two of the holdouts — in Utah and North Dakota — are also among the states holding gubernatorial elections this year.

Most Republican candidates in the race for Utah’s governorship said they support outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision (R) not to issue such an order, The Salt Lake Tribune reported Thursday.

In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican seeking reelection, has defended his decision to refrain from issuing a stay-at-home order, claiming the state’s “targeted action” is working to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Burgum is facing a long-shot challenge from Shelley Lenz, a veterinarian who received the Democratic endorsement in a virtual convention last month.

How much of an impact a governor’s response will have on an election will likely lie in the eventual outcome of the crisis, McCorkle pointed out.

“A lot of it’s going to be told in terms of the damage done, in terms of health, and death rates and then being able to turn to the economy,” he said.

McCorkle said if any governor’s handling of the coronavirus is seen as strong enough, it may be able to do something almost unheard of in today’s tightly partisan environment: actually win over voters from the opposing party.

“Governors who are perceived as having done really well, if any are perceived as doing really well at the end, will they get a boost regardless of if they are Democrats or Republicans, and will those who are not — weren’t perceived as doing a good job hurt themselves in Republican areas?” he said. “You could see some change.”

Updated at 5:45 p.m.

Tags 2020 2020 campaign 2020 election Andrew Cuomo Coronavirus Doug Burgum Gary Herbert Greg Gianforte Jay Inslee national opinion research center Public Policy Polling Roy Cooper Steve Bullock Steve Daines The Associated Press the salt lake tribune
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