Governors get reelection boost from COVID-19 responses

Governors get reelection boost from COVID-19 responses

The vast majority of the nation's governors are winning praise and high approval numbers from their constituents as they handle the health and economic fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic.

The twin crises have given governors a bully pulpit unlike any most of them have experienced before. And for those seeking reelection this year, demonstrating swift and assertive action in the name of public health has put them in strong position to win another term.

None would have chosen a pandemic as a political boost. But recent polls show even the most potentially vulnerable incumbents performing well against their rivals.

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"Incumbent governors running for reelection in 2020 have benefited politically from their response to the COVID pandemic," said Jon Thompson, a former top strategist at the Republican Governors Association. "It gave them an opportunity to appear in charge to a large multitude of voters who probably had not been paying much attention to their governing, and it's given them a leg up on their challengers."

Recent surveys conducted by both Democratic and Republican pollsters have showed North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) with 11- and 12-point leads over his rival, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R). Cooper beat his predecessor, Gov. Pat McCrory (R), by just over 10,000 votes out of 4.7 million cast in 2016.

In Missouri, several surveys show Gov. Mike Parson (R) leading state Auditor Nicole Galloway (D) by high single-digit margins. Parson ascended to the state's top job when his predecessor, Eric Greitens (R), resigned under a cloud of controversy. Greitens beat his Democratic opponent in 2016 by 5.6 percentage points.

"Massive media attention has been focused on these governors, starving their opponents of political oxygen and making negative attacks launched by challengers appear petty if they do not focus on the major issues of the day: the pandemic, policing and economic recovery," said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego. "This terrible year could, counterintuitively, shape up as a strong year for incumbents' political fortunes."

Few polls have been conducted so early in an election year, but those that have hint that governors are getting strong marks for their response to the pandemic.

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New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) won a second term by about 7 percentage points in 2018. The most recent survey conducted by the University of New Hampshire shows 87 percent approve of his response to the pandemic, including 89 percent of Democratic voters. A survey by We Ask America released Wednesday showed Sununu leading state Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes (D) by 59 percent to 20 percent.
 
In very liberal Vermont, 82 percent say they approve of the way Gov. Phil Scott (R) is handling the response, according to a poll conducted by SurveyMonkey. A We Ask America poll conducted earlier this month showed Scott leading two Democratic rivals by margins of 35 and 42 percentage points.
 
The same poll showed 74 percent of West Virginia voters approved of the job Gov. Jim Justice (R) has done fighting the virus, and 76 percent said the same of Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R). Two-thirds like what Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeInslee, GOP's Culp advance in Washington governor's race Governors call for Trump to extend funding for National Guard coronavirus response Washington state officials confirm federal officers leaving Seattle MORE (D) has done. All three are favored to hold their seats.

Governors do not often lose their seats when they run for reelection. In the last decade, which included wave elections in 2010 and 2018, only 11 governors lost their reelection bids. Those who keep close tabs on gubernatorial races say the amount of attention being paid to the coronavirus and the response is sucking the oxygen out of races that need to be focused on an incumbent's faults to give a challenger a chance.

"On balance, you needed a conversation about all sorts of things that are not top of mind for people in a place like New Hampshire and Vermont that have been pushed off the table by current events," said Colm O'Comartun, a former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. "It's very difficult to break through in races that were already a little bit difficult."

Eleven states will elect their governors this year. Based on current polling, none of the nine incumbents seeking reelection are particularly vulnerable to a challenger.

In Utah, where Gov. Gary Herbert (R) is not seeking reelection, is likely to elect the winner of a competitive Republican primary, a race that has come down to a two-man contest between former governor and Ambassador Jon Huntsman (R) and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (R), who has Herbert's support.

Only Montana appears to have a truly competitive race. Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockRepublicans uncomfortably playing defense 300 green groups say Senate has 'moral duty' to reject Trump's public lands nominee Lincoln Project targets Senate races in Alaska, Maine, Montana with M ad buy MORE (D), term limited after eight years in office, is running against Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesThe Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump signs major conservation bill into law | Senate votes to confirm Energy's No. 2 official | Trump Jr. expresses opposition to Pebble Mine project California: Dual threats of wildfire and COVID-19 underscore need for prevention MORE (R). The race to succeed him features Rep. Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteInternal poll shows tight battle in Montana House race Gianforte halts in-person campaigning after wife, running mate attend event with Guilfoyle Governors get reelection boost from COVID-19 responses MORE (R), who narrowly lost to Bullock four years ago, and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney (D).

The relatively low number of COVID-19 cases in Montana could impact the Senate race, too. Three-quarters of Montanans say they approve of the way Bullock has handled the virus. No public polling has been published in the race between Daines and Bullock; both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge it will be a closely fought contest, and both claim their candidate leads in internal surveys. Daines has touted his work bringing coronavirus relief funds back to the state.

Historically, times of crisis have either made or broken a governor's career. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) won reelection by a 22-point margin in 2013, a year after his response to Hurricane Sandy. Former Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), now in the Senate, won plaudits for his responses to hurricanes and to the welcome he gave to Puerto Ricans moving to Florida after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island.

But mishandling a disaster can be the end of one's career. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen BlancoKathleen BlancoFederal presence in Portland raises alarm over takeover of states Governors get reelection boost from COVID-19 responses 2019 Louisiana governor's race spells disaster for Trump in 2020 MORE (D) did not run for reelection after a botched state and federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

If 2020 has taught any political lessons, one is that the national conversation can turn on a dime, from a booming economy to a deadly virus to a global depression and mass protests against police brutality. And Election Day is still months away.

"A lot can happen in five months, and it's still too early to write off any of these races, but many of the governors running this year are able to point to action they took during this crisis, and voters seem prepared to reward them for it," Thompson said.