Open seats make for crowded, expensive governor battles

Open seats make for crowded, expensive governor battles
© Greg Nash

Eight years after a wave of new Republican governors took office, term limits and pent-up political ambition have conspired to create crowded — and costly — battles to run some of the largest states in the country.

More than 200 candidates have publicly announced their campaigns for governor, with new candidates making their bids official on an almost daily basis. Dozens more are considering runs of their own, and both parties expect some of their most potent candidates to jump in over the coming weeks and months.

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The rash of new candidates is unlike anything political observers have seen. Many attribute the rush of gubernatorial hopefuls to the unusually large number of open seats: Seventeen states have governors who are prevented from running again by term limits. In those 17 states, 129 candidates have already said they will run.

In three more states — Alabama, Iowa and South Carolina — governors who ascended to their jobs after their predecessors quit face challenges from within their own parties.

“The sheer number of open seats will attract more candidates,” said Phil Cox, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association (RGA). “In states with two-term governors, whether they be Republican or Democrat, the rising stars in either party have been blocked from taking the next step. This is their opportunity, and if they miss this opportunity they may have to wait another eight years.”

In the last half century, the average midterm election cycle — when about two-thirds of the states elect their governors — has featured just over eight open seats, according to Eric Ostermeier, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota and the author of the Smart Politics blog. The number of open seats this year is more than double the average.

“This means that the pool of potential candidates knew very early, right after the 2014 elections, that seats would be open in a lot of states and were able to start planning accordingly,” Ostermeier said.

Even in the majority of the remaining 16 states where incumbents are seeking reelection, challengers from the opposing party are emerging and building healthy war chests.

Some of the candidates running for governor this year are well known in political circles. Seven members of Congress — Reps. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), Tim Walz (D-Minn.) and Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) — are already running for governor. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) has strongly hinted that he will run in his home state.

Cox said members of Congress might think more about returning home to run for governor as life in the Capitol becomes more onerous.

“If you are in Congress right now, Congress is incredibly dysfunctional, it’s not a fun place to work, and they’re not getting anything done,” he said. “Statewide office is far more attractive because it’s a somewhat less partisan environment.”

But other candidates are outsiders who have either never held public office or have only held low-level positions — factors that they believe work in their favor.

“I don’t think I’m the cookie-cutter candidate,” said George Brauchler, a Denver-area district attorney now running for governor as a Republican. “I never thought I was going to get involved in politics other than the DA’s office.”

Many candidates are taking advantage of the low regard in which most Americans hold their politicians, casting themselves as outsiders bent on changing the way politics is practiced.

“There’s too much squabbling, and not enough people with real-world experience,” said Adam Cote, a businessman who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, now running for governor of Maine as a Democrat. “I keep hearing, ‘It’s good to see young people, we need fresh blood in there.’ ”

Voters “feel like they’re not getting ahead, like they’re not getting a fair shake, and that the priorities right now are not their priorities,” said Andy McGuire, a physician who ran the Iowa Democratic Party and who is now running for governor.

Both Cote and McGuire face crowded primaries in their home states even before they get the chance to make their case in the general election. 

But they are fortunate not to live in Connecticut, where six Democrats and nine Republicans are running to replace retiring Gov. Dannel Malloy (D). Or in Colorado, where 14 candidates — seven on either side — are running to replace outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). Or in Florida, where 13 candidates are already vying for the right to succeed term-limited Gov. Rick Scott (R).

“People are fired up to run for office, and there’s an increasing recognition that the Democratic Party has to rebuild through the states,” said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. “Governors can make a huge impact on policy.”

“Leadership in the states has become increasingly more important, with a large part of the conservative policy being enacted taking place at the state level,” RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said. “Republican gubernatorial candidates see ample opportunity to run for office to continue those positive reforms.”

Several of the largest states are attracting a host of big-name candidates, some of whom may see the governorship as a stepping stone to the national stage. 

In California, three major Democratic candidates — Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and State Treasurer John Chiang — are among the 11 already in the race. Wealthy hedge fund manager Tom Steyer (D), who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting his own political projects, is also said to be eyeing the race.

In Ohio, Attorney General Mike DeWine (R), Secretary of State Jon Husted (R), Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor (R) and Renacci are all seeking the Republican nomination to succeed outgoing Gov. John Kasich (R).

Several statewide elected officials are running against each other in Oklahoma. Two well-known Democrats are already running against Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), and Delaney’s entrance would make three. The Minnesota Democratic primary pits Walz, a sitting congressman, against the state auditor and the mayor of St. Paul.

Candidates are already scrambling to raise the millions of dollars it will take to compete in states both large and small. In Florida, three candidates — two Republicans and one Democrat — each raised more than $2 million between their various political committees in just the last month. In Georgia, the six candidates running to replace outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal (R) have pulled in a combined $7.4 million just since March. 

The top four candidates in California, including a self-funding businessman, have raised an eye-popping $25 million so far — even without the wealthy Steyer in the race.