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Incumbent governors on safe ground
No indication of voter mood for big change
Despite a sagging economy and polls showing unhappiness among the electorate, the two major parties are expected to keep their gubernatorial seats this year — raising doubts about whether the anti-incumbency anger of 2010 will materialize again in 2012.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal cruised to a second term in Louisiana, avoiding even a runoff, in the state's Oct. 22 vote, while West Virginia's acting governor, Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin, held off a competitive Republican challenge from businessman Bill Maloney to win a special election last month, 50 percent to 47 percent — despite the state's increasingly Republican tilt in presidential elections.
The incumbent party is also expected to triumph in the two governor races next week.
In Kentucky, where President Obama will have a tough time getting traction in 2012, polls indicate Democratic Gov. Steven L. Beshear, first elected in 2007, is cruising to victory as he touts his ability to manage in the most difficult of times. Republicans can counter with Mississippi's Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who looks like a lock this month to take over for the popular outgoing GOP Gov. Haley Barbour.
How much to read into those races is another question. Victories by Republicans Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey in 2009 proved an accurate indicator of sweeping GOP gains in midterm elections a year later.
But the pattern doesn't always hold.
"Governors' races in the off-year generally don't tell us that much about the political environment or where an election a year away is headed," said the Cook Political Report's Jennifer E. Duffy.
"All four races this year were and are unique," she said. "The challenge for Republicans in Kentucky is that they nominated a candidate who just isn't very likeable and the campaign has made a number of unforced errors that has further limited its ability to take on Beshear.
"Mississippi Democrats don't really have a bench and in fact aren't even running candidates for most statewide offices. And voters there are happy with the way Barbour has governed, which gives his lieutenant governor [Mr. Bryant] a boost."
Turnout in Kentucky for the Nov. 8 election is expected to be low, based on the number of absentee ballots cast.
Polls show Mr. Beshear with a lead as high as 31 percent against his Democratic opponent, state Senate President David L. Williams, with a Real Clear Politics average margin of 26 percent — a lead Cook describes as a "glide path to a second term."
A September Public Policy Polling survey shows only 39 percent of Bluegrass State voters approve of Mr. Obama's job performance, but Mr. Beshear remains popular despite a poor housing market and a jobless rate in Kentucky of 9.7 percent in September.
Still, some Republicans are confident the president's slumping ratings will drag down other Democrats.
"It's hard to find a state where he's not upside down in his approval or his image," Joanna Burgos, spokeswoman for the National Republican Campaign Committee said. "The best states to look at [for trends] are the purple states — Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida — the states that the president needs to win and both parties will be heavily invested in."
In Louisiana, Mr. Jindal, seen as a rising star in the GOP, bested nine opponents — dubbed "a ballot of nobodies" by one state political analyst — to easily win re-election.
"There were two states that became more Republican in 2010, and Louisiana is one of them," Ms. Duffy said. "Jindal is also popular. The combination made for a very difficult road for Democrats, both in recruiting a credible challenger, which they didn't, and giving Jindal a competitive race."
Whether recent elections portend a trend in next year's elections remains unseen. After the West Virginia race, both sides claimed progress.
"Even in the most competitive circumstances, Gov. Tomblin was able to highlight his record of effectiveness," Martin O'Malley, Maryland's governor and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said.
But state Republican Party Chairman Mike Stuart had a different take: "Even though we didn't win this time, the fact this race was so close is proof positive that West Virginia is in the middle of a profound political realignment."
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