Why you should care

Governors exercise influence over everything from health care to taxes to kids’ schooling. Plus, they sometimes end up president.

Incumbent governors are a lot like sticks in the mud: hard to dislodge and messy when you do.

Which is why this election cycle could be one for the history books. Some 11 governors, from Maine to Alaska, are at risk of getting booted from their mansions today, a dramatic increase over par for the past two decades. And while the probability of a Senate takeover has stolen much of the press spotlight, the governor shakeup — if it comes — could have far greater repercussions, especially for those of us who live in the 11 states where imperiled governors rule.

There’s already one down. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie lost his re-election bid in the Democratic primary in August, and it wasn’t even close. Little-known state Sen. David Ige won going away, more than 30 percentage points ahead of Abercrombie. It was the first time a sitting governor had lost re-election in the primary in the Aloha State, and a particularly striking example of a governor who managed to alienate about every constituency that elected him.

Unless he pulls off an Election Day miracle, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is poised to follow Abercrombie out the door, prognosticators say. In the Republican governor’s first term, taxes have gone up and school spending has gone down, and while it’s not all his fault, he’s getting blamed by left and right alike. His loss, too, would be historic — the first incumbent governor to lose re-election in Pennsylvania.

You have one of the most sprawling, brawling gubernatorial election seasons in memory.

In another nine states, governors are fighting for their lives in races that will go down to the wire. When you add in the fact that races for the open governors seats in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Arkansas and Arizona have all turned into dogfights, you have one of the most sprawling, brawling gubernatorial election seasons in memory. The numbers bear it out. By OZY’s count, only 16 one-term governors have lost their elections since 1994. That’s an average of 1.6 per election cycle. And the highest number of tossed governors in any election cycle since then was … four.

“What we see this year is a remarkable amount of political uncertainty,” says Phil Musser, whose political consultancy, New Frontier Strategy, is working on more than half a dozen governor’s races this election cycle (Musser is also a former director of the Republican Governors Association.) Beyond voters’ general disgust with government writ large, he doesn’t see a single, united theme.

Georgia Governor candidate Jason Carter campaigns with former President Jimmy Carter, former first lady Rosalynn Carter in Columbus, Georgia.

Ga. candidate Jason Carter campaigns with his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, in Columbus, Ga.

Source Jessica McGowan/Getty

But there’s no doubt that a few hot-button issues have dragged governors into national political minefields of late. Start with Obamcare. It’s forced states to choose whether to set up their own health care exchanges and accept changes to Medicaid. Then there’s the Common Core; while the national education standards weren’t created by Obama’s White House, they’ve become associated with it. Governors have had to decide if and how to implement them.

… there’s not a lot of middle ground in these races. People are taking polar opposite positions.

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland

In other states, backlash against the incumbent is part of the pushback against governments that have swung hard to one side of the political spectrum. In Wisconsin, Kansas and Michigan, for example, the Republicans control both the state House and the governor’s mansion and they’ve been able to push through polarizing laws on labor and finances. In Illinois and Connecticut, it’s just the opposite — Democrats rule the roost, and voters blame their policies for tax increases and financial woes. “I think I think it’s especially interesting that these races are so tight because of the contrast, because there’s not a lot of middle ground in these races,” says former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat. “People are taking polar opposite positions.”

That means that if the incumbents lose in these states, residents will be in for some pendulum-swinging changes — corrections and, probably, overcorrections. Dramatic restructuring could await citizens of Maine, Colorado, Kansas et al. Tax cuts might be rolled back. Policy initiatives might be scuttled. Education funding could be overhauled.

Florida Governor Rick Scott shaking hands with his competitor Charlie Crist.

Democratic challenger and Republican former Fla. Gov. Charlie Crist (left) and Republican Fla. Gov. Rick Scott shake hands after their second debate.

Source Wilfredo Lee/Corbis

Strickland, a one-term governor who lost his re-election in 2010, says his successor has blocked almost all of the major initiatives he passed in Columbus. He’s particularly mournful about the rollback of his administration’s tough new renewable energy standards.Just a few months ago that was all frozen for the next two years; it may never come back.” His education policies? “That’s all been obliterated.”

The fallout could have national repercussions, too, because the governor’s mansion has often been a stepping stone to the White House. Some 17 U.S. presidents — more than a third — were governors before they became president, according to the Center on the American Governor, at Rutgers. If Mary Burke topples Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for instance, the 2016 Republican landscape will undergo a massive shift.

And in the place of such onetime presidential hopefuls, who knows? A new set of contenders may rise.

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