RALEIGH – For both professional and philosophical reasons, I have a state-policy fixation. I follow national and congressional politics, too, but gubernatorial and legislative races offer more allure. In describing the Republican surge of 1994, I thought it was at least as important to note the GOP’s newfound majority of governorships and historic gains in state legislatures than it was to dwell on the congressional takeover. Similarly, in describing the Democratic resurgence of 2006, I obviously believe that state-level gains were not only impressive in their own terms but also telling signs of Democratic recovery and Republican decline in basic political skills such as candidate recruitment and message formation.
For state-capital geeks, then, an immediate question presents itself: will Democrats sustain their momentum into 2007? There aren’t many elections on the schedule, but pundits sometimes focus a great deal of attention on odd-year contests – and sometimes, as was the case with the Virginia governor’s race last year, that attention is warranted.
This cycle will feature gubernatorial races in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. It’s quite possible that after Election Day 2007, the partisan balance won’t have shifted at all.
In Kentucky, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher is in trouble. Under fire for hiring practices during his first term, Fletcher has barely weathered a years-long media storm. There are few signs it will let up. His approval ratings have been mired in the 30s for more than a year. If Fletcher is nominated for re-election, it’s hard to see how he recovers from such a deficit, particularly given the list of attractive Democratic challengers.
With this inescapable reality in front of them, many state Republicans want an alternative. Although she has yet to commit to a race, and seems reluctant to do so, Anne Northrup is being solicited to run. Rep. Northrup lost her re-election bid for Congress last month, after years of winning competitive races in a Democratic-leaning district in Louisville. If she could marry her local support with a strong turnout from more Republican areas of the state, she’d present any of the potential Democratic nominees a real challenge. If Northrup doesn’t run, it’s possible that other experienced Republicans will set up. But again, any scenario for Republicans retaining the governorship in Kentucky would seem to necessitate replacing Fletcher.
In Louisiana, it’s the Democratic incumbent who is in trouble. Gov. Kathleen Blanco has also had approval ratings mired in the 30s for more than a year, never having recovered from the political damage she brought on herself during the hurricane fiasco. Her hapless performance invited a number of potential challengers from both parties to begin making noises about running, but the strongest opponent would probably be Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal, who lost the governor’s race to Blanco in 2003. Given the odd-year cycle, Jindal could run without giving up his House seat. Louisiana is an odd state, both in its political behavior and its runoff rules, so don’t count Blanco out entirely. But unless another Democrat overtakes her, this is a pick-up possibility for the GOP.
The other governorship in contention in 2007, Mississippi’s, is not really in contention. Blanco destroyed her image during Katrina, but Gov. Haley Barbour, the former national GOP chief, improved his significantly. Few expect him to be seriously challenged.
This means that if incumbents in Kentucky and Louisiana persevere and make it to the general election, they’ll likely flip their states to the other team. Offsetting outcomes. No additional momentum for Democrats or recovery for Republicans. We junkies will be watching closely, anyway.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.