Gubernatorial primaries wind down, with big implications for November

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September 15, 2010

By Eileen McGuire Mahony

For the past eight months, the 37 states set to elect governors in 2010 have stretched out the primary season. After yesterday's seven-state multi-primary day, only a single state remains undecided. Hawaii will hold primary elections this coming Saturday. An open seat, all indications are that the state will be a Democratic pick-up.

Back on the mainland, there is no longer any need to guess at nominees. Voters in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin decided on candidates yesterday, and the day held at least one major upset in a gubernatorial race.

In Maryland, incumbent Democrat Martin O'Malley easily crushed his primary opposition. For the GOP, the victor's margin was only slightly smaller. Former Governor Bob Ehrlich, the only Republican Maryland has elected to the office in decades, wants his old job back. He faced a Tea Party candidate, Brian Murphy. Sarah Palin's endorsement notwithstanding, Murphy's status as a political newcomer in a race dominated by men who had run and won the same contest before was his downfall.

Ehrlich won the GOP nomination with some 80% of the vote. He and O'Malley are now locked in a race that looks to be a deadheat. While the Tea Party's touch may not have spread to the Old Line State, it is entirely plausible that Maryland, a staunch blue state in Presidential years and one of the Union's more left-leaning bastions, could still elect a Republican.

Just up the coast came the day's real surprise. New York's Republicans probably had a better chance to win the governorship this year than they have seen in an era. At their spring convention, they named former Congressman Rick Lazio to carry the banner. That day, a wealthy businessman from Buffalo was denied a place on the ballot and the state's GOP establishment likely thought they'd seen the last of Carl Paladino.

Instead, Paladino gathered the requisite 30,000 signatures and petitioned his way onto the ballot. Despite taking on a breakneck schedule of fundraising and appearances that Lazio never matched, New York Republicans didn't take Paladino as a serious threat until the last minute. Yesterday morning, there was speculation that Paladino might just eke out a narrow victory or give Lazio the scare of his political life. By early evening, the race was called and Paladino had indeed won - by a two-to-one margin.

He goes on to face the Democrat's Andrew Cuomo, who won nomination without going through a primary, in a race widely expected to go to the Democrats. New York's GOP is less-than-enthused at having Paladino on the ticket. He has already had a few gaffes related to allegedly forwarding questionable emails and his behavior on the campaign trail so far has GOP leadership anxious that he will prove to be unpredictable and prone to off-the-cuff remarks that may damage the campaign.

Next door, in Massachusetts, primary day was far less exciting for the state's would-be governors. Incumbent Deval Patrick (D), Republican challenger Charlie Baker, and Tim Cahill, a former Democrat running as an Independent, were all without intra-party opposition. The real story in Massachusetts is Gov. Patrick's vulnerability.

With high negative perception among voters and a capsizing economy to explain, he would likely be in grave danger of losing his seat to Baker, were Cahill not in the race. Baker may still have an outside shot and his performance in debates and on the campaign trail could be the key.

Rhode Island's real maneuvering and jockeying went on before primary day. On the Democratic side, Patrick Lynch and Frank Caprio were sparring, though there was no doubt the former was falling behind on fundraising and polling. By the time the state's Democratic party endorsed Caprio and openly stated they didn't see Lynch as an electable candidate, the writing was on the wall. In July, Lynch left the race and backed Caprio, clearing the Democratic field.

Caprio needed the break, as Lincoln Chafee, the former Republican U.S. Senator, is running as an Independent and was considered a likely winner before the race dynamics changed in Caprio's favor. While Republicans currently hold the governor's seat, incumbent Donald L. Carcieri is term-limited and won a narrow re-election in 2006.

Democrats see this as an ideal year to retake the seat and neither Republican competing for their party's nod was a terribly strong candidate against either Caprio or Chafee. Former state Representative Victor Moffitt faced businessman John Robataille in the primary. As expected, Robataille won handily, but having the GOP nomination settled is expected to do little to change the fact that this race is between the Democrat and the Independent.

New Hampshire, meanwhile yielded no surprises. John H. Lynch (D), seeking his second term as governor, won the Democratic primary with nearly 90% of the vote. The Republicans chose John Stephen, an attorney with a long history serving in appointed positions in New Hampshire government. He beat out Republican activist Karen Testerman, businessman Jack Kimball, and two-term state Representative Frank Emiro. Barring a major shift in the coming weeks, New Hampshireites are expected to return Lynch to office.

Finally, in Wisconsin, primary day meant the end to the protracted battle between Scott Walker and Mark Neumann for the Republican nomination. Neumann served a single term in the U.S. House before unsuccessfully challenging Russ Feingold for the U.S. Senate seat and was perceived as the more moderate candidate. Scott Walker has served as Milwaukee's County Executive since 2002. In May, Walker picked up the state GOP's endorsement and began to pull away from Neumann steadily in polls. To no one's real surprise, he won yesterday's primary by a 17 point margin.

Walker now faces Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who had negligible primary opposition of his own. Walker polls favorably against Barrett and is leading the field for now, but major race watchers have yet to move Wisconsin out of the "toss-up" column.

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