Election Day could have a few surprises for gubernatorial hopefuls

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November 2, 2010

Having picked the easy races, some governor's contests are still up in the air.

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

A few keys states are giving some hints that an Election Day surprise could be in store. All are states that the smart money has leaning left, but the GOP wave might be enough to push candidates in these races over the top.

Connecticut, Oregon, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Vermont are all treated as blue states. At one point earlier this year, all had a competitive or leading Republican candidate. As campaigns progressed, gaps between Democratic and GOP nominees tightened. This is a normal feature is political races. Primaries weed out many candidates, difficulty in fundraising and a dearth of media attention push out third party figures, and the longer a major party name can remain competitive on his own, the more money and support will come in from his party's official organizations.

What's probably more interesting is that with both the Democratic and Republican Governors' Associations having record setting years and with moderate and conservative voters energized by the Tea Party, some of these races are still so maddeningly close.

Can Connecticut's Tom Foley capitalize on a surge in the polls?

Connecticut goes to the top of the list. Democrat Dan Malloy has enjoyed the edge all year. And then, when he should have been consolidating his lead, something changed. RealClearPolitics' average of polls gave Malloy an 11 point lead on October 20th. Double digits so late in the race is tremendous news for a candidate. Instead, his Republican challenger, Tom Foley, began to surge. Within a week, the same RCP average had Foley ahead by three points.[1]

This morning, exit polls are suggesting the surge of "late voters," those people who eschew absentee ballots and early voting to go to the polls on Election Tuesday, are breaking fiarly strongly for Foley. FiveThirtyEight cautions that such a sudden reversal in the polls is not expected, especially at the end of the campaign; the recent polls could getting results favorable to Foley due to anomalies in the survey rather than because the ground really has shifted in the Republican's favor.[2]

That question should be resolved within hours. If Foley does win, Senate candidate Linda McMahon, who has spent a fortune on her race, will get some credit for boosting the rest of Connecticut's Republicans. Ironically, with a seven point lag in the polls, McMahon may not win her own race. Foley has built a campaign around his private sector expertise in turning struggling businesses around, Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford, has plugged his own job-creation record when in office. Should the GOP seal the deal in this state, the post-mortem will be lively. Connecticut has not put a Democrat in the governor's seat since 1986, and a narrow lose for them here would be particularly stinging.

In the Northeast, two states remind America of their idiosyncratic reputations

The Republican Party's outside chance in Vermont when it comes to statewide races usually relies on Vermont's Progressive Party. Unlike most other states, Green Mountain Progressives are organized and actually hold a handful of seats in the General Assembly. This year, however, their nominee withdrew as soon as the gubernatorial primary was over, urging her supporters to back Democrat Peter Shumlin. The Democrats still has a prolonged aftermath to the Primary, when the second place finished refused to concede for more than two weeks and demanded a recount. However, Republican Brian Dubie failed to make use of chaos in the opposition party. His status as the current Lt. Gov. may also hurt him in an anti-incumbent year.

Through the early summer, the GOP actually had a double digit lead in polls, providing more evidence that such Republican favor data were an artifact of Vermont Democrats not knowing who their nominee would be. At this point, the best hope Dubie has lies in the few polls out there being wrong. Vermont has gotten almost no attention for pollsters in it gubernatorial race and that makes it difficult to assess the validity of the few that exist.

This is not the case in New Hampshire, when incumbent John Lynch and John Stephen are duking it out. Lynch has approval ratings in the 40's and is seeking his fourth term; that makes him an incumbent among incumbents. He leads in most models by seven or eight points, but those predictions are based on assumptions about voter turnout that favor his supporters. If those models are wrong, then Stephen could see unexpected returns. It's his best hope as polls have had Lynch steadily ahead.

When no one was watching, Hawaii turned into a horse race

Democrat Neil Abercrombie probably wishes he could go back in time before the primaries. Hawaii is one of the latest primaries in America and was, in fact, the final gubernatorial primary of 2010. Before the September 18th contest, which was contested on both the Democratic and GOP sides, Abercrombie, the presumptive nominee all along, enjoyed double-digits advantages. In August, when it looked like a clear win for the Dems, race watchers turned their attention elsewhere. Abercrombie led the likely GOP choice, Duke Aiona, by 12 points and was touting hs connections to Hawaiian-raised President Obama at every opportunity. Despite currently holding the governor's seat, Republicans had not signalled that they intended to make retaining it a priority.

By early October, when pollsters took a fresh look, Abercromie's lead over Aiona, who indeed had won the GOP primary, was down to two points.[3][4] The Democrat has never actually lost the lead, but being unable to get outside the margin of error in the last month means Hawaii could conceivably return a Republican to power. It is considered exceptionally difficult to poll accurately on the islands, so the paucity of voter surveys and the qualification on them is reason to stay up and watch Hawaii.

As the Hawaiian polls won't even close until 3 am in Washington, D.C., few will. But anything that happens overnight will grab some mainland headlines.

2010's most expensive race may have been money badly spent

Showing that it may be something with all of America's C-states, California and Colorado are also getting scrutiny. At this point, Meg Whitman lags in the polls by seven to eight points. Her own campaign touts internal polls and analyis showing that Jerry Brown's momentum is overstated.[5] No doubt, she has made up some of the lead that Brown picked up at the end of October. However, she was unable to get back to the dead heat the race was in this time alst month. Having spent $140 million of her own money and set a new record for the most expensive self-funded race in the nation's history, should Whitman lose, media will rush to explain why all that money wasn't enough to win the day. Still, barring seriously flawed polls, California will go to the Democrat.[6][7]

In Colorado, a long shot could become the story of the night

Most of the national attention paid to Colorado is going to the Ken Buck v. Michael Bennett Senate race. However, conservative activists and Tea Party members have fought back from seeing their gubernatorial hopes decimated to have an outside chance at winning. However, if they win it will be with American Constitution Party candidate Tom Tancredo. If Tancredo were a major party candidate who had seen such momentum and put himself within the margin of error, and if the disastrous Dan Maes were a third-party nominee, race trackers would probably be giving Tancredo a more optimistic chance.[8][9]

As it is, Tancredo belongs to a minor party and, much to their consternation, Maes is the GOP nominee. Should Democrat John Hickenlooper lose, it will be due to his choice to take it easy during the summer and early fall when his opposition appeared to have collapsed and his failure to seek out rural voters. Not only did Hickenlooper spend little time outside Denver until the end, it recently came out that he had referred to rural Coloradans as "backwards thinking" in a 2009 interview.[10] Commissioning a bus as the "Giddy-up Express" and making belated visits to the state's farming and ranching towns was probably not a smart move, but so much of the state's population is concentrated in left-leaning Denver and Boulder than he could still win and is the favorite.

Given that he didn't even declare his candidacy until the end of July and that he was initially reviled for being a vote splitter at the time, Tancredo represents the biggest potential surprise of the night.

Independent candidate could doom GOP in Minnesota

Minnesota appears primed to choose Democrat Mark Dayton. And that's got to be getting to state Republicans. Their candidate, Tom Emmer, barely trails Dayton. Recent polls have put him back by a single point.[11][12] Were it not for Indepenent Tom Horner, the race would be a fairly easy GOP victory. Horner is taking around 15%, not enough to make competitive but more than enough to torpedo Emmer...maybe. There is a slim chance that the Republican could pull off an upset.

If they do, it will likely owe to Emmer picking up unaffiliated voters and to the entire GOP operation enthusing voters who normally wouldn't vote in a midterm. Recently, The Daily Beast combed over data on registration of eligible voters and turnout for the past several decades. Minnesota came out #1 in those rankings, meaning there may not be that much territory to mine in bringing voters to the polls.[13]

Dayton and Emmer are both somewhat close to the edges of their respective parties and Horner's tactic has been to sell himself as a sensible third option to a pair of extremists. Emmer has also dealth with drunk driving allegations while Dayton's only "scandal" has been the admission of being treated for depression and alcoholism. Coming across as a flawed person who has dealt with problems might actually help Dayton, and his polling performance support that interpretation. In the wake of a likely win for Dayton, analysis will also likely point to the state's polarizing Congresswoman, Michele Bachman, as a drag on Republican hopes.

Pacific Northwest epitomizes 2010 issue of 'experience' against 'fresh faces'

Oregon's two-term Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber left office due to term limits. Evidencing his reluctance to leave the office, he's now back and seeking a third term. Oregon numbers among the states that limits consecutive terms but has no overall term limits for governors. In opposition to Kitzhaber's talk of experience and tested ability, his challenger is more used to facing off over a basketball court than a debate podium. Republican Chris Dudley spent 16 years in the NBA, retiring to Portland, where he spent most of his playing years.

Perhaps 2010 is the only year that such an outsider could be a serious challenger to a politician with state-wide name recognition. Dudley has held the lead for long stretches over the course of the election and was ahead as recently as the 25th of October.[14][15] Dudley has outraised Kitzhaber $2.6 million to $1.7 million and may capitalize on the enduring and pervasive unpopularity of incumbent Ted Kulongoski.

Kitzhaber may only have enough support for a close victory, but close still counts.


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