Gubernational Elections, Campaigns, and Winning Governors

Governors continue to be at the forefront of governmental activity in the 21st century. They are in the middle of addressing the problems facing the country’s weak economy. The demands on governors to propose state budgets and keep them in balance have continued to increase greatly since the recession began as severe revenue shortfalls hit the states. This places severe limits on the states’ abilities to address many growing needs of people and businesses trying to live through such tough times. The varying political viewpoints on what and how state government should work on this continuing set of problems only makes it harder for elected leaders to achieve agreements over policy needs and governmental responsibilities.

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About the Author:
Thad Beyle is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After being an undergraduate and master’s student at Syracuse University, he received his doctorate at the University of Illinois. He spent a year in the North Carolina governor’s office in the mid-1960s, followed by two years with Terry Sanford’s “A Study of American States” project at Duke University. He also has worked with the National Governors Association in several capacities on gubernatorial transitions.

2013 Gubernatorial Politics
Two states—New Jersey and Virginia—hold gubernatorial elections in the first year of a presidential term. In New Jersey, incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Christie won his second term and he also has been busy working on his bid to be the Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential election. In Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the gubernatorial election in a state where each election is for an open seat, as the winner is term-limited and serves only a single term. One other change took place in 2013 as Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee changed his party affiliation from Independent to Democrat.

Thus the partisan control of governor’s seats changed from the 2012 post-election setting of 30 Republicans, 19 Democrats and one Independent to the 2013 post-election setting of 29 Republicans and 21 Democrats serving as governors.

Gubernatorial Elections
As seen in Table A, incumbents were eligible to seek another term in 446 of the 590 gubernatorial contests—75.6 percent—held between 1970 and 2013. In those contests, 349 sought re-election (78.25 percent), and 267 succeeded (76.5 percent). Those who were defeated were more likely to lose in the general election than in their own party primary by a 3-to-1 ratio. Since 2000, four incumbent governors lost their bid in a party primary—in 2004, Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, and Utah Gov. Olene Walker, a Republican; in 2006 Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican; and in 2010, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican. In three of these losses, the winning Republican candidate in the party primary also won the general election: In 2004, Jon Huntsman (Utah); in 2006, Sarah Palin (Alaska); and in 2010 Brian Sandoval (Nevada). Only one of these losses was tied to that party’s loss in the general election: In 2004, Missouri switched parties when Republican Matt Blunt defeated Democratic Gov. Bob Holden.

Democratic candidates held an edge in 317 of these 590 elections (53.7 percent) occurring between 1970 and 2013. In 223 of these races (37.7 percent), the results led to a party shift. Party shifts have evened out over the years so that neither of the two major parties has had an edge during the past four decades of gubernatorial elections.

Between 1970 and 1992, Democrats won 200 of the 324 races for governor (62 percent). From 1993 to 2003, the Republicans leveled the playing field by winning 85 of the 145 races for governor (59 percent). From 2004 to 2013, there was a virtual tie in the 120 races, with the Republicans winning 60 (50 percent), the Democrats winning 59 (49.2 percent) and an Independent winning a single race (0.8 percent).

In the first decade of the 21st century, many new faces filled the governor’s mansions. From 2000 to 2009, new governors won in 61 of the 118 elections (51.7 percent). Nine new governors took office after the incumbent vacated the office from 2000 to 2009.1 During the previous decade, 70 new governors were sworn into office.

In the first four years of the current decade, the considerable turnover among governors continued. In 2010, 26 new governors were elected in 37 races, and two other governors succeeded to the office upon the resignation of the incumbent to take over as one of the state’s new U.S. senators.2

Of the four gubernatorial elections held in 2011, one new governor was elected—Mississippi’s Phil Bryant, a Republican. West Virginia’s successor, Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, won a special election by a narrow 2.3-point margin to fill out former Gov. Joe Manchin’s remaining term. In the two other 2011 gubernatorial elections, both incumbents won their second terms.3 In 2012, five new governors were elected.4

In sum, in the 55 gubernatorial elections of 2010–13, 33 new governors were elected (60 percent), while 22 governors won re-election (40 percent). 

The New Governors
During the 2010–13 gubernatorial elections and resignations, new governors took several routes to the office. Eighteen new governors had previously held elected non-statewide offices. These include:

  • Seven former members of Congress: Hawaii Gov. Neal Abercrombie and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, both Democrats, and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, all Republicans.
  • Five mayors or former mayors: Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Denver, and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, Stamford—both Democrats; and Maine Gov. Paul LePage, Waterville; North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, Charlotte; and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Knoxville—all Republicans.

  • Four state legislators: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican state representative; New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Wood Hassan, a Democratic senate majority leader; plus Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, both Democratic state senate leaders.

  • Two county officials: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, district attorney; and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, county CEO—both Republicans.

Seven new governors followed a unique path to the governorship. These include:

  • Three former federal attorneys or judges: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney; Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a former federal district court judge; and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a former U.S. attorney—all Republicans.
  • Three businessmen: Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a health care company executive, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist in computers—both Republicans; and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a diverse businessman and a

  • One doctor: Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a dermatologist and a Republican.

Two new governors have a family heritage tied to the office, as their fathers also served as the state’s top executive. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is the son of Mario Cuomo, who was elected in 1982, 1986 and 1990. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee is the son of John Chafee, who was elected in 1962, 1964 and 1966. All are Democrats.

In the past 480 gubernatorial races between 1977 and 2013, candidates held a variety of political office prior to seeking the governor’s office. Among the candidates were 118 lieutenant governors (33 won), 105 attorneys general (30 won), 35 secretaries of state (eight won), 29 state treasurers (eight won) and 19 state auditors or comptrollers (three won). Looking at these numbers from a bettor’s point of view, the odds of a lieutenant governor being elected governor stand at 3.6–1; an attorney general at 3.5–1; a secretary of state at 4.1–1; a state treasurer at 3.6–1; and a state auditor or comptroller at 6.3–1.

One other unique aspect about the current governors are the five women serving in 2014, just one less than were serving in 2010–12. This decrease was due to two women leaving the office at the end of their terms in 2012 and only one female governor being elected in 2012.5 Three of these women were elected in 2010 to their first term.6 And in Arizona in 2009, Lt. Gov. Jan Brewer succeeded to the office when incumbent Gov. Janet Napolitano resigned
to join newly elected President Barack Obama’s cabinet as U.S. secretary of Homeland Security. Six other women were major party candidates in the 2010 races, but they did not win.7

Looking at Table D, three distinct phases can be seen. The first phase prior to 1920 saw no female governors. The second phase from 1924 to 1966 saw three wives or former first ladies elected to office. The third phase, 1970 to 2013, provides a list of 33 women who have succeeded or been elected to serve as governors in 24 different states. Women became more of a part of the gubernatorial scene from 2004 to 2013. Thirty women ran for governor either as a major party candidate or an incumbent seeking another term, with 15 of them winning (50 percent). 

Cost of Gubernatorial Elections
Table B presents data on the total cost of gubernatorial elections from 1977 to 2013 and reveals two very clear patterns. The first pattern is the rhythm of gubernatorial elections in each four-year cycle. In the odd year following a presidential election year, only two states—New Jersey and Virginia—elect their governors. In the midyear between presidential elections, 36 states hold their elections. In the year before presidential elections, only three states—
Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi—hold their elections. And during a presidential election year, 11 states hold their elections.

The second pattern is the consistent growth in the amount of money spent in gubernatorial campaigns during the four-decade period considered, with only a few drops between comparable years in the cycles. These declines in spending usually were tied to relatively uncontested races when an incumbent was successful in his or her re-election bid.

  • Spending dropped from $132 million in 2005, to $93 million in 2009, and to $84.7 million in 2013. This probably signaled the impact of the recession on the amount of money available or needed over these three years. Other reasons could account for this slight drop. In 2005, both elections in New Jersey and Virginia were open seat races in which Democrats won. In 2009, the Virginia race was for an open seat race and the New Jersey race saw an incumbent lose a bid for second term; Republicans won both races. In 2013, one race was for an open seat and the other saw an incumbent win a second term—a split party outcome with a Republican in New Jersey and a Democrat in Virginia. And in 2005, 22 candidates ran in these two elections; then in 2009 and 2013, 13 candidates ran in these elections.

  • The amount of money spent in the most recent mid-presidential term races has increased dramatically. In 2002, the amount spent in the 36 races was slightly more than $841 million. In 2006, the total amount spent in the 36 races was down to $727.6 million. In 2010, the total amount spent in the 37 races rose to more than $920 million.
  • The amount spent in presidential election year races also has been increasing over the past few cycles. In 2004, the amount spent in the 11 races was $112.6 million; in 2008 it rose to $118.9 million. In 2012, there was a bigger bump to $144 million. The expensive Wisconsin special recall and replacement election was included in the 2012 figures, in which $35.06 million was spent.

  • In the 2010 California gubernatorial election that saw Jerry Brown return as governor, the amount spent by the candidates hit a record high of $219.8 million. This was due in large part to the Republican candidacy of Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, who spent $159 million in her unsuccessful race against Brown. Whitman’s spending accounted for 72.3 percent of the total spent by candidates in that race. Brown spent $36.3 million, which was 16.5 percent of total. Between the two of them, 88.8 percent of the money spent in this most expensive race was by their campaigns.

The 2013–16 Cycle Results
The second year of this next four-year cycle—2014—includes 36 gubernatorial elections. Three current governors are in their second terms and cannot seek another as they are term-limited: Democrats Mike Beebe of Arkansas and Martin O’Malley of Maryland, and Republican Dave Heineman of Nebraska. Two other governors have decided not to seek another term: Democrat Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Republican Rick Perry of Texas. Thus there will be five open seat races and 31 races with an incumbent seeking another term. 

1 Five of these new governors succeeded governors who resigned upon moving on to a new responsibility before the end of their elected term: Alaska (2009), Arizona (2009), Kansas (2009), Nebraska (2005), Texas (2000); four
others succeeded due to the incumbents being removed from office in California (2003) and Illinois (2009), or the incumbent governor resigned to avoid efforts to remove them due to certain activities they had performed while
governor in New Jersey (2010) and New York (2008).
2 In North Dakota, Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) succeeded outgoing Gov. John Hoeven (R) who was elected to the U.S. Senate in the 2010 election. In West Virginia, state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin (D) succeeded outgoing Gov. Joe Manchin (D), who was elected to fill the remaining years of deceased U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd’s seat.
3 Steve Beshear (D) in Kentucky and Bobby Jindal (R) in Louisiana.
4 2012 new governors elected in Indiana—Mike Pence (R); Montana—Steve Bullock (D); New Hampshire—Maggie Wood Hassan (D); North Carolina—Pat McCrory (R) and Washington—Jay Inslee (D).
5 The two women leaving office were Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), term-limited after winning in 2004 and 2008, and North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue (D), deciding not to seek a second term after winning in 2008.
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Wood Hassan (D) was elected in 2012.
6 They were: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallon and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley—all Republicans.
7 In California, Meg Whitman (R); in Florida, Alex Sink (D); in Maine, Libby Mitchell (D); in New Mexico, Diane Denish (D); in Oklahoma, Jari Adkins (D); and in Wyoming, Leslie Peterson (D).