Gubernatorial Elections, Campaign Costs and Winning Governors of 2014

There were many issues facing governors in 2014. Even as the stock market rebounded and state budgets grew at a moderate pace, unemployment and underemployment remained high. Public discontent with government has been indiscriminate in its focus, levied at not only politicians in Washington, but also those in state capitals. This led to political fallout from voters as they vented their anger and frustration on elected leaders on Election Day.1

  Download the Article in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

About the Authors

Thad L. 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.|

Jennifer M. Jensen is deputy provost for academic affairs and associate professor of political science at Lehigh University. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and her master’s and doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked in the U.S. House of Representatives and in governmental relations. Her most recent research focuses on governors in the intergovernmental arena.

Thirty-six states had gubernatorial elections in 2014. Midway through a presidential term is the quadrennial bumper crop of political campaigns.

Open Seat Races
Seven states had open seat gubernatorial primaries in 2014. Four of these states—Arizona, Arkansas, Maryland and Nebraska—had governors facing term limits. Three states had incumbent governors who were not term limited and did not run for re-election.

One incumbent governor who opted against a re-election campaign was Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. Patrick, a Democrat, had highs and lows during his eight years in office, but completed his second gubernatorial term with strong approval ratings and would have been competitive for a third term. While the former governor might be considering a 2016 presidential bid, Patrick declared in 2013 that he would not be a candidate in the next presidential election. Some pundits say the former U.S. assistant attorney general might be positioning himself for the U.S. attorney general post should a fellow Democrat win the White House.

Another governor who declined to run, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, had served in the U.S. Senate as a Republican and served his first gubernatorial term as an Independent, ultimately joining the Democratic Party in 2013, more than halfway through his term as governor. Lacking both popularity and party support, Chafee declined to run for a second term. Finally, Texas Republican Rick Perry announced in July 2013 that he would not run for re-election in 2014. Perry took office in December 2000, assuming the governorship when then-governor George W. Bush resigned in advance of becoming president of the United States; he was subsequently elected to full gubernatorial terms in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

An eighth state, Hawaii, had an open-seat general election when incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie lost in the Democratic primary election. 

Of these eight states, Hawaii and Rhode Island saw a Democratic candidate in 2014 succeed a Democratic predecessor. Four states saw Republicans maintain control of the governorship—Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska and Texas. 

Only two states with an open gubernatorial seat saw a partisan change with the 2014 election. Both Maryland and Massachusetts—each typically considered solidly Democratic states in presidential elections—had a Republican candidate replace an outgoing Democrat. Massachusetts saw a very tight race between Republican businessman Charlie Baker and state Attorney General Martha Coakley. Baker bested Coakley by approximately 40,000 votes out of more than 2.1 million votes cast. This was Coakley’s second time losing a statewide election that many had predicted she would win. In 2010, she was the Democratic candidate in the special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat in the U.S. Senate, but lost to Scott Brown in an upset. In Maryland, Republican businessman Larry Hogan won the seat previously held by Martin O’Malley. 

Incumbent Governors Seeking Re-election 

Incumbent governors sought to win a new term in 29 states and won in 25 states. Democratic incumbents sought another term in 10 states and won in eight states2 while two incumbents lost in Hawaii and Illinois. Republican incumbents sought another term in 19 states and won in 17 states.3

The party candidates winning these 36 races were 24 Republicans (66.7 percent),4 11 Democrats (30.6 percent)5 and one Independent (2.8 percent).6 Democrats won six of the nine races in the Northeast, while the Republicans won only three. However, Republicans dominated the remaining regions, winning seven in both the South and in the Midwest.

  Download "Table A: Gubernatorial Elections: 1970-2014" in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

Plurality Winners
While third-party candidates for governor are commonplace, most do not garner enough votes to affect the outcomes of general elections, let alone win office. In 2014, however, there were 10 races where the winner of the general election did not receive a majority of all votes cast, which speaks to the significance of third-party candidates in this election cycle.7

Nearly one-third of governors were elected or re-elected without the support of the majority of voters in their states. More governors were elected without a majority vote in 2014 than in any election in the past 100 years.8 In a few cases, third-party or unaffiliated candidates garnered enough votes that their presence on the ballot could have affected the final outcome of the election. Colorado is a case in point. Incumbent Democrat John Hickenlooper won the general election with 49.1 percent of the vote and Republican Robert Beauprez won 46.2 percent of the vote. The remaining vote was divided between a Green Party candidate, a Libertarian Party candidate, and two other candidates. A shifting of votes from these third-party candidates could have affected the outcome of the election.

An independent won in Alaska when former Valdez mayor Bill Walker—a candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010— teamed with former Juneau mayor Byron Mallett, a Democrat, to form a winning unity ticket against incumbent Republican Sean Parnell. In 2014, Mallett had been a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in his own right. When Walker dropped his Republican affiliation in August 2013, he took advantage of the fact that third party candidates have somewhat better odds in Alaska than in other states, and the fact that the Democratic Party did not field its own candidate helped him win with 48 percent of the vote. 

Recapping the Most Competitive Races 
Historically, the two major parties have had roughly equal control of American governorships over time. Democratic candidates held an edge in 330 of the 626 gubernatorial elections—or 52.7 percent—that have occurred between 1970 and 2014. In 229 of these races—36.6 percent—the outcome led to a party shift in the governor’s office. 

Party shifts have played out over the years so that neither of the two major parties has held an edge for more than 40 years in gubernatorial elections. There are cycles in these shifts; whoever wins the most recent presidential election seems to have a negative effect on their party’s gubernatorial races in elections in the following two years. 

After the election of Democrat Barack Obama as president in 2008, Democrats won only 13 of the 39 gubernatorial races in 2009 and 2010—just 33.3 percent. Following Obama winning a second term in 2012, Democrats won only 12 of the 38 governor races in 2013 and 2014—31.6 percent. 

The strong Republican showing in the 2014 gubernatorial elections likely reflected a national political mood that manifested itself on the 2014 congressional elections as well. Obama’s approval ratings hit the lowest point of his presidency as the 2014 elections loomed. Republicans had a net gain of 12 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in November, leaving Democrats with 188 congressional seats—the fewest they have controlled since 1949. Democrats also lost control of the U.S. Senate.

What is surprising about the number of Republican wins in 2014, however, is that Republicans had this strong finish even though quite a large proportion of campaigns remained close until the end. Many candidates won with very narrow margins. In fact, the gubernatorial campaigns were where the political excitement was in 2014. More than one-third of the gubernatorial races in 2014 were considered competitive—meaning, if not complete tossups, races where each candidate had a significant chance to win, even as Nov. 6 drew close. The 2014  gubernatorial elections were more competitive than their statewide election brethren, the 2014 U.S. Senate races. 

Foley—a businessman who served as ambassador to Ireland under President George W. Bush and worked previously in the U.S. departments of State and Defense—lost to Malloy by only  6,200 votes in 2010. Malloy was mayor of Stamford before his election as governor. 

  • Florida: Incumbent Rick Scott bested former governor Charlie Crist in this rematch of the 2010 gubernatorial election. This was the second time Scott beat Crist with a margin of fewer than two percentage points. Witnessing a campaign with vigorous negative attacks on both sides, voters seemed unenthusiastic about either choice. Scott accused Crist of being a political flip-flopper; Crist attacked Scott—a former health care executive— for cuts to education, for spending his own wealth on his campaigns, and for the Medicare fraud at a hospital that was part of Scott’s health care chain. 
  • Georgia: The biggest question as the 2014 election grew close was not whether Republican incumbent Nathan Deal would be the largest vote-getter in the general election—he had maintained a small but consistent lead in the polls for months—but whether he would get 50 percent of the vote. He did so, thus avoiding a runoff election to secure his next four years in office. Deal beat Democrat Jason Carter, a sitting state senator and grandson of former President (and former Georgia governor) Jimmy Carter, and Libertarian Andrew Hunt, founder and former CEO of a technology company.
  • Illinois: Incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn lost his seat to Republican business executive Bruce Rauner. Quinn was elevated to governor in 2009 when incumbent Rod Blagojevich was impeached, and then narrowly elected in his own right in 2010. The 2014 race was one of the most closely watched this season. At different points in the campaign, each candidate was ahead in the polls. With a competitive race and major media markets, this was an extremely expensive race.
  • Kansas: Incumbent Republican Sam Brownback was re-elected with 49.8 percent of the vote. State House Minority Leader Paul Davis won 46.1 percent of the vote, and Libertarian Keen Umbehr took 4 percent of the vote. Brownback, a former U.S. senator and a very conservative Republican, has been a divisive leader in a party of moderate and conservative Republicans. In his first term as governor, he enacted significant tax cuts and followed a conservative social agenda. In a surprising move, more than 100 Republican officials endorsed his Democratic opponent in July 2014, saying they could not support Brownback’s cuts in education and other services. All this made for quite a horse race, though Brownback was able to win a second term.
  • Maryland: Sitting Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown faced Republican businessman Paul Hogan for an open seat. Hogan took 51.3 percent of the vote. Tax hikes signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, gave Hogan an opening in this traditionally Democratic state. Early polls in election season indicated that Brown had a comfortable lead, and Brown was viewed as the strong favorite through much of the campaign. The national winds made it difficult for Democrats, however, and Brown’s role overseeing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act may have hurt him. 
  • Maine: Republican incumbent Paul LePage held his seat against Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, winning 48.2 percent of the vote in the general election. This was considered a competitive race in large part because LePage was more conservative than the typical Maine Republican. LePage had managed to win office when two other candidates split the Democratic vote in a competitive three-way race in 2010. Michaud was hurt in 2014 by the candidacy of Independent Eliot Cutler, who had narrowly lost to LePage in the 2010 three-way race. Urged by others to withdraw as the 2014 general election neared and it became clear that he would not win, Cutler stayed on the ballot but released his supporters from voting for him, ultimately receiving 8.4 percent of the vote.
  • Michigan: Rick Snyder won re-election over Democrat Mark Schauer, a former congressman. Snyder withstood attacks on his significant cuts to education, ultimately winning 51 percent of the vote in what most experts predicted would be a close election. Snyder had won his first gubernatorial election by a wide margin, but drew criticism for his budget cuts and for signing “right to work” legislation in 2012, which effectively banned unions from requiring workers to pay dues and substantially weakened the power of unions in the state. 
  • Rhode Island: Democrat Gina Raimondo beat Republican Allan Fung, mayor of Cranston, by five points in an election where third-party candidate Bob Healey took 21 percent of the vote.Raimondo, a former Rhodes Scholar, received national attention for her overhaul of Rhode Island’s public pension system, which was one of the most underfunded in the country. Her focus on the state’s weak economy and her fiscal management helped her get the plurality she needed to win. 
  • Vermont: In another race without a majority winner, Democratic incumbent Peter Shumlin won 46.4 percent of the vote, compared to 45.1 percent of the vote for Republican Scott Milne. Libertarian Dan Feliciano received 4.4 percent of the general election vote, and four other third-party candidates write-in candidates together drew more than 4 percent of the vote. With no majority winner, the race went to the Democratically controlled legislature, which in January elected Shumlin to his third term by a 110-69 vote. The legislature has voted for the top vote-getter in every plurality election in more than 150 years. Shumlin was also a plurality winner in his 2010 gubernatorial election. 
  • Wisconsin: Wisconsin’s electorate has deeply divided about its incumbent governor, Republican Scott Walker. Throughout his time as governor, political polls have reported very few “Don’t know/Don’t care/Refuse to answer” responses to questions about approval for Walker. Thus the campaign between Walker and his Democratic opponent Mary Burke, Madison school board member, was as much a referendum on Walker as a statement about his opponent. Walker, who was first elected governor in 2010 and who faced a contentious recall battle in 2012 following his successful effort to enact “right to work” legislation in the state, saw the same results in 2014 that he did in his previous two elections: bitterly fought but ultimately successful.

The Characteristics of the Governors 

The governors elected in the most recent cycle of gubernatorial elections—2011 through 2014—who were either holding office or facing election in November 2014, took several routes to the office.Twenty of these governors previously held elected nonstatewide offices. These include:  

  • Seven former members of Congress: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat; and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, all Republicans. § Six mayors or former mayors: Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, Valdez, an Independent; 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.
  • Five state legislators: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican state representative; Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democratic state senator; New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Wood Hassan, a Democratic senate majority leader; 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. Eight governors followed paths to the governorship that did not include political experience in the legislative or executive political arena. These include:
  • Three former federal attorneys or judges: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney; Nevada Brian Sandoval, a former federal district court judge; and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a former U.S. attorney—all Republicans. Four businessmen: Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a health care company executive; Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist in computers; Nebraska Gov. Peter Ricketts, partner in a family business (Ameritrade)—all Republicans; and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a diverse businessman, a Democrat and a former Democratic National Committee chair. 
  • ​One doctor: Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a dermatologist and a Republican.
  • In the past 516 gubernatorial races held between 1977 and 2014, candidates held a variety of statewide political offices prior to seeking the governor’s office. Among the candidates were 119 lieutenant governors (33 won); 110 attorneys general (31 won); 37 secretaries of state (eight won); 33 state treasurers (10 won); and 20 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 3.5-to-1; an attorney general at 3.6-to-1; a secretary of state at 4.6-to-1; a state treasurer at 3.3-to-1; and a state auditor or comptroller at 6.7-to-1. 

Five women won governorships in 2014. Four women won their second terms in 2014: Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire; Susana Martinez in New Mexico; Mary Fallin in Oklahoma; and Nikki Haley in South Carolina. In 2014, Gina Raimondo won her first term in Rhode Island. 

Cost of Gubernatorial Elections

Table B presents data on the total cost of gubernatorial elections from 1977 to 2014. These data show the rhythm of gubernatorial elections in each four-year cycle, a rhythm reflecting the fact that there are more states with gubernatorial races in some years than in others.

In the past few years, we have seen a disruption of what has been the consistent growth in the amount of money spent in gubernatorial elections during the four-decade period considered. Over most of this 37-year period, we have seen only a few drops between comparable years in the cycles. These declines usually were tied to relatively uncontested races when an incumbent was successful in his or her re-election bid.

The money spent on gubernatorial campaigns has been increasing, but we are seeing a shift in who is spending that money. The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission paved the way for the explosion of 527 groups, “super-PACs” which do not make contributions directly to political parties or candidates for office, and thus can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions and corporations. This has funneled campaign funding to groups such as the Democratic Governors Association, the Republican Governors Association and other groups that spend heavily on gubernatorial campaigns, and away from the  gubernatorial campaigns themselves.

  Download "Table B: Total Cost of Gubernatorial Elections: 1977–2014 (in thousands of dollars)" in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

  Download "Table C: Cost of Gubernatorial Campaigns, Most Recent Elections, 2011–2014" in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

  Download "Table D: Women Governors in the States" in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

  Download "Table E: 2011–2014 Governors’ Race Winners by Party and Margin" in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

  Download "Table F: New Governors Elected Each 4-Year Period, 1970–2014" in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

1The authors thank Aaron Luedtke for his research assistance.
2Democratic incumbent winners were in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Vermont. Two incumbent Democrats who lost their bids were in Hawaii—primary election, and Illinois— general election.
3Republican incumbent winners were in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Two incumbent Republicans who lost their bids were in Alaska —General election, and Pennsylvania—General election.
4 Republicans won in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
5Democrats won in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.
6An Independent won in Alaska.
7Races that yielded a winner with a plurality, rather than a majority, of the general election vote were in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.
8Chikshi, Niraj. 2014. “More governors have won without majority support in the 2010s than in any decade in the past century.” Washington Post Online December 10. Accessed March 10, 2015.