Gubernatorial Elections, Campaign Costs and Powers

Governors remain in the forefront of activity in the 21st century. While the governorship was not the stepping stone to the presidency for President Barack Obama as it was for our two previous presidents, Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton from Arkansas (1993–2001) and Republican Gov. George W. Bush from Texas (2001–2009), governors continue to be in the middle of addressing the problems facing our country’s weak economy. The demands on governors to propose state budgets and then keep them in balance have increased greatly during the current recession. Proposed and adopted budgets have fallen victim to severe revenue shortfalls in the states, which has placed severe limits on the states to address the many growing needs of people trying to live through these very tough times. Politically, this has led to political fallout from unhappy voters as they vent their anger and frustration toward elected leaders on election days.

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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. A Syracuse University A.B. and A.M., he received his Ph.D. 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, and has worked with the National Governors Association in several capacities on gubernatorial transitions.


2010 Gubernatorial Politics

The 2010 state gubernatorial elections were of considerable significance in our political system. There have been 36 gubernatorial races in the even mid-year of a presidential term eight times since 1978. Utah needed to have a special election to let its succeeding Gov. Gary Herbert fill out the remainder of his succession term. Herbert became governor in August 2009 when former Gov. Jon Huntsman was appointed as U.S. ambassador to China. This meant 37 races were held in 2010, the most gubernatorial races ever in a single year.

Twenty-three seats were open; 15 tied to term limits on incumbent governors,1 while in eight states, incumbents decided not to seek another term, although they were eligible to do so.2 Incumbent governors sought another term in 14 states; 11 governors won a new term,3 while those in three states lost their re-election bids.4

The party candidates winning in these 37 races were 23 Republicans (62.2 percent),5 13 Democrats (35.1 percent),6 and one Independent (2.7 percent).7 Democrats won six of the nine races in the Northeast,while Republicans won only two and an Independent only one. Republicans, however, dominated the remaining regions, winning seven in each of them while the Democrats won only one in the South, two in the Midwest, and four in the West.

Victory in the most recent presidential election can have a negative effect on a party’s gubernatorial races in the elections in the two following years. After the election of Democrat Barack Obama as president in 2008, Democrats won only 13 of the 39 races in 2009 and 2010 (33.3 percent). This compares to the 28.9 percent Democratic wins in the two election years following the election of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, and the 28.9 percent Democratic wins in the two election years following the re-election of President Clinton in 1996. This also compares to the 42.1 percent Republican wins in the two election years following Republican George W. Bush’s re-election win in 2004. However, the initial election of Republican George W. Bush in 2000 did not hurt his party’s candidates in the next two years, as they won 57.9 percent of those races.

The political makeup from 2010—with 26 Democratic and 24 Republican governors—shifted in 2011 to 29 Republicans, 20 Democrats and one Independent serving as governors.8 These 2010 races ranged from those in which the winner won by 10 or more points—21 states (57 percent), Republicans in 15 states, Democrats in six states;9 to those in which the winner won by between five and 10 points—six states (16 percent), Republicans in four states, Democrats in two states;10 to those who won by less than five points—10 states (27 percent), Republicans in four states, Democrats in five states, and an Independent in one state.11

Gubernatorial Elections

As seen in Table A, incumbents were eligible to seek another term in 434 of the 572 gubernatorial contests held between 1970 and 2010 (75.9 percent). In those contests, 338 eligible incumbents sought re-election (77.9 percent), and 256 of them succeeded (75.7 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. In the 2010, Gov. Jim Gibbons, R-Nevada, was defeated in his primary, the first such situation for an incumbent seeking re-election since 1994.

  Download Table A: "Gubernatorial Elections: 1970–2010"

Democratic candidates held a winning edge in the 572 elections held between 1970 and 2010 (53.5 percent). In 222 of the races (38.8 percent), the results led to a party shift. But these party shifts have evened out over the years so that neither of the two major parties has an edge in the four decades of gubernatorial elections.

Between 1970 and 1992, Democrats won 200 of the 324 races for governor (62 percent). Then beginning in 1993 to 2003, Republicans leveled the playing field by winning 85 of the 145 races for governor (59 percent). From 2004 to 2010, there has been a virtual tie in which party has won these 102 governor’s races as Republicans won 52 races (51 percent), Democrats won 49 races (48 percent), and an Independent won a single race (1 percent).

Another factor in determining how many governors have served in the states is the number of newly elected governors who are truly new to the office and the number who are returning after complying with constitutional term limits or after holding other positions. Of new governors taking office over a decade, states dropped from a rate of 2.3 new governors per state in the 1950s to 1.9 in the 1970s and to 1.1 in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the rate began to move up a bit to 1.4 new governors per state.

In the first decade of the 21st century, 2000–2009, there were many new faces in the governor’s offices. New governors were elected in 61 of the 118 elections held between 2000 and 2009 (51.7 percent). And nine new governors succeeded to office upon the incumbent vacating the office during this period.12 So during the first few years of the previous decade, 70 new governors were sworn into office, continuing the 1.4 rate per state. In the 2010 elections, the first year of the second decade of the 21st century, 26 new governors were elected in the 37 races, and two other new governors succeeded to the chair upon the resignation of the governor in mid-November as they left to be sworn in as one of the state’s new U.S. senators.13 So, the rate of change in who sits in the governor’s chairs continues to be high as 28 new governors took office in 2011 on the basis of the 2010 elections (56 percent of all state governors).

The New Governors

Over the 2007–2010 set of gubernatorial elections and resignations, new governors took several different routes to office. Twenty-one new governors had previously held an elected statewide office.

These include:

  • Eight lieutenant governors: Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, all Republicans, and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, (who served as lieutenant governor from 1983–1987), New York Gov. David Paterson and North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, all Democrats;
  • Five attorneys general: California Gov. Jerry Brown (who also previously served as governor from 1975–1983), Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democrats, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, and Virginia Gov. Robert McDonald, Republicans;
  • Two former governors in addition to Jerry Brown: Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, elected in 1994 and 1998, a Democrat, and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, elected in 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994;
  • One secretary of state: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican who succeeded to office upon the resignation of the previous governor in 2009.
  • Three U.S. senators: Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an Independent;
  • One state treasurer: Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Democrat. Fourteen new governors had previously held elected or appointed sub-state office. These include:
  • Five former members of Congress: Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, all Republicans;
  • Four mayors or former mayors: Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Denver, and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, Stamford, both Democrats, and Maine Gov. Paul LePage, Waterville, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Knoxville, both Republicans;
  • Three state legislators: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican state representative, and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomlin, both Democratic state senate presidents;
  • Two county officials: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, district attorney, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, county CEO, both Republicans; Six new governors followed a unique path to the governorship:
  • Three former federal attorneys or judges: New Jersey Gov. Christopher 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;
  • Two businessmen: Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a health care company executive, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist in computers, both Republicans;
  • One medical doctor: Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a dermatologist, Republican.

Two of these new governors have a family heritage tied to the office as their fathers had served as governors there: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, elected in 1982, 1986 and 1990, and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee is the son of former Gov. John Chafee, elected in 1962, 1964 and 1966.

In the 462 gubernatorial races between 1977 and 2010, among the candidates were 116 lieutenant governors (32 won), 102 attorneys general (29 won), 34 secretaries of state (eight won), 29 state treasurers (eight won), and 18 state auditors or comptrollers (three won). Looking at these numbers from a bettor’s point of view, the odds of a lieutenant governor winning were 3.6–1, an attorney general winning were 3.5–1, a secretary of state winning were 4.2–1, a state treasurer winning were 4.1–1, and a state auditor or comptroller winning were 6–1.

One other unique aspect about the current governors is that six women will be serving in 2011—the same number as were serving in 2010. Three of these women were elected in 2010 to their first term,14 while three others will continue their terms won or succeeded to earlier.15 Six other women were major party candidates in the 2010 races, but were not able to win.16

Women are becoming more of a part of the gubernatorial scene as between 2004 and 2010,28 women ran for governor either as incumbents seeking another term or as a major party candidate. And 14 of them won (50 percent). There will undoubtedly be more soon. One of the incumbent women governors, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, has just been selected to be chair of the National Governors Association for the next year.

Cost of Gubernatorial Elections

Table B presents data on the total cost of gubernatorial elections from 1977 to 2009 and reveals two very clear patterns. First is the very rhythm of gubernatorial elections in each four-year cycle. In the odd year following a presidential election, only two states hold their elections; in the mid-year between presidential elections, 36 states hold their elections; in the year before a presidential election, three states hold their elections; and during a presidential election year 13—and now 11—states hold their elections.17

  Download Table B: "Total Cost of Gubernatorial Elections: 1977–2009"

The second pattern is consistent growth in the amount of money spent in these gubernatorial elections over the four-decade period with only a few drops between comparable years in a cycle. These drops were usually tied to uncontested races when an incumbent was successful in his re-election bid. The recent drop in the money spent between the 2005 and 2009 races in New Jersey and Virginia may signal the impact of our economy’s current recession on how much money is available for these elections. When the spending data on these 37 gubernatorial elections becomes available next year, we could see a confirmation of this impact on political spending.

Table C presents data on the costs of the most recent elections from 2006 through 2009. There is a great range in how much these races cost, from the 2006 race in California ($137,305,975 in 2009 dollars) to the low-cost 2008 race in Utah ($917,000). Both races saw an incumbent Republican governor win re-election—Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and Jon Huntsman Jr. in Utah.

  Download Table C: "Cost of Gubernatorial Campaigns, Most Recent Elections, 2005–2009"

The most money spent by the winning candidates in these elections were in California (just under $49 million in 2009 dollars) by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; in New York ($35.5 million) by newly elected Gov. Eliot Spitzer; in Pennsylvania ($32.6 million) by Gov. Edward Rendell; in Illinois ($29 million) by Gov. Rod Blagojevich; and in Indiana ($27.6 million) by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

The least money spent by winning candidates in these elections was in South Dakota ($314,830) by Gov. Michael Rounds; in Montana ($783,926) by Gov. Brian Schweitzer; in Utah ($822,747) by Gov. Jon Huntsman; and in Missouri (842,492) by newly elected Gov. Jay Nixon.

But looking at the amount of money spent by the candidates per general election vote, a slightly different picture evolves. In 2008, the most expensive races per vote occurred in Louisiana at $33.60 per vote and in Kentucky at $33.02 per vote. The Louisiana race was for an open seat, while the Kentucky race saw an incumbent defeated in the general election. The least expensive races per vote were held in 2008 in Missouri at 41 cents per vote and in Utah at 97 cents per vote. The Missouri race was for an open seat, while in the Utah race, an incumbent won his second term.

In Figure A, by converting the actual dollars spent each year into equivalent 2009 dollars, the cost of these elections has increased over time—with a slight decrease in the most recent years. Since 1981, the costs of each four-year cycle of elections can be compared with the previous and subsequent cycles of elections.

In 54 gubernatorial elections held from 1977 to 1980, total expenditures were $570 million in equivalent 2009 dollars. In the 52 elections 2005 to 2008—nearly three decades later— total expenditures were $1.1 billion in 2009 dollars, an increase of 99 percent.

The 2009–2012 Four-Year Cycle in Process

We are now halfway through the current four-year gubernatorial election cycle and know the results of the 2009 and 2010 election years. In these 39 races, we saw 28 states elect new governors to the office and two other states gain new leaders as their governors won a U.S. Senate seat and left office to serve there. In the upcoming two-year elections, there will be 14 gubernatorial elections, three in 2011 and 11 in 2012. At this point, we know at least three new governors will be elected in these 14 races as the current ones are term-limited in three states.18 And in other states, incumbents may decide not to seek another term or to go on to some other position of interest. The level of change these next two election years bring is unclear, but any change in the governor’s office will only add to this current cycle’s high level in new governors serving in the states.

  Download Table D: "Women Governors in the States"

  Download Table E: "2010 Governors’ Race Winners by Party and Margin"

  Download Table F: "New Governors Elected Each 4-Year Period, 1970–2010"


1Governors were term limited in AL, CA, GA, HI, ME, MI, NM, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN and WY.

2Governors not seeking another term although they were eligible to do so were in CO, CT, FL, KS, MN, NY, VT and WI.

3Governors winning another term were in AK, AZ, AR, ID, IL, MD, MA, NE, NH, TX and UT, where the succeeding governor won the ability to serve out that term.

4Governors losing their bids for another term were in IA, NV and OH.

5Republicans won in AL, AK, AZ, FL, GA, ID, IA, KS, ME, MI, NE, NV, NM, OH, OK, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, WI and WY.

6Democrats won in AR, CA, CO, CT, HI, IL, MD, MA, MN, NH, NY, OR and VT.

7An Independent won in RI.

8The additional governors serving in 2011 to those listed as winning in the 2010 elections are Republicans currently serving IN, LA, MS, NJ, ND and VA and Democrats serving currently DE, KY, MO, MT, NC, WA and WV.

9State winners by 10 or more points: R—AL, AK, AZ, GA, ID, KS, MI, NE, NV, OK, SD, TN, TX, UT and WY; D—AR, CA, CO, HI, MD and NY.

10State winners by between 5 and 10 points: R—IA, NM, PA and WI; D—MA and NH.

11State winners by less than 5 points: R—FL, ME, OH and SC; D—CT, IL, MN, OR and VT; I—RI.

12Five of these new governors succeeded governors who resigned upon moving on to a new responsibility before the end of their elected terms in Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas; four others succeeded due to problems the incumbents had and were removed from office in California and Illinois, or the incumbent resigned to avoid efforts to remove them due to certain activities they had performed while governor in New Jersey and New York.

13In 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, and in West Virginia State Senate President Earl Ray Tomlin (D) succeeded outgoing Gov. Joe Manchin (D) who also was elected to the U.S. Senate in the 2010 election.

14New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R), Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R).

15Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D).

16In 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 Petersen (D).

17In this four-decade set of election cycles, two states changed the length of their gubernatorial terms from two years to four years. This eliminated the gubernatorial elections being held during presidential election years beginning in 1988 in Arkansas and in 1996 in Rhode Island.

182011—MS; 2012—IN and MT.

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