Gubernatorial Elections, Campaign Costs, and Winning Governors

Governors continue to be in 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 during the ongoing recession as severe revenue shortfalls have hit the states. This places severe limits on the states’ abilities to address the 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. 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.

2012 Gubernatorial Politics
Eleven states hold gubernatorial elections in the final year of a four-year presidential term.1 In 2012, they were joined by a 12th state—Wisconsin—which held a special recall and replacement election for Gov. Scott Walker. A total of 900,939 registered voters signed petitions to hold a recall election for Walker, who was first elected in 2010.
The 2012 gubernatorial elections kicked off May 8 with the Wisconsin Republican primary, which Walker won by slightly more than 97 percent of the votes cast. The Democratic primary election was captured by former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who won 58.1 percent of the votes cast as he defeated four other Democratic candidates. In the June 5 recall and replacement election, Walker won by getting 53.08 percent of the votes cast—a 6.8-point margin of victory over Barrett.
In the other 11 gubernatorial elections held in 2012, six were won by the incumbents: Delaware’s Jack Markell, Missouri’s Jay Nixon, North Dakota’s Jack Dalrymple, Utah’s Gary Herbert, Vermont’s Peter Shumlin and West Virginia’s Earl Ray Tomblin. Although she was eligible to seek a second term, North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue decided not to seek a second term. That election was won by Republican Pat McCrory, resulting in a party shift in North Carolina. In the other four open races, although a new governor was elected, no party changes occurred. Montana, New Hampshire and Washington remained Democratic and Indiana remained Republican.
The partisan control of governors’ seats changed from the post-2011 election setting of 29 Republicans / 20 Democrats / one Independent, to the post-2012 election setting of 30 Republicans / 19 Democrats / one Independent serving as governors.
Gubernatorial Elections

  Download in PDF: "Table A: Gubernatorial Elections: 1970-2012"

As seen in Table A, incumbents were eligible to seek another term in 445 of the 588 gubernatorial contests—76 percent—held between 1970 and 2012. In those contests, 348 incumbents sought re-election (78.2 percent), and 266 succeeded (76.4 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, there have been four incumbent governors who lost their bid for another term in a party primary—in 2004, Missouri Gov. Bob Holden (D) and Utah Gov. Olene Walker (R); in 2006, Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R); and in 2010, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R). 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 primary losses was tied to that party’s loss in the general election: in 2004—Missouri went from Gov. Bob Holden (D) to Matt Blunt (R) who won and this led to a party switch. 

Democratic candidates held a winning edge in 316 of the 588 elections (53.7 percent) occurring between 1970 and 2012. In 223 of these races (37.9 percent), the results led to a party shift; in 2012, the shift occurred in North Carolina from Democratic to Republican. Party shifts have evened out over the years so that neither of the two major parties has an edge in 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, Republicans leveled the playing field by winning 85 of the 145 races for governor (59 percent). From 2004 to 2012, there was a virtual tie between which party won the 118 races, with the Republicans winning 59 (50 percent), Democrats winning 58 (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 governor’s mansions. From 2000 to 2009, new governors were voted in in 118 elections (51.7 percent). Nine new governors took office upon the incumbent vacating the office from 2000 to 2009.2 During the previous decade, 70 new governors were sworn into office.
In the first three years of the current decade, 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.3
Of the four gubernatorial elections held in 2011, one new governor was elected—Mississippi’s Phil Bryant. West Virginia’s successor 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.4 In 2012, five new governors were elected.5 
In sum, in the 53 governors’ elections of 2010–12, 32 new governors were elected (60.4 percent), while 21 incumbent governors won re-election (39.6 percent).
The New Governors
During the 2009–12 gubernatorial elections and resignations, new governors took several routes to the office. Twenty-one previously had held an elective office. These include:
  • Seven lieutenant governors: Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, all Republicans; and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who served as lieutenant governor from 1983 to 1987, both Democrats;
  • Six attorneys general: California Gov. Jerry Brown, who also was elected as governor in 1974 and 1978, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo—all Democrats; and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Virginia Gov. Robert McDonald—both Republicans;
  • Two former governors in addition to Jerry Brown: Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, elected in 1994 and 1998, 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 Gov. Janet Napolitano 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; and
  • One state treasurer: Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Democrat.
Fourteen new governors previously had 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; and
  • 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; and
  • One doctor: Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a dermatologist, Republican.
Two of these 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 former Gov. Mario Cuomo, elected in 1982, 1986 and 1990. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee is the son of former Gov. John Chafee, who was elected in 1962, 1964 and 1966. 
In the 478 gubernatorial races between 1977 and 2012—the last elected political step taken prior to this gubernatorial election—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-to-1; an attorney general at 3.5-to-1; a secretary of state at 4.4-to-1; a state treasurer at 3.6-to-1; and a state auditor or comptroller stands at 6.3-to-1.
One other unique aspect about the current governors are the five women serving in 2013, just one less than were serving in 2010–12. This decrease was due to two women leaving office at the end of their terms in 2012 and only one new female governor being elected in 2012.6 Three of these women were elected governors in 2010 to their first term.7 As noted above, a fourth was elected to her first term in 2012.8 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. Six other women were major party candidates in the 2010 races, but they did not win.9
Looking at Table D, three distinct phases can be seen. The first phase prior to 1920 saw no women governors. The second phase from 1924 to 1966 saw three wives or former first ladies elected to office. The third phase, 1970 to 2012, provides a list of 33 women who have succeeded or been elected to serve as governors in 22 different states. Women became more of a part of the gubernatorial scene from 2004 to 2012. 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

  Download in PDF: "Table B: "Total Cost of Gubernatorial Elections: 1972-2012 (in thousands of dollars)"

  Download in PDF: "Table C: Cost of gubernatorial Campaigns, Most recent elections, 2009–2012"

Table B presents data on the total cost of gubernatorial elections from 1977 to 2012 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 hold their elections—New Jersey and Virginia. In the mid-year between presidential elections, 36 states hold their elections. In the year before a presidential election, only three states hold their elections—Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. 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, with only a few drops between comparable years in the cycles. These drops usually were tied to relatively uncontested races when an incumbent was successful in his or her re-election bid.
  • The recent drop in the amount spent between the 2005 and 2009 races in New Jersey and Virginia probably signaled the impact of the Great Recession on how much money was available for these elections. Other reasons could account for this slight drop. In 2005, both elections were open seat races in which Democrats won. In 2009, one election was an open seat race and the other saw an incumbent lose a bid for a second term; Republicans won both races.
  • The amount of money spent in the most recent mid-presidential term races increased dramatically. In 2002, the total amount spent was slightly more than $841 million. In 2006, the total amount spent was down to $727.7 million. In 2010, it rose to more than $920 million.
  • The amounts spent in presidential election year governors’ races also have been increasing over the past few cycles. In 2004, the total amount spent was $112.8 million and in 2008, it rose to $118.9 million. In 2012, there was a bigger bump up to $144 million. Included in the 2012 figure was the expensive Wisconsin special recall and replacement election, in which $35.06 million was spent.
  • In the 2010 California 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 all candidates in that race. Brown spent $36.3 million, which was 16.5 percent of the total spent. Between the two of them, 88.8 percent of the money spent in this most expensive race was by their campaigns.

The 2009–12 Cycle Results
We are now finished through the recent four-year cycle. In the 55 races held from 2009 to 2012, we saw 34 states elect new governors and five other states gain successor governors: North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin both were elected to U.S. Senate seats; Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano were appointed by President Obama to cabinet positions; and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached.
In 2013, two states—New Jersey and Virginia—will hold gubernatorial elections; both currently have Republican governors. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is term-limited and unable to run for re-election. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been involved in presidential politics, aiming at the 2016 Presidential race. So, there will be at least one new governor elected in the 2013 elections
  Download in PDF: "Table D: Women Governors in States"
1. These 11 states with regular gubernatorial elections in the final year of a presidential term are: Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.
2. 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 problems the incumbents had, and were 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 governors in New Jersey (2010) and New York (2008).
3. 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 appointed himself to fill the remaining years of deceased U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd’s term.
4. Steve Beshear-D in Kentucky and Bobby Jindal-R in Louisiana.
5. 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.
6. The two women governors 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.
7. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallon and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley—all Republicans.
8. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan was elected to the office in 2012.
9. 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 Petersen-D.
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