Three Great Governor's Races

  • Share
  • Read Later
State elections held a year before the next Presidential contest mean different things to different people. To politicians and pundits, these off-year races are an early hint of what might happen next Fall when the White House is on the line. To most voters — well, most voters don’t realize there are elections going on. Don’t be surprised when the talking heads hit the airwaves after polls close on Nov. 4 and declare that the results provide a possible forecast for next year, and don’t take them too seriously. In the three races for governor, Republicans will probably win two, and they might even sweep. While none of these states can be called a bellwether of national politics, the races do say some interesting things about American politics today:

Mississippi: The Nasty Race

This is the nastiest race in the country. Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is running for a second term after winning his first in 1999 by only 8,343 votes — or 1.1%. In four years, Musgrove has scored some victories, raising teacher pay and beginning a program to put a computer on every desk in every classroom. He’s also presided over a miserable economy, horrible budget struggles and bitter fights over tort reform and taking the Confederate stars and bars off the state flag. His opponent is Haley Barbour, one of Washington’s most successful lobbyists and the former Republican National Committee chairman. Barbour last ran for office in Mississippi in 1982. The state was a lot more Democratic then, and he got stomped. Two decades later, this is solid GOP territory.

Barbour’s attacking Musgrove for the poor state of the economy — which has lost a net 37,000 job in recent years. Musgrove’s fought back by accusing Barbour of working for the special interests who have put the economy in such bad shape. The race has taken a personal tone — nothing new in Mississippi. Musgrove ads have accused Barbour of lobbying to help “tobacco companies poison our kids.” In a debate, Barbour responded, “Be a man and say that to my face.” Barbour also gave Musgrove’s ex-wife a front row seat at one of the debates.

The latest polls show Musgrove down by five points. Barbour, despite two decades in D.C. has a down-home charm that’s proving appealing. And Musgrove is going to have a hard time getting past a bad news economy.

Kentucky: Sex, Lies and Politics

When Bush won Kentucky in 2000, some observers pointed to the state’s long history of backing Democrats and called it a surprise. Not hardly. A closer look at the numbers shows this state has been trending Republican for more than a decade now. Bill Clinton only won reelection here by 1%, carried by strong urban turnout in Louisville and Lexington. His numbers in the rest of the state were awful.

That’s bad news for Attorney General Ben Chandler, the Dem trying to keep the governor’s office in the party. Kentucky hasn’t had a Republican governor in 32 years, but the numbers aren’t looking good for Chandler — in the latest AP poll, he’s down by 9 points to Republican Congressman Ernie Fletcher. And Chandler is really fighting two opponents: Fletcher and the current governor, Democrat Paul Patton, who admitted last September that he had been having a long affair with businesswoman Tina Connor. Soon afterward, Connor accused Patton of retaliating for their breakup by starting an investigation of her nursing home company.

Chandler’s tried to fight off the stench of scandal by indicting members of Patton’s staff for campaign finance infractions. Patton simply pardoned them. Fletcher’s been happy to link Chandler to Patton. So Chandler’s been linking Fletcher to Bush, arguing that the Bush economy is what’s really ailing Kentucky. It’s not enough. Fletcher should have no problems on election day.

Louisiana: Dead Heat

Bush is visiting Kentucky and Mississippi on the Saturday before election day to stump for Fletcher and Barbour. Just to be different, Louisiana won't hold its vote until Nov. 15. But Louisiana’s Republican nominee, Bobby Jindal, has asked Bush to skip his state. Jindal doesn’t want to turn off any split voters in what’s turned into a dead heat. Jindal, the 32 year-old former state chief of health services, and Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco were the top two finishers in an October primary. The latest poll puts both at about 42%.

The son of Indian immigrants and the choice of popular current Gov. Mike Foster, Jindal has surprised everyone with his success. But Blanco is a conservative Democrat pulling in both the support of her fellow Catholic Cajuns and loyally Democratic black voters. Yet it’s black voters who could put Jindal over the top. He’s currently polling at about 11% among blacks — not huge, but far better than Republicans usually do. New Orleans’ Mayor Ray Nagin, a moderate Democrat and a black businessman with huge popularity in the city, has yet to endorse a candidate. If he throws his weight behind Jindal, it could earn the Republican just enough votes to win the race. Would that be a big surprise? Yes, but so is everything that happens in that state.

Do any of these races offer lessons to the President? Well, one is when the economy is hurting, the party in power suffers. But Bush won all three of these states in 2000, and will probably win them again. He’s got other states to worry about.