At the beginning of 2013, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a big electoral target on his back. He was the Republican leader of a blue state, one where a host of hot-button issues, from gay marriage to the minimum wage, were coming to prominence. And even at the start of the year, Christie was widely assumed to be gearing up for a national campaign. Even if Democrats couldn’t beat him, it was widely assumed they would want to make sure he entered the national stage wounded, forced to explain policy positions he took during the campaign that wouldn’t play outside his liberal state.
Instead, high-profile Democrat after high-profile Democrat took a pass, leaving only Barbara Buono, a little-known state senator, to carry the party’s mantle in November. Vastly underfunded and largely ignored by national Democrats, Buono was crushed by 22 points on Election Day.
Now, with the 2014 midterms around the corner, a host of Republican governors with national aspirations in blue to purple states are up for reelection. If they win, they could easily contend for the 2016 presidential contest or at least find themselves on a vice presidential short list.
But as campaigns get under way in states such as Iowa, Nevada, and New Mexico, Republican governors appear headed toward reelection over nothing but the most token opposition.
In Nevada, which Barack Obama won by 12 points in 2008 and six points in 2012, Gov. Brian Sandova looks poised to cruise to reelection.
“There is no gubernatorial race in Nevada,” said Jon Ralston, a local political guru who runs a website devoted to state politics. “There will not be a gubernatorial race in Nevada. The Democrats have nobody who can beat the governor, and they hardly have anybody who can actually run.”
Since winning election in 2010, Sandoval’s approval rating has hovered consistently near 60 percent, and he has hewed to the center, embracing the Affordable Care Act, pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, and largely avoiding fights on social issues such as abortion.
Sandoval’s moderate stances may make him unfit for a Republican presidential primary, but he is widely believed to be taking a serious look at a 2016 run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Majority Leader Harry Reid. Once thought likely to retire at the end of his term, Reid has mused publicly about running again.
According to Ralston, despite a deep bench that includes Democrats in the offices of secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, and controller, the party machinery is geared not toward defeating Sandoval but toward winning the lieutenant governor’s race. The Democratic thinking appears to be that Sandoval will be less likely to give up his spot in the governor’s mansion if a Democrat is waiting to replace him, and Reid, should he choose to run, will have an easier time of it.
New Mexico “is not purple. It is deep blue. Romney didn’t even challenge here,” Monahan said. “If this is supposedly a swing state, where is the challenge?”
So far, none of the statewide office holders have announced a challenge to Sandoval, and the only Democrat to jump into the race is Chris Hyepock, a 35-year-old assistant slot manager at JW Marriott Las Vegas Resort & Spa who has never held elective office.
“The powers that be made a decision early on that Sandoval is not going to be beaten,” said Ralston.
Two states over, in New Mexico, Democrats are facing a similar landscape. For much of the past year, the only declared candidate against Gov. Susana Martinez has been Gary King, the state’s attorney general. His tenure as New Mexico’s law enforcement chief has been checkered, and in 2011 he faced numerous calls to step down in the wake of a series of alleged scandals. More recently, a few state lawmakers have dipped their toe in the race, but Democrats in the Land of Enchantment are not confident of their chances against Martinez, whose status as the first female Hispanic governor in the nation automatically puts her on the short list of potential presidential candidates.
“No one is exciting anyone yet,” said Joe Monahan, who runs a well-read blog on New Mexico politics, of the Democrats running for the seat.
“There are five candidates out there, but none of them have taken hold or are being touted in Democratic political circles as an answer to Martinez,” he said. “There is just not a whole lot of fire in the belly.”
Martinez, Monahan said, could be vulnerable. The state’s economy has yet to rebound, and the governor has had only incremental success moving her agenda through the legislature. And though President Bush narrowly carried New Mexico in 2004, the state has largely stayed in the Democratic column at the national level since, voting twice for Obama by comfortable margins. Both senators are Democrats, as are two of New Mexico’s three members of the House of Representatives.
“This state is not purple. It is deep blue. Romney didn’t even challenge here,” Monahan said. “If this is supposedly a swing state, where is the challenge?”
Beating an incumbent governor is necessarily difficult, regardless of the state. In 2010, when 37 statehouses were up for grabs and Tea Party fever was sweeping the nation, Republicans took 12 governorships held by Democrats, ousting incumbents in Ohio and Iowa. This time, Democrats have some real opportunities to steal a couple of seats back. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett trails all his Democratic challengers, and in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage remains deeply unpopular. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has mostly shed his Tea Party past as he prepares to face former governor Charlie Crist, and Democrats think they have an even chance of knocking off Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan.
But the holes in the Democratic slate remain glaring, heightening Democratic concerns that the party may need to play defense in states it was counting on in 2016.
Take Iowa, one of the swingiest of swing states, where Terry Branstad, himself a four-term governor in the 1980s and ’90s, returned in 2010 to beat a Democratic incumbent. One Democrat has already dropped out, and another, a state lawmaker, is considered a long shot against Branstad.
According to David Yepsen, an Iowa political guru and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, many Iowans believe that the governor has been in the job too long.
But Yepsen added that one would be hard-pressed to find “Democrats fired up about Obama, either.”
And without a serious candidate, it won’t much matter.
“You can’t beat somebody with nothing.”