Jockeying for Position

By Jim Ellis

Nov. 21, 2016 — Already, there is a lot of talk about various senators considering races for governor in their respective states, while at least one term-limited governor publicly muses about running for Senate.

With 38 governors’ races coming to the forefront in the next 24 months — two (New Jersey, Virgninia) in 2017 and 36 in 2018 — we already know that 20 of these states, due to term limits, will choose new governors.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) cannot succeed himself after four years at the state’s helm. Virginia is still the only state in the country that limits its governors to just one term. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is ineligible to seek a third term. There is a chance, should Christie obtain an appointment from the Trump Administration, that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) would ascend to the governorship and be in a position to run as an appointed incumbent, however.

In the coming even-numbered year 36 gubernatorial chairs are in-cycle. Eighteen state chief executives are barred from seeking a third term (15 Republicans; 3 Democrats), while eight GOP governors and six Democrats can run for re-election. Alaska Independent Gov. Bill Walker is also eligible for a second term.

The 2017-18 governors’ elections have federal significance because in 30 of these situations, the person winning the top state office will control the redistricting veto pen in 2021.

Republicans are at risk in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott is term-limited in perhaps what is the most critical redistricting state. The same is true in Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio where GOP governors Rick Snyder, Brian Sandoval, Susana Martinez, and John Kasich, respectively, are all ineligible to seek a third term. Democrats risk governors in the key redistricting states of Minnesota and Colorado where governors Mark Dayton and John Hickenlooper cannot succeed themselves.

Republican incumbents sure to be in difficult re-election battles from pivotal redistricting states include Govs. Bruce Rauner (IL) and Scott Walker (WI). Based upon the 2016 Pennsylvania election results, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will see real competition as well. With a 13R-5D congressional delegation, this is another state where the governor’s position becomes critical to securing as many congressional seats as possible.

We are already seeing certain office holders begin to maneuver for other offices. In Florida, the aforementioned Gov. Scott is making clear statements that he is considering a challenge to Sen. Bill Nelson (D) next year. For his part, Sen. Nelson is expressing that he is up for a tough re-election battle. But, turning 76 years old before the next election, and completing 30 years of congressional service at that time, Nelson is viewed as a retirement possibility.

Traveling north on Interstate 95, newly re-elected South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (R) is speculating about jumping into the open governor’s race. Incumbent Nikki Haley (R) is term-limited, thus forcing an open 2018 campaign. Running statewide isn’t anything new for Sen. Scott. Appointed to replace resigned Sen. Jim DeMint (R) in 2013, Scott was elected in his own right a year later, and was just re-elected to a full six-year term last week. If he ultimately runs for governor, he will run statewide three times in six years.

Nevada Democrats did very well in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton carried the state in the presidential race, Catherine Cortez Masto (D) held retiring Sen. Harry Reid’s (D) Senate seat, the party candidates converted two Republican US House seats and both houses of the state legislature. With this backdrop, Sen. Dean Heller (R) comes up for re-election in 2018. Winning his Senate seat by a scant 46-45 percent margin in 2012, Heller is also letting it be known that he is not ruling out a run for what will be an open governor’s chair in 2018, while he begins to prepare his re-election campaign.

Finally, after toying with the idea of challenging Illinois Gov. Rauner, Sen. Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D), after winning re-election to his leadership post earlier in the week, says now that he will not run for governor next year. Thus, Gov. Rauner’s toughest Democratic challenger appears to have already removed himself from the 2018 race.

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