(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—If American elections were viewed in the same light as professional sports, August could safely be called the middle of the season. Now that some of the biggest primaries are over it’s pretty clear who’s making the playoffs (the fall elections) and who the contenders (well-funded outsiders) and the pretenders (hard right Tea Party candidates) really are. The press is trying to come up with the trendy pick for the fall prognosticating which house of Congress is mostly likely to fall to the anti-incumbent or pro-Republican wave that has still yet to materialize nationally. The majority of pundits are paying attention to Congress, which makes for good cable news stories but that’s not where the real action is in 2010. The governor’s races of 2010 are the most important races we’ve seen in a decade and that action is what will really dictate president Obama’s fortunes in 2012.
Governors races are the hidden gems of off year elections but they seldom get national press coverage because historically races hinge on local issues like education and roads. But not this year, with the stimulus package, unemployment insurance extensions, immigration and the impending health care reforms, governors will play a key role in implementing many of the major policies that President Obama has staked his presidency on. Governors are responsible for implementing federal policy and distributing federal funds so swings in the number of seats held by the president’s party have a huge impact on the perceived effectiveness of his national agenda. But it gets even more specific than that.
While Congress is often referred to as an incubator for presidential candidates it’s governors that produce the most effective challengers to sitting presidents. The success rate of senators who become party nominees pales in comparison to governors. The only presidential candidate to go straight from the Senate to the White House in the last 40 years was Barack Obama in ’08. However, four of the last six presidents of the United States were former governors. So if you’re looking at the “farm team” for the presidential candidates and VP nominees in 2012 governor’s races are where the action is.
The stage is set for some fairly contentious races around the country, with 37 governor’s mansions up for grabs ranging from deep red states like Georgia to deep blue states like Massachusetts. Republicans currently have to defend 17 mansions and the Democrats are protecting 20, so a simple shift of five to seven victories in one direction or another could have a huge impact on policy for the next several years.
Right now, according to political prognosticators like The Cook Political Report and The Swing State Project, the landscape is pretty treacherous for the president and the Democrats. Critical swing states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin are looking like tossups midway through the election season and even some Democratic strongholds like Pennsylvania are viewed as leaning Republican. The message is pretty clear, if the economy doesn’t improve and the president can’t wrestle the public narrative away from the angry right he’ll be travelling to a lot of hostile territory in the coming presidential election.
History says that the president’s party loses congressional seats and governorships during mid–term elections and that is the natural event that affects all presidents when the honeymoon of their first two years in office wears off. Conventional wisdom argues losing some house seats is actually good for the president, since they can contrast their activism with a do-nothing congress which helps make their case to the American people. That’s what happened with Bill Clinton, but that won’t work for Barack Obama. Clinton turned his battles with Congress into a head to head grudge match between himself and Newt Gingrich and he won. Obama’s biggest enemy is the recession and health care crisis and no matter the makeup of Congress he’s going to be blamed if he can’t manage to take command of these problems. Perhaps Obama can portray a future Republican Congress as “The Party of No” but if the administration is facing 25 lawsuits from GOP governors fighting health care reform eventually the public is going to side with their local states over the charming leaders in Washington. Right now it is political half-time and Team Obama needs to get back in the locker room to figure out some new plays and ways to put political points on the board. If they don’t they might not just lose this upcoming season but may pave the way for a new “champion” to take the White House in 2012.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)