Wins in Key Governor Races Bolster GOP's Huge Night

Wins in Key Governor Races Bolster GOP's Huge Night

By Scott Conroy - November 5, 2014

The Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate may have been the biggest story coming out of Tuesday night, but it wasn’t the only reason the GOP had to celebrate a midterm wave that rivaled the electoral triumphs of 2010.

To Republican leaders, some of Tuesday’s most gratifying victories came in the statehouses, the traditional breeding ground of successful presidential nominees.

Although they didn’t win all of the closely contested races for governor, Republican wins in the most politically significant contests -- Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, in particular -- were critical components of the GOP’s big night and will have a major impact on the political landscape going forward.

These victories will bolster the case many top Republican officials have been making: that it is GOP leadership in state capitals, rather than in Washington, D.C., that should provide the blueprint for building the party’s future.

These successes will also serve as a significant notch in the belt of a governor who was not on the ballot Tuesday: Chris Christie earned his stripes in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. New Jersey’s chief executive is now poised to begin in earnest his quest for the presidential nomination.

It was one of Christie’s potential 2016 rivals -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- who was able to exhale most deeply Tuesday, however. With his win over Democrat Mary Burke, Walker yet again proved himself to be a political survivor, who knows how to win an election in difficult circumstances.

After becoming the nation’s first ever governor to survive a recall attempt in 2012, Walker was among the Democrats’ top targets of the midterm cycle. Burke ran a strong campaign and was polling within the margin of error for most of the race, raising the prospect that Walker’s term in Madison, and his hopes of becoming president of the United States, would both come to a screeching end. 

But with his victory, Walker will be able to make the case to Republican primary voters that he was able to win in a blue state without compromising his deeply conservative principles.

Another Republican governor who can now make a compelling case for his national viability is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who trounced Democrat Ed FitzGerald by more than 30 percentage points -- a sparkling margin that Kasich will use to bolster his own resume, if he, too, decides to test the presidential waters. 

In addition to the Republican wins in Wisconsin and Ohio, the GOP was able to boast of an unlikely victory in heavily Democratic Maryland, where business executive Larry Hogan upset Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. Republicans also notched an important victory in Florida -- a third presidential swing state that, going into Tuesday, looked like it would be the toughest of the triumvirate to pull off.  

In a Sunshine State battle that had the dubious distinction of pitting perhaps two of the most disliked candidates running this cycle, GOP incumbent Rick Scott defeated Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, who previously governed Florida as a Republican between 2007 and 2011.

That campaign was marked not only by an enormous influx of money from outside groups, but was also was enriched, if one can call it that, with the passion that comes in a race featuring two candidates who share genuine contempt for each other.

One of the strangest moments of the midterm election cycle occurred at a debate last month when Scott refused for seven minutes to appear on stage after Crist positioned a fan behind his podium, in apparent violation of the debate’s rules.

Scott was widely thought to have suffered a public relations blowback from the incident. But he was able to hang on to the governorship in a tight race and will now be at the helm in Tallahassee for the 2016 general election when Republicans are likely to make Florida a central element of their strategy.

The governor races weren’t a complete triumph for Republicans, as Democrats were able to win some key contests. History was made in Pennsylvania, where Republican Tom Corbett became that state’s first incumbent governor ever to lose a re-election bid.

That race was never close, as Democratic businessman and first-time candidate Tom Wolf, who ran a strong campaign from the beginning, took advantage of his private sector background and Corbett’s unpopularity to cruise to an easy win.

In Rhode Island, Democrat Gina Raimondo also won a close race over Republican Allan Fung to become that state’s first ever female governor. But all in all, it was a great night for Republican governors in both red states and blue states alike.

In Georgia, incumbent Republican Nathan Deal defeated former President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, state Sen. Jason Carter. Deal was able to win the race outright on Tuesday, avoiding a runoff that would have been triggered had he finished with under 50 percent of the vote.

And adding insult to the injury of President Obama’s difficult night, his campaign appearance for Democrat Pat Quinn was not enough to save the Illinois incumbent in the president’s home state, as he went down to Republican Bruce Rauner.

In another surprising result, Vermont’s incumbent Democratic Gov. Pete Shumlin, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, topped Republican Scott Milne by a narrow 46.7 percent to 45 percent margin; because neither man reached the 50 percent mark plus one, the heavily Democratic state Legislature will decide the outcome in January.

Shumlin had been leading by a much larger margin in polls heading into Election Day.

In Maine, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud fell short in his attempt to make some history by becoming the nation's first openly gay governor. In a close race, Republican incumbent Paul LePage won re-election.

The Republican wave of 2014 washed over many of the country’s state capitals from coast to coast.  

If there were any lingering doubt that Tuesday was a great day for Republicans, one need only look at deep-blue Massachusetts, where Republican Charlie Baker defeated Democrat Martha Coakley to become the Bay State’s next governor.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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