Monday, October 10, 2016

Deputy Disputes: 2016 Lieutenant Governor Race Ratings

Let's say all you want to do on November 8 is go and cast your vote for president. Fine, I respect that. So you go to your polling place and vote, but you find that your local secretary of state has implemented a requirement that only brown-haired people can vote. You and your red curls are disenfranchised. Should you choose to pursue a criminal complaint, your state attorney general is the one who would investigate. And pretend, for the sake of argument, that the conspiracy goes all the way up to the top, and your governor is forced to resign in disgrace. Your lieutenant governor takes over, cleans up the mess, becomes extremely popular, and—coming full circle now—is elected president next cycle as a result.

State constitutional offices are like the minor leagues of politics—where parties develop talent for higher office—but they also fulfill important roles in and of themselves as VIPs in your state capital. Like politics's own prospects guru, I cover these downballot elections closer than most. I maintain this comprehensive chart of which states have which constitutional offices, when they are up for election, and which party currently controls each. And every year, I issue Cook Political Report–esque race ratings for all the constitutional offices on the ballot. Most of these state offices are up in midterm years, but 2016 will still see a healthy number of them elected: 10 attorneys general, nine lieutenant governors (five elected separately from governors), nine treasurers, eight secretaries of state, seven auditors, five state superintendents, five insurance commissioners, two agriculture commissioners, one comptroller, one labor commissioner, and one commissioner of public lands.

This year, I'll be the only poor schmuck on the World Wide Web to handicap them all. My ratings will be published to the new "2016 Ratings" tab in the menu above, and each new set will be accompanied by an explanatory blog post. The ratings are presented in hopefully-easy-to-understand chart form, like the one below. Races are categorized on two axes: its competitiveness rating (rows) and which party currently holds the seat (columns). While columns are binary—a seat is either Democratic-held or Republican-held—rows are a spectrum, going from the most Democratic-favoring race at the top to the most GOP-leaning at the bottom. This allows you to skim down the progressively more competitive races while also seeing, at a glance, which party is playing defense where. Totals in the bottom row and rightmost column give you a summary of the national picture, either currently (bottom row) or projected after the election (rightmost column).

This post announces my debut ratings for 2016: those for lieutenant governor. Of the 50 states, 45 have lieutenant governors. Two are not popularly chosen, however, leaving 43 lieutenant-governor elections. Only nine of them are happening here in 2016, however, and four of those (Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah) are on a fused ticket with the governor (à la president and vice president). I consider those LG elections as already ranked by other handicappers' gubernatorial ratings, so that leaves five states holding freestanding lieutenant-governor elections in 2016: Delaware, Missouri, North Carolina, Vermont, and Washington.

Three of the five offices are currently held by Republicans, but Democrats have an excellent chance to pick up seats—maybe even go five for five. (It helps that four of the five seats have no incumbent.) However, it's likely to do little to dent Republicans' lieutenant-governor advantage of 30 to 12 (with one formerly Democratic vacancy) overall.

  • Delaware: Solid Democratic. The job of Delaware lieutenant governor is apparently so boring that its last occupant, Democrat Matt Denn, jumped ship in 2014 to run for attorney general. Democratic State Senator Bethany Hall-Long and Republican investment banker La Mar Gunn are therefore competing for an office that's been vacant for two years (though I'm counting it as Democratic-held in the chart above). The campaign has seen virtually no action since the competitive September primary, and Gunn hasn't even raised enough money to trigger a reporting requirement. There hasn't been any polling, but that's not going to cut it in such a blue state.
  • Missouri: Tossup. After friend of strippers Peter Kinder decided 12 years of apprenticing was enough and finally launched a (failed) bid for governor, politicians on both sides scrambled to run for this open seat. State Senator Mike Parson emerged bloodied yet victorious from an expensive Republican primary, leaving him with only $72,334 in the bank. Unfortunately for him, his Democratic opponent is Russ Carnahan, a member of a Missouri political dynasty who has seven times the cash. The Missouri Times's weekly tracking poll of Missouri has surveyed the race twice, giving one lead to each man. More instructive may be the fact that Carnahan consistently runs five points behind Chris Koster for governor, suggesting the result at the top of the ticket could be what tips this one.
  • North Carolina: Tossup. In 2012, Dan Forest defeated Linda Coleman 50.1% to 49.9% to become North Carolina's first Republican lieutenant governor since 1993. Things haven't exactly gotten easier for North Carolina Republicans since then. Hillary Clinton's unexpectedly strong showing in state polls threatens to drag down downballot Republicans, and the anti-transgender House Bill 2 has tarnished the reputations of the state GOP. As president of the State Senate when HB 2 passed, Forest has been a staunch defender of the law, and it has been the main flashpoint in his 2016 rematch with Coleman. As of the July fundraising report, it was Forest who had far more cash to get his message out there, and he led 38% to 35% in the latest poll of the race. Republicans have reason for optimism, but like all other races in North Carolina this year, this one is too close to call.
  • Vermont: Leans Democratic. Welcome to Vermont, where two of the three candidates for lieutenant governor are organic farmers. State Senator (and organic farmer) David Zuckerman is a dyed-in-the-wool progressive and earned the coveted endorsement of Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary for this open seat. He not only won that, but also the nomination of the Progressive Party, Vermont's popular third-party outlet for those who don't think Democrats are far enough to the left. He beat the phenomenally named Boots Wardinski—yep, another organic farmer—for the Progressive nod, but Wardinski remains in the race as the Liberty Union candidate (Bill Lee's party!). Given Vermont's reputation, you'd think that the combined Democrat/Progressive would have this thing locked up, but Republican Phil Scott has won the office in the last three elections and is now arguably the leading candidate for governor. Vermonters are independent-minded and aren't afraid to vote for person over party, so there's plenty of room for Republican Randy Brock to win this seat. The question is whether voters will see lieutenant governor through the lens of the presidential race—where Hillary Clinton will crush Donald Trump in the state—or as more akin to the governorship, with Brock coasting on Scott's coattails. There is a frustrating lack of data in the state (grrr, no polling!), so I can at best guess that the result here will come out somewhere in between the two.
  • Washington: Solid Democratic. Want to feel bad about yourself? Just listen to Cyrus Habib's bio. The son of Iranian immigrants, Habib graduated summa cum laude from Columbia University as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He is a Rhodes scholar and a Truman scholar and went on to Yale Law School. He has survived cancer three times and has been elected once to the Washington State House and once to the State Senate. And oh yeah, he did all of that having gone blind when he was eight years old. Now, Habib, a Democrat, is running for the open lieutenant governor's office after incumbent Brad Owen—considered, after five terms in office, Washington's "lieutenant governor for life"—decided to call it quits in 2016. Owen has clashed with Habib, claiming that the progressive state senator would take a more partisan approach to the office than is proper, but considering that Habib's opponent is Trump-supporting radio host Marty McClendon, that might sit just fine with Washington voters. Some of the greatest hits from McClendon's radio show come on Wednesdays—a.k.a. "Trump Day"—including one where he wondered if Hillary Clinton was even still alive, à la the movie Dave. As a result, even some prominent Republicans in the state are backing Habib.

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