WASHINGTON – The short-term future of politics in the nation’s capital will be determined in large part by which party ends up in control of the Senate. But for a sense of the long-term future of politics in the country as a whole, watch the governors races.
The question to ask: Do voters begin to push back against the tea party tide that swept governorships and legislatures into Republican hands four years ago and produced the most radical changes in policy at the state level in at least a generation?
On the Senate races, two things are true. Simply because so many Democratic seats are at stake, the GOP has an edge. Republicans have probably already secured three of the six pickups they need to take control next year. But in the rest of the races, they have yet to close the deal. This year, late breaking news and how well campaigns are run will really matter.
But something else is true about the fight for the Senate that is much less relevant in the struggle for governorships. Most of the key Senate contests are in Republican-leaning states where President Obama is not popular. GOP candidates are thus making him a big issue against Democrats. The 36 governors races, by contrast, span red and blue states, and many are in battlegrounds that decide presidential elections.
The Senate elections are backward-looking referendums. The governors races are forward-looking.
The one exception to the Obama rule may be Florida, where the former governor – and former Republican – Charlie Crist swept to a 3-to-1 victory in the Democratic primary on Tuesday over former state Sen. Nan Rich. The primary was taken as a measure of how well-accepted Crist is in his new party, and the result was heartening for the Democrats’ marquee convert.
Unusually for Democrats this year, Crist has hugged Obama close and has hired many of the president’s key operatives to run his campaign. The former governor is essentially deadlocked in the polls with incumbent Republican Rick Scott, and much will depend on the willingness of Democrats to go to the polls in November. Four years ago, turnout was lopsided in favor of the Republicans, as Adam Smith, the Tampa Bay Times political editor, has noted. Crist is one of the handful of Democrats whom Obama may really be able to help this year.
Tuesday’s other major gubernatorial primary was in Arizona, which offers exactly the opposite lesson. Republicans chose the tea party’s favorite, state Treasurer Doug Ducey, a former partner and CEO of Cold Stone Creamery. Ducey got 37 percent in a six-way race, and vastly outspent second-place finisher Scott Smith, the former mayor of Mesa and the moderate in the race. Smith supported Gov. Jan Brewer’s expansion of Medicaid (she endorsed him over Ducey) and also the Common Core education standards.
It was striking on Tuesday night that Smith’s concession speech sounded a lot like the victory speech of Democrat Fred DuVal, who won his party’s nomination unopposed.
“We had a vision about bringing people together,” Smith said. “We gave them a message maybe that wasn’t red meat. Maybe it didn’t fit the primary campaign mode. But it was the truth.”
DuVal, who badly needs votes from independents and crossover Republicans, played down party altogether in his primary-night address. “What’s missing are leaders who care less about party politics and more about building a future together and growing our economy,” DuVal said. “We’re going to stop fighting and start fixing Arizona for Arizona families.” Ducey, who was endorsed by Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin, will be pressed to occupy some of the center ground that DuVal hopes to make his own.
The tea party has opened opportunities for Democrats elsewhere to frame this year’s choice as being between right-wing ideology and problem-solving. In Kansas, a poll released this week showed Democrat Paul Davis with an eight-point lead over Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. A Brownback loss would be a devastating blow to the tea party’s approach to policy. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, another hero to the right, is in a dead heat with Democratic businesswoman Mary Burke.
Democrats also have a very good chance of ousting Republican governors in Pennsylvania and Maine, although they face tough challenges to their own incumbents in Illinois and Connecticut.
In 2010, an electorate heavily populated with tea party supporters expressed rage against government at all levels. In 2014, voters may decide that rage has its limits and that government has work to do.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.