By Hastings Wyman –
There are eight races for governor in the South this year. All of them are held by Republicans and in at least seven, the GOP is favored to hold on to the governors’ mansions. Governorships are very important to the outcomes in 2020, both in the race for the White House and in the contests for the Senate and for congress. Governors hire and fire people, influence state legislatures, dominate the headlines and the local news, help determine who gets state contracts and other than the President himself, play the most important role in who wins at all levels on Election Day.
This year’s gubernatorial elections in the South are especially crucial to President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects. The GOP has already lost the governor’s mansion in North Carolina, which will make keeping that toss-up state in the Republican column that much harder, and the Democrats’ made major gains in Virginia, making any GOP prospects in that state much more problematic.
Here’s a thumbnail sketch of each of this year’s Southern governors’ races.
ALABAMA: Gov. Kay Ivey (R), the elected lieutenant governor who succeeded scandal-plagued Robert Bentley after his resignation, has announced for reelection and is pretty close to a safe bet this year, both in the primary and the General Election. The election of Doug Jones (D) to the US Senate did not change the underlying Republican strength in the state, so don’t look for a competitive Democratic challenger for governor.
ARKANSAS: Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) has avoided controversy and won many friends with his efforts to sell the state’s agricultural projects abroad, even to Cuba and China, as well as by encouraging new or expanded industries in the Razorback State. He does have one primary challenger, Jan Morgan, 54, who owns a gun range that she once dubbed a “Muslim Free Zone,” and a Democratic foe, Jared Henderson, a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Arkansas with an MBA from Harvard. He formerly worked for NASA and now runs a medical practice with his wife, Dr. Melanie Prince.
FLORIDA: The last Democrat to win the governor’s office in the Sunshine State was Lawton Chiles in 1994, so even though this year’s governor’s race will have no incumbent, the GOP is probably an early, if not secure, favorite. Both parties’ primaries will be hotly contested.
For the Republicans, Adam Putnam, Commissioner of Agriculture and a center-right Republican, is the early frontrunner, with strong backing from Tallahassee money-raisers. However, US Rep. Ron DeSantis got a praiseful tweet by President Trump, who called him “a brilliant young leader, Yale and Harvard Law,” who “would make a GREAT governor of Florida,” which brought some deep pockets to his campaign. Conservative Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran may also run. In a mid-September poll of Republicans, taken for Florida Politics, Putnam led with 26%, DeSantis had 9%, state
Sen. Jack Latvala (since withdrawn) 2% and Corcoran 1%. In the money chase, at the end of November, Putnam had $15 million on hand, Corcoran had $4.7 million and DeSantis had $3.6 million, which may increase soon.
On the Democratic side, former US Rep. Gwen Graham is an early, though not certain, favorite to win the primary. She is the daughter of former US Senator and governor Bob Graham (D). Philip Levine is the enthusiastic and pro-active liberal mayor of Miami Beach. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum would become the first African American elected to a statewide office in Florida. Chris King, an Orlando businessman, is the CEO of Elevation Financial Group, which provides affordable housing for seniors and families. Plaintiffs’ attorney John Morgan announced he will not enter the Democratic Primary, but will register as an independent. He neither encouraged speculation about an independent gubernatorial bid, nor did he rule it out. The Florida Politics poll of Democrats showed Graham with 31%, Gillum with 13%, Levine 6% and King 5%. At the end of the 3rd Quarter, Graham had $2.6 million on hand, King had $1.6 million, Gillum $558,000, and Levine $2.6 million, which he put into his campaign.
GEORGIA: Governor Nathan Deal (R) is term-limited and five Republicans and two Democrats have entered the race to succeed him.
On the Republican side, Lt. Gov Casey Cagle (R), 51, is the early frontrunner. He has already amassed a significant war chest – a reported $3 million on hand or pledged. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, 53, been a real estate developer; “Kemp Means Business” is his slogan. State Sen. Hunter Hill, has been a conservative lawmaker and is focusing on the rural counties Trump carried. Businessman Clay Tippins, 44, a former Navy SEAL and Stanford graduate, has no political experience and hopes to capitalize on being an outsider. And state Sen. Michael Williams endorsed Trump early and has copied the President’s style, making out-of-the-box accusations.
Two Democrats are running. Former Minority House Leader Stacey Abrams is probably the frontrunner in the Democratic Primary, mainly because she is an African American and is running a hard-left campaign, including wanting to sandblast the Confederate sculptures off the face of Stone Mountain. She should run well with non-white voters – mostly African Americans – who account for some 47% of the Peach State electorate and an even greater share of the Democratic Primary turnout. Abrams has the support of US Rep. John Lewis (D). The other contender is state Rep. Stacey Evans, who is white, and stresses her hardscrabble Georgia roots and the need to promote such programs as Hope Scholarships. She has the support of former Gov. Roy Barnes (D). Both contenders are lawyers with progressive records in the legislature.
OKLAHOMA: Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is term-limited in 2018. Her early high favorables sank as the state’s services were seriously cut as her tax cuts took effect. However, tax revenues are increasing, which may ease the pressure on the incoming governor.
Republican Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb (R), finishing his second term, is the early frontrunner. He won the 2010 Republican Primary for lieutenant governor with 67% in a five-
candidate race and won the General Election by 64% to 32%. At the end of the 3rd Quarter, Lamb had $2,414,000 cash on hand. In second place, probably, is Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett. He had $623,000 on hand. Gary Richardson, 75, who got 14% of the vote in the 2002 governor’s race as a conservative independent, was an early Trump supporter. He had $777,000 on hand, a result of his $1,000,000 loan to his campaign. State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones had $44,000. Former state Rep. Dan Fisher had $63,000. And late entrant Kevin Stitt, a mortgage banker, had $1,348,000 on hand, which included an $800,000 personal loan from the candidate.
The leading Democrat is Drew Edmondson, 71, a former state attorney general and the scion of a family long prominent in Sooner State politics. At the end of the 3rd Quarter, Edmondson had $293,000 cash on hand. State Sen. Connie Johnson (D), an African-American from Oklahoma City, was the Democratic US Senate nominee in 2014, but lost badly (29% to 68%). The last time the Democrats elected a governor was in 2002, but Democrats have flipped four state legislative seats from R to D in special elections this year, reviving the party’s hopes.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Republicans in this bright Red state endured some rough times in 2017, including indictments of legislators and a GOP consulting firm, but incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster (R), who succeeded Nikki Haley (R) as governor when she became UN ambassador, is in a strong, though not unbeatable, place. He endorsed Trump early in his presidential bid and is likely to have the president’s support before it’s over. McMaster has three primary opponents; none alone looks strong enough to beat him, but if they manage to put him in a runoff, he could lose the nomination. The second strongest contender is Catherine Templeton, an anti-union lawyer who held several posts under Haley. Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant – he succeeded McMaster in the job – is also running, as is former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill, once a D but now an R. In a Mason-Dixon survey taken Dec. 6-10, McMaster received 51% of Republican voters to 21% for Templeton, 8% for Bryant (R) and a mere 1% for McGill.
There are two Democrats running, well-liked state Rep. James E. Smith, who entered late and had only $500 on hand as the 3rd Quarter ended, and technology consultant and long-time Democratic activist Phil Noble, who entered too late to file a report. If the GOP primary is bitter and lightning strikes, a Democrat – probably Smith – might stand a chance.
TENNESSEE: Incumbent Gov. Bill Haslam (R) is term-limited so this is an open seat.
There are five Republicans running for governor. State Sen. Mae Beavers sponsored a bill to require students to use the bathroom of the gender listed on their birth certificate. US Rep. Diane Black chaired the prestigious Budget Committee chairmanship; she is a former nurse. Randy Boyd served as economic development under Haslam; among other interests, he owns two minor league baseball teams. State House Speaker Beth Harwell is both pragmatic and leans to the Right. Bill Lee is chairman and former CEO of a home service and facilities solutions company with annual revenues of some $160 million. An October poll by Middle Tennessee State University found Black and Harwell with the
highest approval ratings, 33% and 32% respectively. Boyd’s was 28%, Beavers 21% and Lee 15%. Two Democrats are also running. Karl Dean is a former mayor of Nashville. Craig Fitzhugh is the state House Minority Leader. Dean’s approval rating was 49% to Fitzhugh’s 26%.
TEXAS: The filing deadline has already passed in the Lone Star State. In the primary, incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has only token opposition, from Larry Kilgore, a perennial candidate and secession advocate. Abbott has a war chest of some $41 million, giving him a major head start against any Democrat.
In the Democrats’ gubernatorial primary, there are eight candidates, but only two have significant strength: Lupe Valdez, the sheriff of Dallas County, and Andrew White, an entrepreneur and a centrist Democrat, who is the son of the late Gov. Mark White (D). Valdez, the first openly lesbian Latina elected sheriff in the nation, is popular with party liberals, plus she is a Latina. Andrew White, 45, a Houston businessman has name ID from his father. White would also benefit in the General Election from his more centrist stance. In November, whether Valdez or White is the nominee, Abbott is heavily favored. A private Democratic poll taken last summer and reported in the Texas Monthly, showed Abbott’s job approval rating was 61%. The poll of 1,000 likely registered voters showed Abbott would receive 49% of the vote to 38% for a yet-to-be-named Democrat, about what the Democratic nominee, liberal state Senator Wendy Davis, received in 2014 against Abbott.