WASHINGTON — Republicans in search of clues to the 2016 presidential contest might find them in this year’s governor races.
GOP candidates are defending seats in Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio and trying to defeat a Democratic incumbent in Colorado. Taken together, the five states account for 72 electoral votes, or more than a quarter of the total needed to win the White House.
The success or failure of Republicans in those races could hold big influence over the fortunes of the party and its prospective presidential candidates — none more than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a potential presidential candidate who leads the Republican Governors Association. Win in these states and Republicans could parlay their network of governors into a blueprint for winning. Losing any or all could raise obstacles in a potential campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democrat considering a run for the White House.
No race figures more prominently in that calculation than Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist, a former GOP governor, are battling for control of the nation’s top battleground state. With 29 electoral votes, Florida has been the biggest up-for-grabs prize in recent presidential elections.
“If we’re able to win in Florida it would put the 2016 campaign in a more friendly environment,” said Mitch Stewart, a former Obama campaign strategist, of the governor’s election.
In 2012, President Barack Obama’s campaign won in a series of hard-fought contests in many of the same states with competitive governors’ races this year. Few expect Republicans to sweep the races — but any success could give them hope in 2016.
Ohio and Iowa offer upbeat scenarios for the GOP. In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich is sailing to re-election against Democrat Ed FitzGerald, whose campaign imploded in a series of negative revelations. A Kasich victory could help his party’s brand in Ohio while raising questions about the Democrats’ capabilities in the state.
“Going into ’16, the baggage of Obama is not going to go away, and the Democrats just don’t have high-profile political leaders statewide,” said Terry Casey, an Ohio-based GOP strategist who has advised Kasich.
Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Branstad holds a steady lead in the polls and could become the longest-serving governor in U.S. history. Branstad seized control of the state party away from supporters of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, something that could be an asset to establishment Republicans competing in the first presidential caucus state.
Republicans hope to protect incumbent Govs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan, which could give presidential candidates two examples of how to connect with blue-collar voters. Democrats have carried the two states in every presidential race since 1992.
Democrats hold an advantage in Pennsylvania, where businessman Tom Wolf maintains a wide lead against Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Despite a Democratic voter registration edge, Republicans have long coveted the state. Mitt Romney made a last-minute push there in 2012 while President George W. Bush made repeated visits in 2004. Both efforts failed.
Christie, in a speech Tuesday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said it was important to have a deep bench of Republican governors serving in 2016. “Would you rather have Rick Scott in Florida overseeing the voting mechanism or Charlie Crist? Would you rather have Scott Walker in Wisconsin overseeing the voting mechanism, or would you rather have Mary Burke?” Christie asked, referring to Walker’s Democratic challenger.
History offers examples of why holding a governorship can matter in a presidential race.
Republicans like to compare their recent crop of governors to a group that oversaw statehouses during the 1990s and included the-Gov. George W. Bush, who sought the presidency in 2000 after decisively winning re-election in Texas two years earlier.
And few Democrats forget that Bush’s brother, former Gov. Jeb Bush, provided a built-in advantage in Florida during the 2000 election and the 36-day recount that followed. Some Democratic-leaning law firms in Tallahassee and elsewhere were hesitant to assist Al Gore’s legal challenge for fear of crossing the powerful governor.
Stewart, who oversaw Obama’s battleground state operation in 2012, noted that with Kasich serving as Ohio governor, Democrats were forced to challenge a state law cutting three days from the early voting period for everyone, except members of the armed services and Ohioans living overseas. Democrats prevailed but Stewart said if Democrat Ted Strickland had still been in office, “you don’t worry about that.”
Elsewhere, Colorado and Georgia could offer opportunities for both parties.
Republicans are trying to seize on Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s stumbles over a controversial death penalty decision and gun-control legislation. Obama invested heavily in the state during his two presidential campaigns, and Republicans would like to put it back into their fold in 2016.
Georgia could offer a breakthrough for Democrats if the party can rally around Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, against Gov. Nathan Deal. The state’s demographics have shifted to include more black and Hispanic voters. A win there would offer “a nice blueprint on how to win in 2016,” said Penny Lee, a former executive director for the Democratic Governors Association.