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Incumbency Advantage in Gubernatorial Elections

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It was not much of a surprise when all three incumbent governors from the Upper Midwest (Tim Pawlenty, Mike Rounds, and Jim Doyle) won their respective re-election bids last November (at least not to Smart Politics, who projected as such). The incumbency advantage is not only a prized possession of congressman on Capitol Hill, but also state executives across the nation.

In a study of the nearly 130 gubernatorial races in the U.S. since 1998, incumbents have won 86 percent of them (69 of 80 races). Democrats, who have made inroads in winning back several governorships in recent years, have been particularly successful—with incumbents winning 27 and losing only 4. Republican incumbents have won 41 of 48 re-election bids, and independent incumbents are 1-0 during this span.

On rare occasion, a particularly unpopular governor may not seek re-election. What is usually the case, however, is that popular (Bill Owens of Colorado, 2006) and unpopular (Bob Taft of Ohio in 2006) executives are precluded from running for re-election due to term limits for their office.

In such cases, open races have proved to be very competitive in recent years. Since 1998, the party controlling the governor's office has changed hands more than 50 percent of the time. In 49 races, a change in party has resulted in 26 elections (53 percent).

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Political Crumbs

No 100-Year Curse for Roberts

Defeating his Tea Party primary challenger Milton Wolf with just 48.1 percent of the vote, Pat Roberts narrowly escaped becoming the first elected U.S. Senator from Kansas to lose a renomination bid in 100 years. The last - and so far only - elected U.S. Senator to lose a Kansas primary was one-term Republican Joseph Bristow in 1914. Bristow was defeated by former U.S. Senator Charles Curtis who went on to win three terms before becoming Herbert Hoover's running mate in 1928. Only one other U.S. Senator from the Sunflower State has lost a primary since the passage of the 17th Amendment: Sheila Frahm in 1996. Frahm was appointed to fill Bob Dole's seat earlier that year and finished 13.2 points behind Sam Brownback in the three-candidate primary field. Overall, incumbent senators from Kansas have won 29 times against two defeats in the direct vote era. (Curtis also lost a primary in 1912 to Walter Stubbs, one year before the nation moved to direct elections).


The Second Time Around

Former Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez became the seventh major party or second place gubernatorial candidate in Colorado to get a second chance at the office when he narrowly won his party's nomination last month. Two of the previous six candidates were successful. Democrat Alva Adams lost his first gubernatorial bid to Benjamin Eaton in 1884, but was victorious two years later against William Meyer. Democrat Charles Johnson placed third in 1894 behind Republican Albert McIntyre and Populist incumbent Governor David Waite but returned as the Fusion (Democrat/Populist) nominee in 1898 and defeated GOPer Henry Wolcott. Gubernatorial candidates who received a second chance but lost both general elections include Democrat Thomas Patterson (1888, 1914), Progressive Edward Costigan (1912, 1914), Republican Donald Brotzman (1954, 1956), and Republican David Strickland (1978, 1986).


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