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Walker's Odds: How Often Do Wisconsin Gubernatorial Incumbents Win Reelection?

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Governors in the Badger State have kept their job in 34 of 46 contests since statehood, or 74 percent of the time

scottwalker11.jpgAlthough he is facing a recall election unlike any of his predecessors, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is currently polling with an 'incumbent's advantage' - enjoying single digit leads over Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in all four public opinion polls released in the past two weeks.

Even putting aside Walker's huge fundraising advantage that he has amassed to date, Barrett is attempting to accomplish something only one out of four Wisconsin gubernatorial challengers have succeeded in doing over the last 160+ years: unseat a sitting governor.

A Smart Politics review of Wisconsin gubernatorial election data finds that incumbents have been elected at a rate of 74 percent out of nearly four-dozen attempts in state history.

Incumbents have appeared on the general election ballot in Wisconsin 46 times across the 72 elections for governor that have been conducted since statehood.

Sitting governors have won 34 of these contests and lost just 12 times, for a 74 percent reelection rate.

One-term incumbents, like Walker, have had essentially the same rate of success - winning 23 contests and losing nine, or 72 percent.

(Note: This study only examines governors who ran for reelection and made it onto the general election ballot. Other governors have failed to win their party's nomination, such as Walter Kohler, Sr. in 1930 to Philip La Follette).

Wisconsin governors seeking reelection won their first five attempts from the 1840s to the 1860s: Democrats Nelson Dewey (1849) and William Barstow (1855) and Republicans Alexander Randall (1859) and Lucius Fairchild (1867, 1869).

The first Wisconsin governor to lose a general election race was Republican Cadwallader Washburn in 1873.

Two years after winning the governorship in 1871 by 6.4 points over James Doolittle, Washburn became the first Republican to lose a governor's race in the Badger State since 1855 with a 10.4-point loss to Democrat William Taylor.

Taylor would likewise lose as an incumbent in 1875 by 841 votes to GOPer Harrison Ludington.

Other governors who lost their general election matchups include:

· One-term Republican William Hoard in 1890.
· Two-term Democrat George Peck in 1894.
· One-term Democrat Albert Schmedeman in 1934.
· Two-term Progressive Philip La Follette in 1938. (La Follette had also previously served an interrupted term as governor as a Republican.)
· One-term Republican Julius Heil in 1942.
· One-term Republican Vernon Thompson in 1958.
· One-term Democrat John Reynolds in 1964.
· One-term Democrat Martin Schrieber in 1978.
· One-term Democrat Anthony Earl in 1986.
· One-term Republican Scott McCallum in 2002.

(Note: Shrieber and McCallum had been elected to the office of lieutenant governor and ascended into the governorship when Patrick Lucey and Tommy Thompson resigned respectively).

Despite this overall reelection success, Wisconsin governors have had a more difficult time keeping their job over the last 50 years compared to the century prior.

From statehood through the Election of 1956, incumbents won their general election matchup 79 percent of the time (26 of 33 contests), compared to 62 percent since 1958 (8 of 13 contests).

A recently released Smart Politics report found that gubernatorial challengers seeking a "rematch" with the governor who defeated them (a la Barrett vs. Walker this June) have won only two out of six elections in Wisconsin history.

Electoral Success of Wisconsin Gubernatorial Incumbents Since Statehood

Year
Governor
Party
Result
Percent
MoV/MoL
1849
Nelson Dewey
Democrat
Won
52.4
16.8
1855
William Barstow
Democrat
Won
50.1
0.2
1859
Alexander Randall
Republican
Won
53.2
6.6
1867
Lucius Fairchild
Republican
Won
51.7
3.4
1869
Lucius Fairchild
Republican
Won
53.1
6.3
1873
Cadwallader Washburn
Republican
Lost
44.8
-10.4
1875
William Taylor
Democrat
Lost
49.6
-0.5
1879
William Smith
Republican
Won
53.2
13.5
1884
Jeremiah Rusk
Republican
Won
51.0
6.0
1886
Jeremiah Rusk
Republican
Won
46.5
6.5
1890
William Hoard
Republican
Lost
42.7
-9.2
1892
George Peck
Democrat
Won
47.9
2.0
1894
George Peck
Democrat
Lost
37.9
-14.3
1898
Edward Scofield
Republican
Won
52.6
11.5
1902
Robert La Follette
Republican
Won
52.9
13.0
1904
Robert La Follette
Republican
Won
50.5
11.3
1906
James Davidson
Republican
Won
57.4
25.1
1908
James Davidson
Republican
Won
54.0
17.1
1912
Francis McGovern
Republican
Won
45.5
3.0
1916
Emanuel Philipp
Republican
Won
52.9
15.0
1918
Emanuel Philipp
Republican
Won
47.0
13.0
1922
James Blaine
Republican
Won
76.4
65.8
1924
James Blaine
Republican
Won
51.8
11.9
1934
Albert Schmedeman
Democrat
Lost
37.7
-1.4
1936
Philip La Follette
Progressive
Won
46.4
17.0
1938
Philip La Follette
Progressive
Lost
36.0
-19.4
1940
Julius Heil
Republican
Won
40.7
0.9
1942
Julius Heil
Republican
Lost
36.4
-13.2
1944
Walter Goodland
Republican
Won
52.8
12.2
1946
Walter Goodland
Republican
Won
59.8
20.7
1948
Oscar Rennebohm
Republican
Won
54.1
10.0
1952
Walter Kohler, Jr.
Republican
Won
62.5
25.2
1954
Walter Kohler, Jr.
Republican
Won
51.5
3.1
1958
Vernon Thompson
Republican
Lost
46.3
-7.3
1960
Gaylord Nelson
Democrat
Won
51.6
3.2
1964
John Reynolds
Democrat
Lost
49.4
-1.2
1966
Warren Knowles
Republican
Won
53.5
7.4
1968
Warren Knowles
Republican
Won
52.9
6.1
1974
Patrick Lucey
Democrat
Won
53.2
11.1
1978
Martin Schrieber
Democrat
Lost
44.9
-9.5
1986
Anthony Earl
Democrat
Lost
46.2
-6.5
1990
Tommy Thompson
Republican
Won
58.2
16.4
1994
Tommy Thompson
Republican
Won
67.2
36.3
1998
Tommy Thompson
Republican
Won
59.7
21.0
2002
Scott McCallum
Republican
Lost
41.4
-3.7
2006
Jim Doyle
Democrat
Won
52.7
7.4
Table compiled by Smart Politics with data from Wisconsin Blue Books.

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Remains of the Data

No Free Passes: States With 2 Major Party Candidates in Every US House Race

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Political Crumbs

Gubernatorial Highs and Lows

Two sitting governors currently hold the record for the highest gubernatorial vote ever received in their respective states by a non-incumbent: Republican Matt Mead of Wyoming (65.7 percent in 2010) and outgoing GOPer Dave Heineman of Nebraska (73.4 percent in 2006). Republican Gary Herbert of Utah had not previously won a gubernatorial contest when he notched a state record 64.1 percent for his first victory in 2010, but was an incumbent at the time after ascending to the position in 2009 after the early departure of Jon Huntsman. Meanwhile, two sitting governors hold the record in their states for the lowest mark ever recorded by a winning gubernatorial candidate (incumbent or otherwise): independent-turned-Democrat Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (36.1 percent in 2010) and Democrat Terry McAuliffe of Virginia (47.8 percent in 2013).


An Idaho Six Pack

Two-term Idaho Republican Governor Butch Otter only polled at 39 percent in a recent PPP survey of the state's 2014 race - just four points ahead of Democratic businessman A.J. Balukoff. Otter's low numbers reflect his own struggles as a candidate (witness his weak primary win against State Senator Russ Fulcher) combined with the opportunity for disgruntled Idahoans to cast their votes for one of four third party and independent candidates, who collectively received the support of 12 percent of likely voters: Libertarian John Bujak, the Constitution Party's Steve Pankey, and independents Jill Humble and Pro-Life (aka Marvin Richardson). The six candidate options in a gubernatorial race sets an all-time record in the Gem State across the 46 elections conducted since statehood. The previous high water mark of five candidates was reached in seven previous cycles: 1902, 1904, 1908, 1912, 1914, 1966, and 2010.


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