Following the money in key gubernatorial races: Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin

  • New campaign finance reports show latest movement in three key gubernatorial races
  • Tight races in Maine to replace Gov. LePage and in Wisconsin as Gov. Walker looks for fourth gubernatorial victory
  • Minnesota Democrats enjoy favorability advantage as they eye big gains

Gubernatorial candidates filed a new round of campaign finance reports last week in three battleground races: Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Here are some of the key dynamics to watch in these races as they near the finish line.

Maine’s “low-key” race is a dead heat

In Maine’s gubernatorial election, candidates filed campaign finance reports for the period between July 18 and September 18. During this timespan, Democratic candidate Attorney General Janet Mills reported raising nearly $800,000, while businessman and GOP candidate Shawn Moody reported raising $370,000. Mills has reported raising a total of $1.8 million in funds so far, giving her a slight edge over Moody’s $1.4 million.

Apart from the two major parties, independent candidate State Treasurer Teresea Hayes has reported a relatively strong showing with $1 million raised. The other independent candidate, businessman Alan Caron, reported raising just over $50,000.

The gubernatorial race in Maine is an outlier in today’s polarized political environment. A recent article in the Portland Press Herald described the contest as “low-key” and “astonishingly quiet,” with “relatively tame debates” and a “civil and even friendly” tone where the respective campaigns have stressed candidates’ merits rather than their personalities.

Some political observers explain this as a quiet backlash, of sorts, against the outgoing Republican governor, Paul LePage, who made a reputation for himself as a hard-charging and at times vulgar firebrand. That said, the demur nature of the race is still surprising given that polls have shown a dead heat between Mills at 38.8 percent and Moody at 39 percent.

Minnesota Dems get ready to ride the wave

In Minnesota, gubernatorial candidates filed new campaign finance reports for the period between January 1 and September 18. From a financial standpoint, Democratic candidate Congressman Tim Walz and Republican candidate Hennepin County Commission Jeff Johnson are neck and neck, with each reporting $1.3 million raised. Both candidates also reported a little more than $1 million on hand heading into the final month of the race.

Despite the financial parity, the latest NBC/Marist poll shows Democrats enjoying a sizable lead, with Walz ahead Johnson 55 percent to 38 percent in a head-to-head matchup among likely voters. This is due in part to a favorability advantage that Democratic candidates enjoy across the state. With less than a month until Election Day, Republicans will be hard pressed to change these impressions.

“For Walz, who has served as a Democratic member of the House in a relatively rural district since 2006, 56 percent of likely voters have a favorable impression of him, while just 24 percent have an unfavorable one,” NBC reported. “Republican Jeff Johnson, on the other hand, is underwater, with 38 percent giving him a thumbs-up and 41 percent giving him a thumbs-down.”

The electoral dynamic in rural and urban regions in Minnesota this year is almost paradoxical, reports the Star Tribune, with the farm economy struggling while other outstate businesses struggle to fill the demand for workers. This has led greater Minnesota communities to clamor for the next governor to tackle housing and child care shortages, Adam Birr, executive director the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, told the Star Tribune. Meanwhile farmers, facing low prices and an ongoing trade war with China, are worried about health insurance premiums.

So far, that appears to be playing out in Democrats’ favor, though some political observers have concerns that domestic abuse allegations against Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who is running for state attorney general, could drag down candidates in other races.

Minnesota has been under divided government since Democrats lost their majority in the state House in 2015, so the balance of power hinges on which party takes control of the governorship. The winner will be able to influence Minnesota’s redistricting process following the 2020 census, since state law gives the governor authority to veto congressional and state legislative district maps proposed by the legislature.

Wisconsin Gov. Walker in tight race. . . again

In Wisconsin, campaign finance reports for the month of August were submitted last week. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, reported raising just over $1.9 million in August, while Republican incumbent Gov. Scott Walker reported raising $2.3 million. To date, Walker has enjoyed a significant fundraising advantage with a reported $8.4 million raised to Evers’ $2.5 million. Evers’ reporting shows him entering September with $1.6 million on hand versus Walker’s $4.2 million.

Polling in recent months has showed promising signs for Democrats. A recent NBC News/Marist poll has Walker down by double digits against Evers in a head to head matchup – 43 percent to 53 percent – and finds a near majority of likely voters saying they’d rather have Democrats in control of Congress. Similarly, a September poll by Reuters/Ipsos/University of Virginia Center for Politics found Evers leading Walker 50 percent to 43 percent among likely voters, a lead that, significantly, fell outside the poll’s 3.4 percent credibility interval.

Earlier in the month, however, a Marquette University Law School poll found Walker with a sliver of a lead over Evers, 47 percent to 46 percent, raising the possibility that the governor might be able to eke out a fourth victory after being elected in 2010, surviving a recall election in 2012, and winning reelection in 2014.

In any case, Wisconsin voters appear charged up to go to the polls, with 70 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats in the Marquette poll saying they’re very enthusiastic about voting this year. But how this shakes out in electoral wins and losses is anyone’s guess.

“I think we see a fair level of enthusiasm and excitement, something comparable to a high-turnout midterm election,” poll director Charles Franklin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “But we’re seeing real differences across the three statewide races, leaning solidly Democratic in the Senate, a close race for the governor and leaning a little bit Republican in the attorney general’s race.”

“This suggests whatever kind of wave may eventually arise by election day, at the moment it looks fairly evenly divided,” Franklin added. “It’s not all going in a solidly Democratic or a solidly Republican direction.”

The big question for Wisconsin Democrats is whether they can make a persuasive economic argument at a time when the state’s economic indicators are strong. By most metrics, notes the New York Times, Wisconsin’s economy looks pretty good. The state boasts a 3.0 percent unemployment rate, well below the national average of 3.7 percent.

The mostly-unfavorable poll numbers, however, mean that Walker clearly has challenges of his own.

“Unemployment is lower than the national average, the tax cuts have gone over well, but, (Walker) has benefitted in the past when he has had President Obama to run against as a foil,” Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, told Fox News.

Walker has ridden national waves before during “big Republican years,” Burden said, but this time the environment is different: “He now faces a potential big Democrat year in 2018. He is good at winning elections, but he has been ringing the bell about a blue wave since January.”

In January, a Democrat won a special election for a state Senate seat that Republicans held for 17 years. Several months later, a liberal judge won a seat on the state Supreme Court, prompting Walker to tweet a warning about a “blue wave” fueled by “outside special interest money.”

Trifecta control of Wisconsin is at stake in the gubernatorial contest. Since 2011, Republicans have controlled both legislative chambers and the governorship. Despite Democrats’ economic headwinds (which, ironically, make it a challenge for the party to present a strong case against the incumbent government) they believe the time is ripe for electoral gains.

Beyond the immediate legislative effects, the winner of this election will also have more power to influence Wisconsin’s redistricting process after the 2020 census, as state law gives the governor authority to veto congressional and state legislative district lines proposed by state lawmakers.

Image Credit: “Scott Walker” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

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