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There is a duality in Southern politics this election year. On the one hand, seven of Dixie’s eight Republican US Senators are sailing to reelection with ease (the exception being Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has a race on his hands). On the other hand, four of the six Southern Republican governors are in the midst of competitive, if not tough, reelection battles.

“If you are a governor, you have to wade in on all sorts of state issues,” says Professor Charles Bullock at the University of Georgia. “If you are a senator, you can stay away from what’s happening in your state. As a senator,” he continues, “there is collective responsibility: ‘You know, I worked on it, but you know how those other senators are.’ If you are a governor, it either happens or it doesn’t. Most people assume their governor has control over what gets done in the state, but sometimes that may not be the case.”

Although Govs. Robert Bentley (R-AL) and Bill Haslam (R-TN) have only token opposition, that’s not the case with four other GOP governors in Dixie.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) is facing a major challenge from former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat. The polls have see-sawed back and forth, with the latest showing Scott ahead by 45% to 43%, not good for an incumbent. The economy continues to improve under Scott, with the jobless rate declining nearly a full percentage point over the past year. But Scott, a former healthcare company CEO, is catching some flak for supporting the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare,” then being unable to get his Republican legislature to authorize it. “That’s hurting some voters,” says Professor Susan MacManus at the University of South Florida. She adds, “People know more about what’s going on at the state level. Things are closer to them, things more important to average people … Some of the governors have been there when things are really bad. Voters remember.”

In Georgia, at the same time Gov. Nathan Deal (R) continues to have ethics questions in the spotlight, he’s facing a famous name in Peach State politics, state Sen. Jason Carter (D), grandson of former governor and president Jimmy Carter. The latest poll, taken by SPR’s parent company, InsiderAdvantage, shows Deal with a 43% to 39% lead, weak for an incumbent.

Oklahoma was supposed to be a slam-dunk for Gov. Mary Fallin (R), but she hee’d then hawed over Common Core educational standards, first endorsing them, then in the face of fierce opposition to them, switched positions. She’s also caught some flak for not supporting the construction of tornado shelters in public schools. Her opponent, state Rep. Joe Dorman (D), is opposed to Common Core and supports public school storm shelters. Polls have shown Dorman consistently holding her under 50%, dangerous for an incumbent; however, she has mega-bucks in her war chest, has shaken up her campaign staff, and is improving in the polls. Dorman, however, is seriously underfunded, although he has aired TV spots.

In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has been controversial from the get-go, with enthusiastic support from half the voters and major opposition from the other half, including some Republican lawmakers. She’s facing a re-run with state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D), whom she bested 51% to 47% four years ago. She’s ahead, but he’s not far behind. Here again, education is a major issue. The state’s high jobless rate hurt her for a while, but the state’s economy has improved substantially, which has helped her.

The contrast with the reelection prospects of Republican US Senators is stark. While some Southern GOP senators faced Tea Party challenges in their primaries, only McConnell has serious Democratic opposition, from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. In Alabama, Jeff Sessions is a safe bet.  In Mississippi, Thad Cochran is a heavy favorite over former congressman Travis Childers (D). In Oklahoma, US Sen. Jim Inhofe is solid; so is Jim Lankford, running for the remainder of Tom Coburn’s term. In South Carolina, there are also two Republican senate nominees on the ballot; both Lindsey Graham, for a full term, and Tim Scott, for the remaining two years of his term, have little more than token Democratic opposition. In Tennessee, Lamar Alexander is a lead pipe cinch this fall. And in Texas, John Cornyn is another prohibitive favorite.

“Senators usually have an easier time of it getting reelected in the South in general,” says Professor Keith Gaddie at the University of Oklahoma. “We southerners like our seniority, and senators are in a position to vote ideology on the one hand, but then bring home the bacon with the other.  Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who is cruising to reelection, is a good example. And,” continues Gaddie, “many of the national political issues … fit nicely into the quiver of incumbent GOP senators. They actually do confront the Democrats and Obama and liberalism every day, and can make legitimate claims to trying to slow the progress of the left.

“Governors meanwhile,” continues Gaddie, “get responsibility for their government and also their state economy.”

In sum, the South’s Republican governors, or at least four of the six up for reelection this year, don’t have it so easy. Stay tuned.



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