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Brian Blanco / Steve Nesius / Reuters

What is at stake in the 2014 gubernatorial races?

Dozens of governors in the battle of their political lives, with turnover potential highest in decades

Governors have been re-engineering state government in unconventional, precedent-setting ways. For cynics who regularly complain that there's no distance between the parties, governors across the country have taken on big battles against public employee unions, underfunded pension plans and what they have called bloated state government, and they haven't necessarily been cheered. Governors are fond of saying it's the states, not the federal government, that are laboratories for new ideas. In many of the November races, voters are preparing to say they aren't happy with the results. 

What are some of the national themes of the gubernatorial races?

To what extent are the contests about President Barack Obama?

How is health care playing out in states?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Inside Story: What are some of the national themes in the 2014 gubernatorial races?

Betsy Woodruff: I think one important thing to keep an eye on is competitive Republican governors in blue states. In the vein of Chris Christie, we have the Massachusetts governor race. [Martha] Coakley is struggling. She is running against Charlie Baker, a pro-gay-marriage and pro-choice Republican. And that race is neck and neck. When Republicans go socially moderate and fiscally conservative, they seem to be pretty competitive in these states. These races would not be competitive if the candidates were not socially moderate. We are not going to see pro-life politicians win statewide in a lot of these states. But it puts national Republicans in an awkward position to explain why it is backing these candidates that deviate from party platform on issues so important to the base.

To what extent is Obama on the ballot?

To a very significant extent. He has said a week or two ago, even if his policies are not on the ballot, he appears ubiquitously in TV ads. Democrats are attacked for supporting his agenda. We have seen it in Senate races, and we are starting to see that in gubernatorial races. 

Are enough African-Americans going to turn out to swing some races?

Laura Washington: Obama is most popular among African-American voters. They may not be happy with everything he has done, but they are extremely loyal. They need to turn out more than ever in Senate and state House races.

One of the warning signs — turnout is lower in midterms, and Barack Obama is not on the ticket. The party has made it clear that this is about Obama. If they lose the Senate and key governor races, Obama will not have any allies, and his agenda will be paralyzed.

History is not encouraging in terms of voting patterns, but the party has invested a lot in getting up turnout. Here in Chicago, there has been a massive registration drive led by community organizations. They have registered many new voters, which is a good sign for voter registration. Whether they will turn out is another question. I think Chicago will see a higher black turnout than overall. But in the March primary it was really anemic, something like 20 percent. Because of the Obamas’ participation, that has gotten the attention of black voters.

What is the Illinois race about?

[Pat] Quinn has been criticized for being ineffective as a governor. He came out of a reform gadfly background, and they call him the accidental governor because he inherited it from [impeached Gov. Rod] Blagojevich. He does not necessarily get along with traditional Democratic colleagues and state leaders. That said, he is very popular with the traditional base of progressive Democrats and African-Americans.

[Republican candidate Bruce] Rauner is a very wealthy venture capitalist. He has been involved in a lot of civic activity with schools. He has painted Quinn as ineffective, in bed with the machine and out of touch. He has painted himself as a newcomer who can come clean up.

‘The party has made it clear that this is about Obama. If they lose the Senate and key governor races, Obama will not have any allies, and his agenda will be paralyzed.’

Laura Washington

columnist, The Chicago Sun-Times

To what extent is Obama on the ballot?

Michael Shure: Well, he is interestingly on the ballot. In the Senate you can run against the president because he makes a difference. What is nice for some Democrats is that they do not have to embrace the president or suffer from it because it is not as related in state races. Bill Clinton has done more for the governors than Obama. I do not think he has been shunning the president. The Democratic problem is not association with the president. It is turnout. Any president gets out the base, like him or not. As much as Democrats want to get the base out, they rely on Obama. But it gets confusing in a state like Colorado, where [Democratic Gov. John] Hickenlooper embraces that presidential effect on turnout and [Democratc Sen. Mark] Udall may be distancing himself.

That said, [the president] is always on the ballot in the midterm. It is a national discussion. And the [Affordable Care Act] has state implications, so in that sense, it is part of it. But it is not as much about Obama’s popularity per se.

Have Republicans missed opportunities? 

Health care is still the most important public policy issue in those races. It is mattering in states like New Mexico, where [Gov. Susana] Martinez is against it and will win handily. Obama plays a little better in her state. She is not in a tight race at all but not ripping Obama that much either.

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