2014 governors races: Does the GOP's future start here?

We often say Democrats are "in power" because they hold the White House but chances are you have a Republican governor. 

That means 2014's governors races - taken as a whole - are the closest thing we have to a referendum on GOP policy and governance at the moment, more so than whether they retake the Senate - and that they'll write the first chapter of the 2016 story, too.

That's particularly true because the Republican Party holds governorships in "blue" and swing states, like Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Wisconsin; plus Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Maine. 

Watching governors often means watching the next crop of possible national leaders, too: before Barack Obama became the first sitting senator elected president since John F. Kennedy, presidents were routinely coming from the ranks of either ex-vice presidents or governors. 

Today, given congressional Republicans’ low ratings, it will surprise no one if governors in some of those blue and swing states now try to return to that pattern, using wins this year as a springboard - see, e.g., Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio. They'd invariably run on some version of the “outsider against Washington” message; the achiever while D.C. dithered. In fact the Republican nomination contest might well divide, roughly, into a contest between governors - touting achievements or pragmatism - and its high-profile legislators, who might make more ideological appeals.  

But first, they’d have to join other two-termers who could run - New Jersey's Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for instance –  and get re-elected.

Along the way we could also see an interesting message divide between the national and state candidates, as Republican governors will want everyone thinking things are going well. We were reminded of that a bit on Tuesday: before the State of the Union, the RGA was sending out a string of tweets trumpeting the declining unemployment rate in state after state, all of which were led by Republican governors. Meanwhile, GOP Senate and congressional candidates, trying to make the race a national referendum on the president, might want voters thinking things are generally lousy.

More broadly, there’s a map story that can also speak to 2016. Another set of wins in blue states could give a little boost to the idea that Republicans might be able to expand their presidential map a bit two years hence; particularly compelling would be wins the aforementioned Ohio, or Wisconsin and Florida. Conversely, there’s opportunity in that for Democrats. Were they to beat a few incumbent Republicans, it would not only reverse some of their massive 2010 losses, but would solidify the idea that their presidential map still has a favorable baseline. 

A few (of the many) interesting races to watch:

Florida 

Because, well, it’s Florida, the biggest swing state there is. Incumbent Republican Rick Scott was one of the tea party and anti-establishment’s biggest wins of 2010, and he’s had a rocky ride in the approval ratings, but does have lots of money. Former Republican Charlie Crist will run for his old office, this time as a Democrat. Does that, and being well-known, end up helping or hurting him? Big issues: the economy, of course, as well as Obamacare and Medicaid expansion.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin has spent as much time in the national spotlight as any state in recent years. Scott Walker, like many fellow GOP governors after the 2009-10 cycle, took conservative and controversial steps to budget-balancing that drew praise from many in his own party, notably when he beat back an unprecedented recall effort. Polls have him with a leg up, and he’ll be on the much-mentioned list for 2016 contenders if he wins.

Ohio

Republican John Kasich’s case has some similarities, though while Walker was defeating the recall, voters rejected a big part of Kasich’s agenda in subsequent ballot measures. Polls have Kasich contending for re-election.

Pennsylvania

Republican Tom Corbett is down in the polls right now, with many unhappy with his handling of the budget and saying he’s too conservative for this mainly-blue state. This is a seat the Democrats will really be looking to retake.

  • Anthony Salvanto On Twitter»

    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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