This year's governor's races likely to have 2016 implications

Peter Mlekuz

As governors from all over the country convene in Washington, D.C., this weekend for the National Governors Association annual meeting, this fall’s 36 governor’s races are coming into sharper focus. And it’s clear that history does not bode well for Democrats running to knock off Republicans in this year’s contests.

The numbers are telling: since 1960, four of every five incumbent governors who made a general election ballot have been reelected. The GOP is defending 22 seats this year, 17 of them incumbents seeking re-election. And while several of those are in states President Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012 - Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin and Maine, for instance – there’s no shortage of GOP optimism.

"Republican governors have the advantage that they can run on their records, that they can run campaigns about following policies, putting them into effect and getting positive effects compared to the results that we see now," former Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss., told CBS News.

"Unlike Washington, this isn't about talk. This is about performance," Barbour added.

"These are the incumbents running for their second term. And governors usually win their second term. Even in places where they are shaky," Larry Sabato, the director of University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told CBS News. "There are only a handful of incumbents who really are in trouble. So you're going to have a lot of stability."

 However, the presidential implications of Republicans continuing to govern swing states extends beyond those six states. On the gubernatorial level, Republicans have developed a strong farm team of potential presidential hopefuls - popular at home and they’re nationally-known figures.

Republicans Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, John Kasich, Susana Martinez, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley – all are considered possible presidential candidates and all have either national name recognition or are highly regarded by national Republican leaders.

This bench did not go unnoticed by Mr. Obama who, during remarks at a Democratic Governors Association fundraiser in Washington on Thursday, said that in order for his party's policies to succeed, Democrats must turn their focus to governors' races.

"Because we know how to win national elections, but all too often, it's during these midterms where we end up getting ourselves into trouble, because I guess we don't think it's sexy enough,” Mr. Obama said.  “But the fact of the matter is, is that that's where so much of the action is. “

It’s a similar message that Republican governors have been touting, that GOP governors are implementing and executing policy, that they are future of the party and that effective governance is taking place at the state level.

"The Republican Party in Washington is the Republican Party of no. But the Republican Party in the states where governors actually have to make things work and happen is a party that gets things done. It's a party that says ‘yes,’" GOP strategist Alex Castellanos explained to CBS News.

 For their part, Democrats are trying to poke holes in that argument, loudly flagging the controversies surrounding two high-profile GOP governors, Christie and Walker, as well as criticizing that Republican bench of potential presidential candidates.

“A lot of our folks are more interested in spending time at home than they are about going to other states to lay the groundwork for future runs," said DNC spokesman Michael Czin.

The reality for the Democrats is, however, that behind Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, the number of nationally-known Democratic governors is sparse, especially at the gubernatorial level. Govs. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., and Martin O’Malley, D-Md., are the two top Democratic names that come up – Cuomo mainly because of his famous last name and O’Malley because of his eagerness to be on the national stage. One contributing factor for the lack of high-profile Democratic governors is simply an issue of numbers.

"I don't think it has anything to do with governing skills," David King, a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School told CBS News. "I think part of it is because there are 29 Republican governors and 21 Democratic governors. So Republicans have a slightly wider bench to choose from."

Part of it too is that the GOP, sans control of the White House since 2009, is searching for a leader and that vacuum has opened the door for successful Republicans at the state level to tout their successes nationally. 

While 2010 played a fundamental role in the weakening of the Democratic bench after the Republican Party added a net six governorships, others point to a Democratic dependence on Clinton as a root cause. When asked his opinion on why Democratic governors are not getting as much love on the national stage in comparison to Republican governors, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D-Mont., who’s considering a presidential run of his own, told CBS News, "We are a party looking inwardly at Hillary."

The reality is that Clinton is commanding the most attention when it comes to 2016. The consensus among members of both parties who spoke with CBS News is that most of the focus is being taken up by, as one put it, the “strongest presidential candidate” who has yet to declare her candidacy.

"This is always true when you have older dynastic elements in a party that just won't give up leadership, won't hand over the reins of leadership," Sabato explained.

Castellanos added, "Clinton sucks up whatever oxygen is left from Obama and doesn't leave much for Democratic governors.”