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Democrats play defense in governors’ races

By By Daniel C. Vock

Stateline.org (MCT)

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3 2012 9:43 a.m. MDT

Utah Governor Gary Herbert and challenger Peter Cooke chat before a debate on Friday, September 14, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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WASHINGTON — The race for New Hampshire governor has the hallmarks of the biggest gubernatorial races this fall: heavy involvement from outside groups, a national contest stealing the spotlight, and messages that echo themes from this year’s presidential campaigns.

Money is already pouring into gubernatorial races in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Montana, Washington state and West Virginia, and the campaigns are getting up to full speed.

Eleven states will choose their governors this November, at the same time voters choose between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Democrats are on the defensive in those contests. Half of the eight seats they are trying to hold on to this fall, like New Hampshire’s, are open because of term limits or retirements. Republicans, on the other hand, are losing only one incumbent.

Although New Hampshire kicked off the presidential contest in January with its first-in-the-nation primary, it did not select major-party candidates for governor until Sept. 11. National groups have been blasting the nominees on TV.

The Republicans picked Ovide Lamontagne, a lawyer who previously lost bids for governor and the U.S. Senate. He will face Democrat Maggie Hassan, a former majority leader in the state Senate who lost her seat in the 2010 Republican wave. The two are competing for a two-year term. John Lynch, the Democratic incumbent, is retiring.

A recent Granite State poll showed voters knew very little about either candidate.

Groups tied to the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association moved in quickly to tell voters what they thought of their opponents. A Republican group went after Hassan for pushing a state budget that included tax hikes. Democrats responded by hitting Lamontagne for working as a state lobbyist for a tobacco company.

It is no coincidence that both parties are using the strategies used by their national candidates, says Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducts the Granite State Poll every quarter. Republicans are stressing taxes and the economy, while Democrats are pressing personalities, social issues and “extremism,” Smith says. “For both parties, that makes it easier for these candidates, because they can just piggyback on the message that is being paid for by people with deeper pockets.”

The presidential race is dominating coverage in swing states such as New Hampshire and North Carolina, but national politics are also shaping gubernatorial races in places such as Missouri, Montana and West Virginia.

Even money spent on the gubernatorial races has ties to Washington, D.C. The partisan governors groups are expected to weigh in heavily (or already have) in Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Washington state and West Virginia. Often, they will act independently from their candidates, because low contribution limits prevent them from giving directly to their candidates, says RGA spokesman Mike Schrimpf.

The outside groups, especially the RGA, can play an outsized role in state elections, as Wisconsin saw earlier this year. The Republican governors spent more than $9 million to help Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker beat back a recall effort.

“Everybody understood the stakes, and it was worth every penny of that,” Schrimpf says. Changes pushed by Walker and other Republicans have helped shape national debates on entitlements, schools and taxes, he says.

Here is a look at some of the other states with governors’ races this fall:

Washington

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