The coronavirus has taken nearly 100,000 lives in the United States and created an economic collapse. It has also boosted the reelection odds of every governor running this year.
Possibly the biggest political impact of the coronavirus has been the near-universal positive feeling toward governors lately. A Survey Monkey poll out last week found that 49 of the nation’s 50 governors now have approval ratings higher than President Trump, whose own numbers fluctuate just outside of the margin of error.
Governors have seen some huge swings in poll numbers. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, for example, went from a 35 percent approval rating in January to 82 percent this month. Since Raimondo is term-limited, the electoral impact of that nearly 50-point swing is also limited.
Not so for the nine incumbent governors seeking reelection this year. For them, the impact has been huge. Those already likely to win reelection are even more likely now, and for those in trouble, the coronavirus, ironically, has been their political lifeline. Then again that’s how it looks in late May, but 2020 is nothing if not unpredictable. Anything could happen before November’s election.
In New England there are just two races for governor, both featuring Republican governors who were already popular ahead of the virus: Vermont’s Phil Scott and New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu.
Of the pair, Sununu was considered slightly more vulnerable, especially given that Democrats usually fare well in presidential years in New Hampshire and they will be running alongside US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who appears to be cruising to a third term.
However, public response to Sununu’s handling of the coronavirus has amazed veteran political observers in the state. They have never seen poll numbers so high.
A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll last week showed 87 percent of the state’s residents approved of his handling of the coronavirus outbreak. In April the same survey found he had 89 percent approval.
His two Democratic opponents, meanwhile, remain largely unknown and have struggled to challenge Sununu at all in the past few months.
In Vermont, the governor’s race was already sleepy before it went almost entirely underground as Scott took charge with widely seen news conferences.
Probably the biggest change in fortune is in North Carolina.
Before the coronavirus, only two of the 11 contests for governor this year were viewed as competitive. The open seat in Montana and North Carolina, where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper was seeking reelection after winning in by just 0.02 percent in 2016.
At the end of February, an East Carolina University poll said Cooper was leading his main Republican opponent by eight points. In May, as 63 percent of residents approved of his handling of the coronavirus, a different ECU poll found his lead had nearly doubled to 15 points.
Nearby in West Virginia, Governor Jim Justice faces a complicated reelection largely because he was elected as a Democrat and has since become a Republican. But he has now surged to a 74 percent approval rating.
At the moment, Montana is the only tossup governor’s race in the country. Ahead of the June 2 primary, candidates are running ads talking about the coronavirus, but no candidate seems to be benefiting more than any other. (Side note: Montana’s current governor, Steve Bullock, grew to a seven-point lead in his challenge of Republican Senator Steve Daines. Before the coronavirus, the race was basically tied.)
The only place where there hasn’t been much change is in Missouri, where support for Republican Governor Mike Parson and his main Democratic challenger, state Auditor Nicole Galloway, has basically remained the same. Parson has a strong lead.
Typically, gubernatorial races give voters a chance to discuss roads and schools and taxes in a way that is removed from Washington politics. So far, the coronavirus has superseded those conversations. At the moment that’s a good thing for every governor. But should things take a turn for the worse this fall, so could their political fortunes.