The governors themselves will have a big impact on the 2012 presidential contest. Their governance will send a powerful signal, but the very fact that almost a dozen governorships will be on the ballot is going to inject big money into key states. Those governors who do not have to seek reelection next year can donate their political organizations—often the best existing machines in their states—to their party’s eventual nominee.
A party holding the governorship is an advantage in a presidential contest, though it doesn’t guarantee a victory. The correlation between a governor’s mansion and winning elections is much stronger when it comes to Senate contests. Since 1995, almost three quarters of the Senate seats Republicans have picked up have come in states that either had a Republican governor serving at the time or had a Republican gubernatorial candidate win the same day.
So while both Democratic and Republican presidential field organizations will benefit from having governors in charge in key states, the real impact of the GOP’s 2010 gubernatorial victories could come in Senate races: In nine of the 11 states that hold governor elections in 2012, a Senate seat is also on the ballot.
Republicans would seem to have the upper hand. Of the 13 states rated toss-up or leaning toward one party or another by the Cook Political Report, eight have Republican governors. Those eight states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia—make up 118 electoral votes; that’s more than enough, when added to each party’s base vote, to push either side to the 270 required to win the presidency. Republicans are aiming for Senate seats in several states in which governorships are on the ballot, including in Montana, North Dakota, and Missouri.
What’s more, Republicans will work hard to win the three toss-up or lean states that have Democratic governors seeking another term.
Stuart Rothenberg rebuts articles claiming that unpopular GOP governors could hurt the party's presidential nominee:
What has been missing from every one of these pieces is evidence of unpopular governors damaging their presidential nominees’ prospects in the past. In fact, not a single one of the people who have asserted that the damage is likely pointed to a previous instance where it occurred.
Now, it’s certainly possible that this could be the first time in our nation’s history that an unpopular governor of a swing state will damage his party’s presidential nominee, but the paucity of evidence surely is a problem for those making the argument.
Essentially, what we have been given by the folks at PPP and others is a scenario, a notion, an idea, a thought. They are a dime a dozen in politics. Every candidate I interview has a scenario of how he is going to win. Every vacuous talking head on TV has a scenario about some outcome.
I looked for instances where an unpopular governor was the decisive factor in how a state voted for president, and I didn’t find much.