Stateline Story

Tuesday's Primaries: What to Watch

In the busiest primary election day of the year, voters in 10 states will go to the polls Tuesday (June 8) to decide a wide range of questions from whether Maine will reform its tax code to which Republican will face off against Jerry Brown in the California governor's race. Here are key themes to watch in the state-level contests:

Governor candidates winnowed

Voters in six states — California, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, South Carolina and South Dakota — will choose their major-party nominees for governor.

By far the most high-profile and costly of the races is in California, where former eBay CEO Meg Whitman faces Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner in the Republican primary. The Wall Street Journal reports that Whitman has spent a staggering $80 million — much of it her own money — on the campaign, while Poizner has shelled out $24 million. Among the key themes in the primary has been immigration, as Poizner has voiced support for Arizona's controversial new law while Whitman opposes it.

The winner will take on Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown, a former California governor from 1975 to 1983.

Perhaps the most colorful of the gubernatorial primary races is in South Carolina, where the field of Republicans vying to replace Governor Mark Sanford has engaged in one of the more memorable — and politically nasty — primary campaigns in memory. The GOP front-runner, state Representative Nikki Haley, has surged to a lead after being endorsed by former Alaska governor and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. But Haley has battled unproven accusations from two bloggers that she engaged in inappropriate physical relationships with them. The charges could be particularly resonant in South Carolina, where Sanford is stepping down after revealing an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman last year. The Washington Post profiled the race in a front-page feature on Monday (June 7).

The Christian Science Monitor noted that Haley and Whitman, should they be successful, could be part of an emerging " year of the Republican woman."

Incumbent governors in trouble

Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons- who has struggled with low approval ratings for much of his rocky tenure — could become the first sitting governor in state history to lose in a primary. His GOP opponent, former federal judge Brian Sandoval, has maintained a sizable lead in the polls, and Gibbons has suffered from a lack of campaign cash. As the Las Vegas Sun bluntly put it , "Rarely in American politics has an incumbent governor — at least one who hasn't been indicted — been so left for dead."

While Gibbons may face more serious electoral difficulties than other incumbents, he isn't the only sitting governor to face a tough primary challenge so far this year. As Stateline reported, Pat Quinn of Illinois narrowly averted defeat in his own primary in February.

Besides Gibbons, Iowa Governor Chet Culver is only other incumbent governor on the ballot today, but he is unopposed. The first-term Democrat, however, has his work cut out for him ahead of November, as polls have shown him struggling in hypothetical matchups against his Republican counterparts.

If history is any guide, several incumbents could lose this year. In 2002, the last time a major gubernatorial election cycle happened during a state budget crisis, four sitting governors were ousted.

Year of the ex-governor?

One of Culver's potential opponents in November, Terry Branstad, is a former Iowa governor who wants his old job back. If Branstad wins Tuesday's Republican primary, he would become the third ex-governor around the country — along with Brown in California and John Kitzhaber in Oregon — to qualify for the November ballot. Two more ex-governors, Maryland's Robert Ehrlich and Georgia's Roy Barnes, also want to return to power.

Branstad and Ehrlich are Republicans; Barnes, Brown and Kitzhaber are Democrats.

Key ballot questions

Californians could vote to fundamentally change the way they choose executive, legislative and congressional candidates, as Stateline first noted in April. The new system would be modeled after a "top-two" method already in use in Washington State and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The system would allow all voters to choose their top two candidates in a first round of balloting, regardless of whether those candidates are from the same party. Those candidates then would advance to the general election.

Meanwhile, Maine voters — besides choosing from a broad field of gubernatorial candidates — also will weigh in on a tax reform plan that cleared the legislature last year. As Stateline reported in a feature on Monday, voters will be asked to approve a single, lower income-tax rate for all Mainers, while expanding the sales tax base to include more goods and services.