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Governors’ races are test runs for White House

November 1, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) — Democratic and Republican candidates are locked in tight governors’ races across the U.S. that could resonate far beyond Tuesday’s elections and have implications for the 2016 presidential contest.

Most of the 36 races for governor have been overshadowed by the fierce fight for control of the Senate, with Republicans hoping to wrest the majority from the Democrats. But a number of competitive governors’ races from Florida and Colorado to Michigan and Wisconsin have drawn appearances from prospective White House contenders trying to lay out friendly terrain for 2016.

The stakes are perhaps highest in Florida, and not just for Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his opponent Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor-turned-Democrat. The results could provide a blueprint on how White House candidates could win over Florida’s two all-important voting blocs, retirees and Hispanic voters.

Neither reliably Democratic nor Republican, Florida is an important battleground state, and no candidate has won the White House without carrying the state since 1992. Neither Scott nor Crist are among the names being tossed around as potential 2016 candidates, but as governor, either would become a powerful ally for their party’s presidential nominee.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading potential Democratic candidate, has stopped by to support Crist’s campaign, as has her husband, former President Bill Clinton. But if Scott wins, it would be a boost for three Republicans in particular who are considering presidential runs: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie, the leader of the Republican Governors Association, has campaigned for Scott and other Republican governor candidates in states that voted for Obama in 2012. Victories in there would burnish the New Jersey governor’s credentials as a Republican who can help secure moderates in swing states and Democratic strongholds.

Even more is at stake for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is in a tough fight for re-election. Ousting Walker would be a huge victory for Democrats, dooming the presidential prospects of one of the country’s most high-profile Republicans. Walker became a hero to many conservatives when he survived a recall referendum spearheaded by opponents of his law that toughened rules for labor unions. If he wins a second term, it would instantly raise his credibility as a conservative Republican able to prevail in heavily working-class state that Obama won two years ago.

In Florida, perhaps no issue is more intriguing for the 2016 picture than the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Reflecting a growing shift in U.S. attitudes, Crist has called for ending the 44-year-old embargo, trying to make inroads with a new generation of Cuban-Americans who favor normalizing relations with the communist island. Clinton, a former secretary of state, has taken the same gamble, calling the embargo ineffective in her book “Hard Choices.”

Scott supports the embargo, accusing Crist of “standing with Castro.” If the governor is re-elected, it could not only vindicate his stance but encourage Sen. Rubio, who staunchly supports the trade restrictions.

A more direct impact on the 2016 election could be the fate of voting restrictions imposed in Florida under Scott, including reducing early voting hours ahead of the 2012 presidential race and undoing the automatic restoration of voting rights for former nonviolent felons, said Daniel Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. Democrats say those policies are aimed at disenfranchising voters who traditionally lean Democratic, including the poor and African-Americans.

“If Scott is re-elected, those restrictions will remain in place. If Crist wins, a major shift in the playing field for the 2016 election is in store,” Smith said.

Issues of interest in swing states are important in U.S. presidential elections because the winner is not decided by the nationwide popular vote. Instead, states award a set number of “electoral votes”— determined by the state’s population — to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

Republicans are expected to fare well in another critical bellwether state, Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich, another name who figures into the 2016 discussion, appears headed for easy re-election.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, Republicans are trying to protect the vulnerable governor of Michigan and oust the Democratic governor of Illinois. Both outcomes would be a huge blow to the Democrats, proving Republican policies can be popular in traditionally liberal strongholds. In Colorado and Connecticut, two Democratic governors are facing tough challenges in what could be testing grounds for stricter gun laws enacted there following mass shootings.

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Associated Press writers Ken Thomas, Jill Colvin, Michael J. Mishak, Gary Fineout and Scott Bauer contributed to this report.

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