Over the last 50 years, governors have been knocked out of office in three straight elections in just four states

For every midterm election cycle going back more than a century to 1914, at least two governors have failed in their bid for another term, averaging 6.6 governors during this 27-cycle span.

That streak should easily be extended in 2022 with several incumbents involved in ‘toss-up’ races.

But there are two governors seeking reelection who – although they are favored to win another four years in office – have nonetheless seen each of their last two predecessors fall short of that goal.

This November, Alaska and Illinois could join a fairly small list of states which have had gubernatorial incumbents lose in three consecutive election cycles over the last half-century.

The last two cycles in Alaska have seen Republican Sean Parnell fall to independent Bill Walker in 2014 and Walker in turn lose to current GOP governor Mike Dunleavy (pictured above) dropping out of the race a fortnight before Election Day.

Dunleavy is not only facing a rematch with Walker in the state’s new top-four primary system this November, but also Republican challengers from his right such as state Representative Christopher Kurka.

In Illinois, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn lost to businessman Bruce Rauner in 2014 and then Rauner was defeated by current Governor J.B. Pritzker four years later.

Pritzker has a fairly clear path to the nomination and will await the winner of a crowded GOP primary field.

During the last half-century, governors have been defeated in three consecutive cycles just four times including only once during the last 30 years:

  • Massachusetts: Republican Francis Sargent lost to Michael Dukakis in 1974, Dukakis lost the 1978 primary to Edward King, and King lost the 1982 primary to Dukakis
  • Texas: Democrat Dolph Briscoe was defeated in the 1978 primary by John Hill, Republican Bill Clements lost the 1982 general to Democrat Bill White, and White lost the 1986 rematch against Clements
  • Louisiana: Republican David Treen lost the 1983 jungle primary to former Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards, Edwards advanced from the 1987 primary but then withdrew to ensure the election of fellow Democrat Buddy Roemer, and Roemer (now a Republican) failed to advance from the 1991 primary eventually won by Edwards.
  • Alabama: Elevated Democratic Governor Jim Folsom lost to Republican Fob James in 1994, James was defeated by Democrat Don Siegelman in 1998, and Siegelman fell to Republican Bob Riley in 2002

Three other states have seen governors lose their bids for another term in three straight cycles overlapping part of the last half-century:

  • Alaska: Democrat William Egan (1966), elevated Republican Governor Keith Miller (1970), and Egan once again (1974)
  • Delaware: Democrat Charles Terry (1968), Republican Russell Peterson (1972), and Democrat Sherman Tribbitt (1976)
  • Illinois: Elevated Democratic Governor Samuel Shapiro (1968), Republican Richard Ogilvie (1972), and Democrat Daniel Walker (1976, primary)

Over the last 100+ years since 1914, there have been 21 instances of primary or general election voters knocking their gubernatorial incumbents out of office in at least three straight cycles.

The record during this span was set in Michigan with governors losing in six straight cycles: Republican Wilbur Brucker in 1932, Democrat William Comstock in 1934 (primary), Republican Frank Fitzgerald in 1936, Democrat Frank Murphy in 1938, Republican Luren Dickinson in 1940, and Democrat Murray Van Wagoner in 1942.

It has also happened in four consecutive cycles in Wisconsin (Republican Fred Zimmerman in 1928 (primary), Republican Walter Kohler in 1930 (primary), Republican Philip La Follette in 1932 (primary), and Democrat Albert Schmedeman in 1934) and New Mexico (Democrat John Simms in 1956, Republican Ed Mechem in 1958, Democrat John Burroughs in 1960, and Mechem again in 1962).

Incumbents fell in six out of eight cycles during a 14-year span in Wisconsin (1928, 1930, 1932, 1934, 1938, 1942) and during a 16-year period in Connecticut (1938, 1940, 1942, 1948, 1950, 1954).

Other states that saw incumbents lose three straight races include Arizona (1928, 1930, 1932), California (1922, 1926, 1930), Idaho (1938, 1940, 1942), Minnesota (1960, 1962, 1966), New York (1918, 1920, 1922), Oregon (1922, 1926, 1930), Rhode Island (1958, 1960, 1962), Washington (1940, 1944, 1948), and Wyoming (1954, 1958, 1962).

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  1. Flickertail-Pembina on April 28, 2022 at 1:55 pm

    Well, I suppose it could be said that both William Martin “Bill” Walker (AK/2018) and Edwin Washington Edwards (LA/1987) EFEECTIVELY lost their respective bids for another term (both, though, chose the political equivalent of ‘forfeit’ rather than be ‘checkmated’ in those elections). As for the AK elections, the newly-adopted system is arguably designed to bolster the electoral prospects of contenders who could appeal to less partisan, more pragmatic voters, such as Walker and Nick Begich III rather than the ilk of Christopher Kurka and Sarah Palin.

  2. Connor Cobb on April 30, 2022 at 12:07 pm

    Mike Dunleavy, should he win, would be the 1st AK gov to get reelected since 1998.

  3. John Chessant on May 2, 2022 at 2:14 am

    There are a few more examples of three-peats if we also include governors who could have sought reelection but instead chose to retire.

    *Oklahoma: David Hall defeated incumbent Dewey Bartlett in 1970 (the first election in which an Oklahoma governor was eligible to seek a second consecutive term), Hall was defeated in the Democratic primary in 1974, and in 1978 David Boren successfully ran for the Senate rather than for reelection.
    *Wisconsin: Lee Dreyfus defeated incumbent Martin Schreiber (who had ascended to the governorship in 1977 succeeding Patrick Lucey) in 1978, Dreyfus retired after one term in 1982, and in 1986 Tommy Thompson defeated incumbent Tony Earl.
    *Nebraska: Bob Kerrey defeated incumbent Charles Thone in 1982, Kerrey retired after one term in 1986, and in 1990 Ben Nelson defeated incumbent Kay Orr.
    *Alaska: incumbent Bill Sheffield was defeated in the Democratic primary in 1986, and incumbents Steve Cowper and Wally Hickel each retired after one term in 1990 and 1994, respectively.
    *Texas: The ‘pure’ three-peat discussed in the article can be extended two more cycles, as Clements retired in 1990 and George W. Bush defeated incumbent Ann Richards in 1994. [Likewise, Louisiana’s three-peat can be extended by one to include Edwards’s retirement in 1995.]

    Technically we may also include New Jersey (2001, 2005, 2009) as the acting incumbents during the 2001 and 2005 elections each chose not to seek a full term, while in 2009 Chris Christie defeated incumbent Jon Corzine.

    A three-peat under this expanded definition was narrowly avoided in 2020 when incumbent Roy Cooper was reelected over Dan Forest by a margin of 4.5 points; in 2012 incumbent Bev Perdue had retired and in 2016 Cooper had defeated incumbent Pat McCrory. Three-peats were also avoided in Florida in 1974 and South Carolina in 2006, among others.

    Current polling seems to indicate that while Pritzker is in no danger of losing reelection, Walker stands a not insignificant chance of unseating Dunleavy and becoming the first governor since the trio of Branstad/Brown/Kitzhaber in 2010 to be elected to a nonconsecutive term. [Charlie Crist and Paul LePage are also running for their old seats in 2022, while Tommy Thompson recently announced that he will not run.]

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