The other races to watch: Governors, pot and more

11:12 AM, Nov 6, 2012   |    comments
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(CBS NEWS) -- The presidential race isn't the only game-changing item on the 2012 ballot.

In a handful of states, voters will decide on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization and genetically modified food labeling. In some states, competitive races for the governor's office could reset economic policy. While ballot initiatives and gubernatorial races are decided at the state level, their impact could be felt nationwide.

There are 11 gubernatorial elections today, and Republicans have an opportunity to expand the number of governor's offices they occupy to its highest level in decades. Currently, the GOP holds 29 seats, while Democrats hold 20 (there's one independent governor: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island). Eight of the 11 seats up for grabs today are currently held by Democrats, giving Republicans an opportunity to increase their advantage.

In states with ballot initiatives, there are some firsts this year: Voters in a couple of states could legalize recreational marijuana use, setting up an unprecedented fight with the federal government. In other states, voters are likely to approve, for the first time in the nation, a ballot measure to allow for same-sex marriage instead of banning it.

Here's a look at the ballot initiatives and gubernatorial races to watch today:

Washington state's Initiative 502: Marijuana legalization

There are six states this November voting on marijuana-related measures, including three that would buck federal law and for the first time legalize the drug's recreational use at the state level: Washington state, Colorado and Oregon. Washington's Initiative 502 is the most likely to pass.

The measure, like its counterparts in Colorado and Oregon, would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. A University of Washington poll conducted Oct. 18-31 showed that 55.4 percent of likely voters in the state plan to vote for marijuana legalization while only 37.6 percent plan to vote against the measure. Both major candidates for governor, Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee, are opposed to I-502.

It's unclear exactly how the federal government would respond if a state chose to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Seventeen states have, over the past decade and a half, legalized medical marijuana -- also in violation of federal law, which prohibits any use of marijuana. However, it's up to federal officials how to enforce federal laws. In his first presidential campaign, President Obama promised to respect state medical marijuana laws, but his administration has cracked down on hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries, including some in compliance with state laws.

Washington state's Referendum 74: Allowing same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage has been the subject of legal debate for two decades, but 2012 may be the first year a ballot initiative in favor of same-sex marriage passes. There are four states this November with marriage questions on the ballot. In three states -- Maine, Maryland and Washington -- voters are being asked whether they should permit same-sex marriage. In Minnesota, voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Of the three states with ballot initiatives affirming same-sex marriage, Washington appears the most likely to approve it. The University of Washington poll conducted Oct. 18-31 showed that likely voters approve of the measure, 57.9 percent to 36.9 percent. Even after adjusting the poll's findings to account for "any possible social desirability bias that may lead to higher support levels for same sex marriage in the poll," the university predicted the measure would still pass with 52 percent support.

Over the years, U.S. voters have considered a total of 35 ballot measures banning same-sex marriage, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute, and all but one of those initiatives passed. The initiative that failed was Arizona's 2006 ballot measure, which would have put limits on civil unions as well as marriage. Public opinion is moving in favor of same-sex marriage -- in 2011, Gallup found for the first time that a majority of Americans supported it -- but the most recent ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage passed with strong support in North Carolina in May.

California's Proposition 37: Labeling genetically modified food

If Proposition 37 passes, California will be the first state to require labeling on genetically engineered food. The European Union has required such labeling since 1997, and the passage of Prop. 37 could thrust the issue into the national spotlight in the U.S.

A recent USC Dornsife/ Los Angeles Times poll, released Oct. 25, showed 44 percent of surveyed voters backing the initiative and 42 percent opposing it, while a full 14 percent were undecided. The poll suggests opponents of the proposition have the momentum -- support for Prop. 37 dropped 17 points over the last month while opposition to it grew by that much.

The growing opposition to the measure is likely connected to the well-financed campaign against it. As of Sunday, opponents of Prop. 37, led by biotechnology companies Monsanto and DuPont, had raised $45.6 million for their campaign. Supporters of the measure, by comparison, had raised just $8.9 million, according to Maplight.org.

Supporters of the proposition say consumers have a right to know what's in their food, while opponents say it would create undue bureaucracy that would raise food prices.

Montana's gubernatorial race

Montana is a solidly red state where Mitt Romney leads in the latest presidential poll by 10 points, but Democrats have been successful here -- outgoing Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer is terming out of office as the most popular politician in the state.

The race to replace Schweitzer, between former Republican Rep. Rick Hill and the Democratic state Attorney General Steve Bullock, is a prime opportunity for Republicans to gain a seat. Polls show the race is essentially a toss up. A Mason Dixon poll released last week showed Hill leading 49 percent to 46 percent, within in the poll's four-point margin of error. Libertarian Ron Vandevender won the support of two percent of the poll's respondents, and just three percent were undecided.

This last poll suggests that the race is competitive as ever, even after Hill endured a few weeks of bad press because of a legally questionable campaign donation. A state district judge last week blocked a $500,000 donation Hill received from the Montana Republican Party. While the judge said the donation was likely illegal, Hill's campaign has said otherwise, the Billings Gazette reported.

While both Bullock and Hill are relatively moderate, the election could alter state policy on significant issues like education. Hill, the Billings Gazette reports, supports creating charter schools and tax breaks for donations that help low-income students attend private colleges -- policies Bullock opposes.

New Hampshire's gubernatorial race

In New Hampshire, Republicans have another opportunity to pick up a seat currently held by a Democrat, retiring Gov. John Lynch.

Recent polls have shown the Democrat, former state Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan, with an edge over Republican Ovide Lamontagne, who in the past ran unsuccessful campaigns for governor and the U.S. Senate. This race, however, like the presidential contest in New Hampshire, is expected to be close.

The candidates have run aggressive campaigns, attacking each other in 12 debates over just eight weeks on issues ranging from taxes to abortion rights, the Nashua Telegraph reports.

When it comes to the critical issue of the economy, the Concord Monitor reports, the candidates offer starkly different visions: Hassan wants to spur economic growth by supporting education and building a strong workforce. That would mean funding for job-training programs and higher education, as well as doubling the state's research-and-development tax credit. Lamontagne, meanwhile, wants to stimulate the economy by relieving the private sector of burdensome taxes and regulations. He's proposing cutting New Hampshire's business profits tax, implementing a temporary moratorium for new regulations and creating new tax credits to support manufacturing jobs.

North Carolina's gubernatorial race

In 2008, President Obama managed to win North Carolina by a narrow margin -- as did Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. But while Mr. Obama's victory was the first in the state for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976, North Carolina hasn't elected a Republican governor since 1984.

That could change this year: Perdue is not running for another term, and polls show the North Carolina race could be the Republicans' best chance to take back a governor's seat. Perdue's lieutenant governor, Walter Dalton, is running against Republican Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte who lost to Perdue four years ago. Every poll out of North Carolina has given McCrory a solid lead, even as the state remains a battleground in the presidential race.

The new governor, regardless of who wins, will come into office with an unusual level of power, the Charlotte Observer reports. The next governor could fill 1,000 state jobs with political allies thanks to a new state law, and he gets to fill a number of key slots on high-profile boards. Furthermore, if McCrory wins, it will give the GOP complete control of North Carolina lawmaking for the first time since the 1980's.

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