2013-2014 Governor's Races: Who's Not Vulnerable?

These 22 governors appear to be in good shape to be reelected in 2014. How did they manage it?
by , | December 13, 2012

The nation may have just completed one election cycle, but it's already transitioning into the next one -- a cycle that will include 38 gubernatorial races.

In this last of three installments, we are evaluating the 15 governors we are rating as "not currently vulnerable." Among the governorships rated as such, the GOP holds 15 seats and the Democrats hold seven.

As we indicated in the initial article, we are evaluating the 38 gubernatorial contests for the 2013-2014 election cycle. To gauge the state of these races, we reached out to several dozen political observers in the states, as well as reviewed recent polling data. We are categorizing no fewer than 22 of the 38 gubernatorial races over the next two years as "not currently vulnerable."

By contrast, we are calling just five governorships "vulnerable" and 10 more "potentially vulnerable." (We are not categorizing New Hampshire yet, since it is one of two states, along with Vermont, that elect governors every two years. Its governor, Democrat Maggie Hassan, has not even been sworn in yet.)

As always in our handicapping, "vulnerability" refers either to the weakness of an incumbent governor's chances of winning reelection, or, if the governor is retiring, the weakness of the incumbent party's ability to hold the seat after his or her departure. Vulnerability, in our ratings, does not mean an incumbent governor is at risk of losing a primary contest, though this possibility is discussed in many of the state-by-state capsules below.

In alphabetical order, the 22 "not currently vulnerable" governors are:

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R)

Bentley has neither made colossal mistakes nor had enormous triumphs, but as a Republican governing a Republican stronghold -- and a state where the Democratic bench is dissipating almost by the day -- Bentley is unlikely to get much competition from a Democratic challenger. It's possible that Bentley, who will be 71 in 2014, could decide to retire (though he has given no indication of doing so yet). A likelier possibility is the emergence of a GOP primary challenger. There may be lingering animosities in the state GOP between Bentley's allies and a faction loyal to his predecessor, GOP Gov. Bob Riley, who supported a different candidate, Bradley Byrne, in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary. But no such primary challenger has yet emerged for 2014.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R)

Parnell served half the term won by Sarah Palin before winning a full four years in 2010. He's certainly the favorite, and if he gets the itch to run elsewhere instead -- such as mounting a challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich -- another Republican would likely fill the void, since the Democratic bench in the state is so thin. That said, the precise conditions for 2014 remain to be determined. In this year's elections, the Republicans enlarged their House majority and seized the state Senate after six years in which a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans had run the chamber. An unchecked conservative agenda could promote the kind of populist backlash that brought Palin to power in 2006 as a reformist figure.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D)

Assuming Brown runs for another term -- and even though he will be 76 on Election Day 2014, that's what observers expect -- he will be in the driver's seat. Brown is about the only California governor in the last half-century to have "escaped the sophomore jinx that has plagued his predecessors," the Los Angeles Times' George Skelton recently wrote. That is not to say that the next two years will be without drama. The Golden State faces the combination of economic challenges and an emboldened and unrestrained Democratic majority in the Legislature, which will force Brown to be pragmatic and resist his party's urges to boost spending. The state is only tentatively emerging from a deep recession and a severe fiscal crisis, but Brown's remedy -- the tax-raising Proposition 30 -- passed muster with the voters in 2012, giving him a mandate to work with the Legislature. Brown's post-election approval rating was 49 percent in a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. The GOP influence has been decreasing steadily in the state, with few if any candidates who could run a credible campaign against even a weakened Brown. But there's a wild card: California's new top-two primary system allows candidates of the same party to face off in the general election, a possible lure for ambitious Democrats such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. A Democrat wouldn't have to beat Brown in a primary - they'd only have to come in second to earn a one-on-one shot at the incumbent in which every voter would be in play.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D)

Hickenlooper has maintained high popularity since his 2010 election, ranging from the mid-50s to 60 percent in the past few months and making him one of the nation's most popular governors. He's done it by taking a pragmatic, pro-business, socially liberal approach. He will soon have both the state House and state Senate in Democratic hands, so he may face some tougher choices reining in his party than he has during his first two years. He also may have to deal more aggressively than he has so far in addressing the state's fiscal imbalances. Any stumbles would provide an opening for such Republicans as U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner or Secretary of State Scott Gessler. But for now, Hickenlooper starts off in a good position.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R)

Some day, Georgia might return to being a competitive state, but for now, Deal looks like a strong bet to win a second term. His victory in 2010 over former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes was by a 10-point margin, despite Barnes's high name identification and Deal's baggage from a tough primary. A Democrat might choose to run in 2014 to raise their name recognition for a subsequent open-seat bid, such as state Sen. Jason Carter, state Rep. Stacy Abrams or Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. But Deal doesn't seem vulnerable right now.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R)

There's no reason to think this seat is vulnerable to a Democratic challenge; the number of Democrats who could make a credible statewide run in Idaho is small to nonexistent. But it's not clear yet whether Otter will seek a third term. Informed speculation suggests that Otter would like to see his lieutenant governor, Brad Little, succeed him. But with the rise of the Tea Party -- and questions being asked about what kind of tangible legacy Otter is leaving -- other candidates might make primary bids against Little. These include U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna (despite a stinging loss for Luna's education reform package at the hands of the voters in 2012).

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R)

Now serving his fifth term as governor, Branstad is a genuine institution in Iowa politics. If he wants a sixth term in 2014 -- and judging by the fundraisers he's held with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, he seems to want it -- he would be heavily favored. A November survey by Public Policy Polling found Branstad's approval rating at 49 percent and had him leading a hypothetical challenger, 49 percent to 40 percent. On the Democratic side, former Gov. Chet Culver -- the incumbent Branstad defeated in 2010 - could run, as could state senators Mike Gronstal, Rob Hogg, Jeff Danielson and Jack Hatch. A potential dark horse is John Norris, who's currently with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission but who has deep roots in Iowa politics and ties to former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack. All would face an uphill climb against Branstad.

Maryland: Open seat; held by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D)

O'Malley is term-limited and widely believed to be trying to parlay his strong but not spectacular approval ratings -- 49 percent approval to 41 percent disapproval in an October Washington Post poll -- into a presidential run in 2016, bolstered by big wins in 2012 on same-sex-marriage and DREAM Act ballot measures. The Democrats have a deep bench in this solidly blue state: Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown; Attorney General Doug Gansler; and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. It's too early to handicap the Democratic field with any precision, but Brown claimed early frontrunner status by touting the results of an internal poll. The main figures on the Republican side are Larry Hogan, a former member of then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich's cabinet and president of the fiscally conservative group Change Maryland, and David Craig, the Harford County executive and a former lawmaker.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D)

Voters soured on the GOP in Minnesota in the 2012 election, flipping both the Senate and House from Republican to Democratic control. This gives Dayton a friendlier Legislature, though it also removes a foil that helped his approval reach 48 percent positive, 37 percent negative in a September Public Policy Polling survey. There's no shortage of potential GOP challengers -- outgoing House Speaker Kurt Zellers, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, state Sen. Julie Rosen, U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, incoming Senate Minority Leader Sen. David Hann, former state Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Weaver and 2010 GOP nominee Tom Emmer. The state's fiscal challenges could make Dayton vulnerable, and there's a chance he might choose not to stand for reelection, as he has done in previous offices. But for now, Dayton seems to be in good shape.

Nebraska: Open seat;held by Gov. Dave Heineman (R)

It's hard to imagine the Democrats winning the governorship in such a solidly conservative state, so the action to succeed Heineman, a two-and-a-half-term governor with a stratospheric 74 percent approval rating, will be occurring largely on the GOP side. Heineman has been touting his lieutenant governor, Rick Sheehy. The unicameral Legislature's outgoing Speaker Mike Flood was expected to run until he withdrew in December after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Other GOP candidates could include state Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg and state Sen. Charlie Janssen, who is best known for his opposition to illegal immigration. On the Democratic side, the most frequent speculation is about state Sen. Steve Lathrop.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R)

Nevada, hard hit by the recession, turned strongly Democratic in the 2012 presidential race. Still, Sandoval seems to be defying gravity. One of the GOP's fresh Latino faces, Sandoval has crossover appeal; his approval ratings have been roughly 60 percent, meaning that a swath of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents must be satisfied with him. The state's economy is improving slowly, and Sandoval has benefited from having the Democratic Legislature as a foil. The Democratic bench is headed by Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who may or may not run, and who wouldn't be a slam-dunk if she did. Other possibilities include Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R)

Unseating Christie -- a governor with a national profile and a take-no-prisoners approach that appeals to voters from both parties -- would have been difficult before Hurricane Sandy. Now, after a strong performance in leading the storm recovery, Christie looks nearly invincible. A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll taken after Sandy found a 69 percent approval rating; a Quinnipiac poll found him leading Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the top potential Democratic challenger, 53 percent to 35 percent; and a Rutgers-Eagleton poll found 59 percent supporting a second term for Christie, compared to just 32 percent who opposed his re-election. Christie's embrace of Obama after the storm may have been anathema to national Republican leaders, but it played well in the Garden State, where voters easily went for Obama in 2012. Christie has been less popular in the past due partly to his penchant for aggressive and polarizing comments, and time could dim the luster of his post-Sandy leadership; his clear national ambitions could also pose challenges as he positions himself as a national GOP figure while still governing a Democratic-leaning state. But the election is taking place in 2013, and Christie's currently strong approval ratings may be high enough to scare off Booker. (Officially, he's still considering a bid.) If Booker doesn't run, Senate President Stephen Sweeney -- who has alternately worked with and sparred with Christie -- is expected to run.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R)

Like Nevada's Sandoval, Martinez has attracted national attention for being a fresh Latino face within the GOP. She's popular at home too, even as New Mexico shifted dramatically from a swing state on the presidential level to a solid Obama state. An Albuquerque Journal poll in mid-September found that she had a 69 percent approval rating overall; even 56 percent of Democrats approved. She has pursued an agenda of campaigning against driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, opposing new taxes, and trimming the size of government. She hasn't always gotten what she wanted -- the Legislature remains in Democratic hands -- but this may have helped keep her agenda sufficiently boxed in to keep from alienating Democrats. Martinez also benefits from the lack of scandals like the ones that dogged the preceding Democratic administration. The Democratic bench isn't as strong as the state's partisan lean would suggest. Attorney General Gary King is running, but some have questioned the effectiveness of his office. Another potential candidate is Albuquerque attorney Sam Bregman, who has been a vocal critic of the governor's, but who failed in a bid to become chairman of the state Democratic Party. State Auditor Hector Balderas has been viewed as a rising star and may jump in. A key factor to watch: Does Martinez decide to have the state participate in enhanced Medicaid coverage under Obama's health care law? If not, the Democrats could have a marquee issue.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)

Cuomo, a national figure even before he took office in 2010, has not disappointed. He took steps to tame an unruly Albany, produced a solid budget and won the hearts of the liberal base with his efforts to pass same-sex marriage. A late October Marist poll found a 59 percent approval rating while a November Siena poll had it a notch higher at 60 percent. There's not much of a Republican bench in New York state, and little reason to expect any primary challenges. The bigger question is what happens if Cuomo starts focusing on an expected presidential run rather than minding the store back home.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R)

Fallin remains popular in Oklahoma after a long career in state politics -- serving as a state representative, then lieutenant governor and as a member of Congress. A SoonerPoll.com survey from late last year found a 70 percent approval rating. Her agenda of tax cuts suits her solidly red state, and she's poised to get a bigger national profile, both from her position as a leading woman within the GOP and as vice chair of the National Governors Association. The Democratic bench in Oklahoma is thin; it's possible that a Republican could challenge Fallin from the right, but she would be in a strong position to turn it back.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D)

Kitzhaber, who is in his third non-consecutive term, worked with a divided Legislature during the first two years of his current term and won approval of education and health-care overhauls. The impact of these reforms isn't known yet, and the economy remains sluggish. But a September poll by Riley Research Associates found Kitzhaber with a 55 percent approval rating. Outside of two Senate races, the GOP hasn't won a statewide office in two decades, and the Republican who kept it close with Kitzhaber in 2010, Chris Dudley, has since moved out of state. The strongest challenger might have been U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, but the House Republicans tapped him to head the National Republican Congressional Committee. Kitzhaber's likely push to change the public pension system could draw a primary challenger from his left. But if he runs again, he's the odds-on favorite.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R)

Despite losing a ballot measure fight over education reforms in 2012, Daugaard doesn't appear too vulnerable in this solidly Republican state. He had 60 percent approval ratings in a recent poll, and the Democrats will likely find it hard to find a major candidate to run against him.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R)

Haslam has been a relatively pragmatic governor in an increasingly conservative state with a somewhat unruly Legislature. But while he's irritated the GOP base at times, a recent Middle Tennessee State University poll found he had an overall 68 percent approval rating, including an impressive 54 percent of Democrats. This suggests Haslam's bigger concern could be from a Tea Party challenge.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)

The most important question is whether Perry -- who has been serving since George W. Bush left for the White House in 2000 -- will run for another four-year term. He hasn't ruled it out, and he's continued to raise money. But the scars from Perry's ill-fated presidential run in 2012 are more than superficial. A late October University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that only 22 percent of voters would vote for Perry for governor again in 2014, compared to 42 percent who said they would vote against him and 35 percent who said they wanted to see who ran against him -- a horrible result for any Republican in Texas. The most obvious potential primary contender -- or the frontrunner if Perry decides not to run again -- is Attorney General Greg Abbott. But the state has a huge Republican bench that's been frozen out of the governorship during Perry's long tenure, so a wide-open primary is possible if Perry leaves, likely including candidates from the party's establishment and Tea Party wings. On the Democratic side, state Sen. Wendy Davis, who just won a second term in a Republican-leaning district, might be a plausible contender for the nomination; Democrats also dream of San Antonio Mayor and Democratic National Convention keynoter Julian Castro, but he seems inclined to stay on as mayor. It may not matter -- any Democrat will be at a steep disadvantage in a statewide race in Texas, and that should remain the case at least until demographic changes favorable to the Democrats kick into high gear.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D)

Shumlin, initially elected in a squeaker in 2010, won easily in 2012 with 58 percent of the vote. (Vermont, along with New Hampshire, elects its governors every two years.) Barring something unexpected, he should be able to win solidly blue Vermont again in 2014.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R)

Much to the chagrin of Democrats who fought Walker's aggressively conservative agenda tooth and nail, Walker looks reasonably safe now despite the state's embrace of Obama in the 2012 election. In mid-2012, Walker fended off a recall by a larger margin than he had won by two years earlier. He's fallen short on his pledge to create 250,000 new jobs, but the budget cuts he made are expected to bring a small surplus -- and a tax cut -- at the end of the two-year budget cycle. His approval rating, according to Public Policy Polling, is 50 percent positive, 43 percent negative. Meanwhile, the Democrats seem to have a shortage of possible candidates. Some think Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will give it a third go, but that's a measure of how shallow the field is. U.S. Rep. Ron Kind is another possibility. Otherwise, it could be a legislative leader, though the Democrats have just lost their last toehold of control in the Legislature -- a short-lived and narrow Senate majority -- and that will make it harder for any Democrat to make a mark.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R)

Polling in Wyoming is scarce, but there's little reason to believe Mead is in much danger -- certainly not from the Democrats, who have withered in the state. A January 2012 poll had his approval rating at 77 percent.

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