Handicapping the 2013-2014 Governors Races: The Democrats

Governing looks at the seats that are currently leaning Democratic.
July 16, 2013

Now that we've looked at the seats where the GOP has high hopes in the 2013-2014 gubernatorial contests, it's time to turn our attention to states where the Democrats have a gubernatorial edge.

To recap, Republicans currently hold 30 governorships, while the Democrats hold 20. There are 38 gubernatorial races in 2013-2014, of which almost two-thirds are not competitive at this time -- 16 seats are safe or likely Republican and eight seats are safe or likely Democratic. The remainder of the seats are competitive. The GOP currently holds eight of these competitive seats, while the Democrats hold six.

Once you factor in one Democratic-held seat that's currently leaning Republican (Arkansas), the best-case scenario for the GOP would be a net three-seat gain, while the best-case scenario for the Democrats would be a net four-seat gain. Unless a strong partisan tide develops by Election Day, the most likely result will probably be somewhere in the middle of these extremes, suggesting something close to a wash. Given these parameters, the GOP lead in governorships seems relatively secure, though it could easily shrink a bit.

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As always, our ratings are based on interviews with dozens of political observers in the states, as well as a review of recent polling data. In addition to rating each race as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic, we have sought to rank-order the seats most likely to be won by either party, except for the safe Republican and safe Democratic categories, which are listed alphabetically.

For each of the other categories, the governorships are listed in order from the most likely to be won by the GOP to the most likely to be won by the Democrats. The idea is that, once the results are in, we should be able to draw a line somewhere in the middle of the tossup category that divides the seats won by the GOP and the seats won by the Democrats.

We have ranked all races together, including New Jersey and Virginia, which will hold their contests in 2013 as opposed to 2014.

For ease of reading, we've broken up our handicapping into three separate pieces that will appear over the next several days. We've already handicapped the Republican-leaning races. This piece includes every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Democratic. The third article will feature the seven tossup races.

Here's the full rundown for the Democratic-leaning contests:

Lean Democratic

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D)

Despite his state's strong Democratic tilt, Quinn is in trouble everywhere and with everyone. A Chicago Sun-Times poll from May found him with a 28 percent approval rating overall and a dismal 15 percent approval rating among Independents. He does best in heavily Democratic Chicago with 44 percent approval, but as a ceiling, that's low; his rating goes down the further you travel from the big city. Quinn's largely successful efforts to close mental health and prison facilities and his strong support for gun control are unpopular downstate, which accounts for about one-third of the vote. Meanwhile, Quinn's problem with Independents has been exacerbated by the failure so far to secure a solution to Illinois' pension problems, as well as by his inability to clear the state's backlog of unpaid bills. Quinn's weak position has already attracted one top-tier Democrat to mount a primary challenge -- former White House Chief of Staff William Daley -- but popular Attorney General Lisa Madigan would be an even bigger threat if she jumps into the race. The GOP has no shortage of candidates, either: Self-funding financier Bruce Rauner, who's running as an outsider; state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who's from downstate; state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who's conservative but with a softer public image; and socially conservative 2010 nominee Bill Brady. As long as Quinn isn't the Democratic nominee, the party should have a slight edge given the general lean of the state, but this contest has a lot of moving parts and it bears close watching as fodder for a GOP flip.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D)

After a charmed two years in office in which he won high approval ratings for steering a pragmatic and moderate course, Hickenlooper, prodded by an activist Democratic-controlled legislature, has taken more risks in 2013 and seen his popularity decline overall, especially among Republicans and Independents. After ranging from the mid-50s to 60 percent approval in 2012, he registered 47 percent approval to 43 percent disapproval in a June Quinnipiac poll. Legislation on gun control, renewable energy and firefighter collective bargaining rights angered specific constituencies, while Hickenlooper's decision to grant a "reprieve" in a high-profile execution proved unpopular in the state. Hickenlooper has also been hit by a succession of challenges, from the mass shooting in an Aurora movie theater to widespread wildfires to the murder of the state Department of Corrections chief. The best factor working in Hickenlooper's favor is the state Republican Party. The Quinnipiac poll had former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo in a dead heat with Hickenlooper, though Tancredo's staunch opposition to illegal immigration has proven polarizing in the past and can be expected to be off-putting to many Independents and Hispanics in 2014. Another potential Republican challenger, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, has some strong partisan baggage as well involving his stewardship of the state's voting laws. Against either of these challengers, Hickenlooper would have an edge, but a lot less of an edge than it seemed even a few months ago.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D)

The big news in this race was the decision by Chafee, an embattled incumbent, to switch his party affiliation from Independent to Democratic. Making the switch doesn't save the race for him, but it does add another level of intrigue to an already complicated contest: Chafee will have to win the Democratic nomination, which will hardly be a slam dunk. In the most recent Brown University poll, Chafee's approval rating was 26 percent, far behind two potential Democratic gubernatorial foes -- Providence Mayor Angel Taveras with 64 percent approval and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo at 56 percent. Though Raimondo remains a Democrat, there are indications she could become an Independent instead, considering that her signature accomplishment -- pension reform legislation -- is detested by a key Democratic primary constituency, labor unions. In addition, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an Independent, recently held a fundraiser for her, something he did for Chafee when he was an Independent. On the GOP side, Cranston Mayor Alan Fung, a pragmatist, looks like the most likely nominee, while Ken Block of the Moderate Party is also making a second bid for the governorship. That would set up a three-way race -- or four, if Raimondo switches parties -- thus lowering the bar for winning the race. The state's partisan lean suggests that the Democratic primary winner will be the next governor, but given the complex variables at play, it's premature to say so with full confidence.

Likely Democratic

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D)

In the Granite State, gubernatorial terms last for just two years, and only twice in the past century has a freshman New Hampshire governor not been able to win a second term. Hassan hasn't done anything to set off alarm bells about her ability to win another term. Equally important, she doesn't have an opponent yet, and an April Public Policy Polling survey found her with double-digit leads over five theoretical Republican challengers. If the state GOP manages to find someone credible, a midterm election, with lower voter turnout, isn't a bad year to run. But until a strong candidate steps up, that would be a speculative scenario.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D)

Various polls have put Dayton's approval ratings in the high 40s to the mid-50s, and most recently at 57 percent; the public seems supportive of his efforts to raise taxes on high-income earners and cigarette smokers. The GOP has several candidates either in the race or taking a serious look, including businessman Scott Honour, state Sens. Dave Thompson and Julie Rosen, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and House Speaker Kurt Zellers. But in this Democratic-leaning state, whoever wins the GOP nod would need to catch fire quickly or else get a lucky break to knock off Dayton, and there's no sign of that yet.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D)

Kitzhaber looks solid assuming he runs, as is widely expected (though he still hasn't said for sure). Kitzhaber has governed as something of a moderate technocrat; for instance, he tried to broker Oregon's version of a "grand bargain," with public-pension cuts in exchange for tax increases, though he's run into trouble in his on-again, off-again attempts to get it passed. Kitzhaber's education and health-care overhauls from 2011 have drawn attention, and enemies. Still, Kitzhaber has been helped by an improving economy, and the GOP has a poor track record in recent years of coming up with strong candidates for key races. If Kitzhaber doesn't run again, potential Democratic contenders could include Secretary of State Kate Brown and state Treasurer Ted Wheeler, while former House co-Speaker Bruce Hanna could head the list of possibilities on the GOP side.

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

In this solidly blue state, most of the action will be in the Democratic primary. The field features Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and possibly Attorney General Doug Gansler; state Del. Heather Mizeur; and U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the only potential contender who's based in Baltimore as opposed to the Washington, D.C., area. Brown, who's African-American, is considered a modest frontrunner for the primary -- he's gotten backing from influential Baltimore-area U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings -- and he won plaudits for tapping Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who had been considering his own gubernatorial bid, as his running mate. On the Republican side, the field may include Larry Hogan, a former member of then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich's cabinet and president of the fiscally conservative group Change Maryland; David Craig, the Harford County executive and a former lawmaker; state Del. Ron George; and, most intriguingly, former RNC chair and ex-Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who's kept up his public profile (and begun to erase memories of a rocky RNC stewardship) as an MSNBC commentator. But any Republican will have trouble competing on equal footing in a gubernatorial race in this strongly Democratic bastion.

Safe Democratic

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D)

If his health holds up (he will be 76 on Election Day 2014), Brown is expected to run for reelection. He's winning praise for his stewardship of a state once seen as a fiscal basket case, including his ability to keep his own party's pro-spending wing in check. "After inheriting a deficit of $27 billion on a general fund of about $90 billion, Brown has turned California around, aided by a rebound in the construction industry and the housing market on which it depends," veteran California journalist Lou Cannon wrote recently, adding that Brown's estimate of his surplus, $1.2 billion, is probably low, since the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office predicts it will be more than $4 billion. Such leadership has helped earn Brown an approval rating of 57 percent in a February Field poll, which seems high enough to scare away Democratic primary competition. Among the concerns that could dent this popularity, however, are any problems stemming from the looming decommissioning of one of the state's two nuclear power plants, San Onofre; if there are major power problems this summer, Brown could find himself damaged like former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who was ousted in a recall election tinged with concerns about the state's energy supply. On the GOP side, Former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado is running for the nomination, but he's a moderate, and it's unclear whether he could win a primary in the state's strongly conservative GOP; state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly is mounting a primary challenge from his right. Either way, the state GOP is extremely weak at the moment. Barring something unexpected, Brown should be a shoo-in.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D)

Abercrombie's chances of winning a second term have brightened noticeably over the past few months, as his top two challengers appear to be forsaking the gubernatorial race. Colleen Hanabusa, who holds Abercrombie's old seat in Congress, is running for a U.S. Senate seat (against Abercrombie appointee Brian Schatz), while Republican Charles Djou, who held the House seat briefly between Abercrombie and Hanabusa, is looking at the race to succeed Hanabusa. Meanwhile, Abercrombie has patched up relations with unions he had alienated, and public perceptions of his leadership are beginning to turn around. With a weak GOP in Hawaii -- there's only one Republican in the state Senate -- Abercrombie is increasingly looking like a safe bet for reelection.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)

Cuomo used some of his substantial political capital on passing a gun control bill earlier this year, and doing so meant losing some of the support on his right flank. But Cuomo's high approval ratings gave him a considerable cushion, so his position is still rather strong. A Quinnipiac poll from March had Cuomo at 55 percent approval, down from 74 percent four months earlier. Despite some questions about his my-way-or-the-highway style, there's no viable Republican (or Democratic) opponent in sight, and the main question for 2014 seems to be about the size of his re-election victory, and how much of a boost it gives him for the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D)

Shumlin's personal popularity has taken a hit because of an unusual land deal he struck with a neighbor. Meanwhile, some of the Democratic base is irked because Shumlin resisted attempts by Democratic lawmakers to make the state's income tax more progressive and because his budget included some proposed cuts for low-income Vermonters. The problem for Republicans is that they may not be able to capitalize; the state GOP remains weak. These developments could, however, enable the left-leaning Progressive Party to drain some of Shumlin's support. We'll watch to see whether a reassessment to likely Democratic is warranted, but for now, Shumlin is still heavily favored to win a third two-year term in 2014.

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