Handicapping the 2013-2014 Governors Races: The Republican Edition

Now that Gov. Rick Perry isn't running for re-election, will Texas stay Republican? Which of the 38 gubernatorial contests are tilting Republican?
by | July 11, 2013

It's been about six months since our last look at the 38 gubernatorial races in 2013-2014, and we're now ready to do a full handicapping, from the seats most likely to go Republican to the seats most likely to go Democratic.

As it stands, almost two-thirds of the contests are not currently competitive: 16 seats are safe or likely Republican and eight seats are safe or likely Democratic.

The remainder of the seats are competitive -- either slightly leaning to one party or the other, or a pure tossup. The GOP currently holds eight of these competitive seats, while the Democrats hold six. That the GOP finds itself with more seats in jeopardy is not surprising. The party's big gains in 2010, many of them in blue states, mean Republicans have more seats to defend overall. (Today, the Republicans hold 30 governorships, while the Democrats hold 20.)

The good news for the GOP is that its chances seem strong even in states that voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. New Jersey is rated safe Republican due to the popularity of Chris Christie, who's seeking a second term (and possibly the presidency in 2016). Meanwhile, GOP governors in Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin appear to be in a good position to win a new term. The GOP also has the opportunity to flip seats in solidly blue Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Despite this, the GOP does face some challenges in this gubernatorial cycle. The Democrats have the opportunity to seize GOP-held seats in five states -- the governorships in Florida, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Once you factor in one Democratic-held seat that's currently leaning Republican (Arkansas), the best-case scenario for the GOP at this point 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.

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 achieved this result in 2012 and were off by just one contest in 2010.)

We have included 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. This first piece includes every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Republican. The second article includes every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Democratic. And the third article features the seven tossup races.

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

Safe Republican

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R)

Bentley (and a bunch of other establishment Republicans) backed the losing side in a fight for control of the state GOP when Tea Party favorite Bill Armistead was re-elected as chairman. But internecine battles aside, Bentley's still in a strong position to win a second term in this staunchly Republican state. The biggest threat to Bentley would come in a GOP primary; the most talked-about name so far is Mary Scott Hunter, a Republican on the state school board. One potential Democratic opponent is Rep. Craig Ford, who heads the House Democratic caucus. But the Democrats are on such a decline in the state that winning the governorship doesn't seem plausible any time soon.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R)

Parnell, who served half the term won by Sarah Palin before securing a full four years in 2010, remains the favorite for re-election in solidly Republican Alaska. His approval rating was so-so in a February poll by Public Policy Polling -- 46 percent approval to 44 percent disapproval -- but there's little indication that Alaska voters are looking to change partisan control. Democratic state Sen. Bill Wielechowski and 2010 nominee Ethan Berkowitz are considering bids, but in the PPP poll, Parnell led Berkowitz in a trial heat by 9 points, with other potential Democrats behind by double digits. Indeed, the Democrats will have their hands full getting incumbent U.S. Senator Mark Begich re-elected, leaving a flip of the governorship a distant second on the party's electoral agenda. Parnell will first have to get past attorney Bill Walker -- who lost to Parnell in the 2010 Republican primary -- and possibly others in a GOP primary.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R)

If anything, Deal looks stronger than ever to win a second term. The Democrats seem close to writing off the race, focusing their resources instead on the open U.S. Senate contest to succeed Republican Saxby Chambliss. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, once seen as a potential challenger to Deal, has built some bridges to the governor and is among the most prominent Democratic voices urging the party to forgo an all-out assault on Deal in the gubernatorial race.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R)

Otter looks more likely than before to seek a third term, though it's not a certainty yet. As in many states with one-party dominance, there's some grumbling within the majority coalition, and it's not out of the question that Otter could see a primary challenge from the right, where many are miffed at the governor's decision to establish a health-care insurance exchange. If Otter doesn't run again, the two biggest GOP names to succeed him remain Lt. Gov. Brad Little and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador. In any scenario, though, the Democrats will essentially be a non-factor.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R)

Branstad, now serving his fifth non-consecutive term as governor, looks even safer than he did six months ago -- the June Iowa Poll showed Branstad with a 58 percent approval rating in a state that Obama won twice. That might have something to do with Branstad's recent announcement that the state scored multibillion-dollar projects with Facebook and MidAmerican Energy, bringing the total investment from such projects to over $5 billion during the governor's current term. Branstad also achieved significant legislative victories, signing bills on education, health care and property tax reform, the last a bipartisan effort that had been bubbling for 20 years. The only established challenger at this point is Democratic state Sen. Jack Hatch, who's hobbled by low name identification; Branstad led him by 28 points in a recent Iowa Poll. Another potential challenger, former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, has a favorability rating that's under water, while another former Democratic governor, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, is not expected to run. State Sen. Mike Gronstal might enter the race, as could state Rep. Tyler Olson. But any Democrat would face an uphill climb against Branstad, who has become an institution in the state.

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

With an open governorship in a heavily Republican state, the GOP primary is where most of the action will be. One potential Republican candidate is former state Speaker Mike Flood (R), who announced his intention to run for the governorship before dropping out due to a cancer scare. He is thought to be ready now to return to the race. Other possible GOP candidates include state Sens. Charles Janssen, Beau McCoy and Tom Carlson; Charles Herbster, a political newcomer who heads Conklin Co., a farm products firm with strong Nebraska ties; state auditor Mike Foley; and state treasurer Don Stenberg. The gubernatorial race could also see an influx of refugees from the other big race in the state in 2014 -- an open U.S. Senate seat. Potential Republican Senate candidates who might switch contests include former Republican National Committeeman Pete Rickets, Midlands College President Ben Sasse and former State Treasurer Shane Osborn. As for the Democratic field, it's unsettled; former University of Nebraska regent Chuck Hassebrook, now head of the Center for Rural Affairs, is in the race, and the field could eventually grow to include state Sen. Steve Lathrop and former Lt. Gov. Kim Robak. However, any of the Democrats would face steep obstacles to winning.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R)

Despite being a prominent national Republican in a Democratic-leaning state, Christie is in the driver's seat in his quest for a second term. Christie leads Democrat Barbara Buono by upwards of 30 points in most recent polls. While Christie has belatedly sought to distance himself from President Obama, saying the president is "not an effective leader," his high-profile joint appearances with Obama after Hurricane Sandy sent a powerful signal that the governor aspires to bolster his standing with Independents and Democrats in advance of his re-election bid. Christie craftily set the special election for a U.S. Senate special election less than a month before his own election day, which likely means a lower Democratic turnout on the day when Christie himself is on the ballot. Doing it this way is expensive, and it attracted some controversy when it was announced, but it's such a technical issue that it's not expected to hurt his standing. Christie seems to have kept his self-destructive tendency for outspokenness in check recently, so he looks clear to win a second term and focus on the possibility of running for president in 2016.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R)

Fallin had already been popular -- the latest SoonerPoll had her at 65 percent favorability -- but if anything, her stature has only increased since the tornadoes that devastated swaths of her state earlier this year. The clearest sign of how secure she is: No names of challengers have surfaced in either party.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R)

South Dakota Democrats aren't close to finding someone to run against Daugaard. It's possible that Daugaard could face a Tea Party challenge in the primary, but observers say that scenario doesn't seem too likely either.

Texas: Open seat; held by Gov. Rick Perry (R)

On July 8, Perry finally announced that, after serving as governor since George W. Bush left for the White House in 2000, he will not seek another term. That moves Attorney General Greg Abbott to the top of the list, though 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, including candidates from the party's establishment and Tea Party wings. On the Democratic side, no name is hotter right now than state Sen. Wendy Davis, whose 13-hour filibuster to block an anti-abortion bill went viral nationally. (To toot our own horn, we cited her as "a plausible contender for the nomination" in this column months before she became famous.) Still, the GOP has a big mathematical edge in the state, making it hard for Davis -- or any Democrat -- to mount a credible challenge in 2014.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R)

Mead is facing a challenge by the head of the state education department, Cindy Hill. She's gotten quite a bit of negative press about her record in running the department, so it's not clear how much damage she'll be able to inflict on Mead, who has generally attracted strong support in the state. However this potentially messy intra-GOP fight plays out, the Democrats are too weak in the state to have a shot at seizing the governorship.

Likely Republican

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R)

Brownback has spearheaded a staunchly conservative agenda, but his approach, bolstered by a legislature that sometimes seems to be even further to his right, hasn't proven to be overly popular in this red state. A series of polls show Brownback's approval ratings to be in the 30s, including a February Public Policy Polling survey that had him at 37 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval. In many states that would be enough to invite a serious challenge from the opposite party, but Kansas Democrats remain hard-pressed to come up with a strong candidate. For now at least, Brownback looks solid for reelection.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R)

Were it not for an FBI investigation of Haslam's family business, Pilot Flying J, we'd be rating this seat safe for the GOP. Not only is the state firmly in the GOP camp, but Haslam has gained attention for assembling a record that's conservative without inspiring a big public backlash and for trying to smooth the roughest edges of the GOP-controlled legislature. As for the investigation, the governor has mostly remained out of the picture -- his brother, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, is attracting most of the legal and media attention -- but the bad P.R. can't be a good thing. Still, Tennessee tends to give its governors two terms, and with the GOP on the rise in the state, the Democrats have little hope of flipping this seat.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R)

Walker, notwithstanding his polarizing conservative agenda in a swing state, remains in a strong position to win his third gubernatorial election in four years (including a successful recall victory). A Marquette University poll in May had Walker at 51 percent approval, but that hasn't been enough to draw interest from potential Democratic challengers. Until a credible Democrat emerges, this race stays at likely Republican.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R)

Sandoval, one of the GOP's fresh Latino faces, continues to garner positive reviews, governing as a relative moderate in swing-state Nevada by vetoing a bill to expand gun background checks while signing a bill to allow driving permits for illegal immigrants. There's little sign that Democrats see him as especially vulnerable; one of their top potential challengers, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, has indicated that she won't run. Unless there's a surprise in store, the top remaining possibility on the Democratic side would be Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak. Still, Sandoval looks solid to win a second term.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R)

Latino Republican Martinez has, like Sandoval, garnered broad support among the electorate. A May poll by KOB-TV and Survey USA found her with a 66 percent approval rating. More importantly, her rating was 64 percent positive among Independents and 44 percent positive among Democrats. Those numbers are down somewhat from nine months ago, but still strikingly good for a Republican in a state that went for Obama by nearly double digits in 2012. Attorney General Gary King is the best-known name being mentioned as a challenger, but he doesn't seem to be lighting much of a fire. For now, it seems that Martinez has a strong shot at winning a second term.

Lean Republican

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R)

For a governor who attracted national attention for signing the controversial immigration bill S.B. 1070, Brewer made a surprising move to the center when she worked with Democrats to allow a Medicaid expansion under Obama's health-care law. This irked conservatives, though she also moved back to the right when she signed a voting bill that Democrats say hurts Latinos. It remains unclear whether Brewer will seek another term; her ability to do so, after having served a partial term prior to winning in 2010, remains in question. If she doesn't run, Secretary of State Ken Bennett would begin as the GOP frontrunner. On the Democratic side, the field includes former Arizona Board of Regents President Fred DuVal and could eventually include state House Minority Leader Chad Campbell. The Democrats' chances of winning would likely hinge on how far to the right the GOP primary winner is. For now, there's lots of uncertainty on all sides, so looking mainly at the state's basic ideological lean, we're rating this contest lean Republican.

Arkansas: Open seat; held by Gov. Mike Beebe (D)

Beebe remains popular, but it's unlikely the Democrats can leverage much of his magic in this increasingly Republican state, particularly after Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, the Democrats' heir apparent, had a personal scandal and left the race in January. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter jumped in, but former Rep. Mike Ross seems to be eclipsing him with the Democratic rank and file, in large part because Ross is polling better in head-to-head matchups with GOP primary frontrunner Asa Hutchinson, a former U.S. House member and 2006 gubernatorial candidate. In fact, many Democrats are urging Halter to switch to the 2nd District congressional race, though it's not clear that he will comply. On the GOP side, Hutchinson doesn't have the nomination sewed up; he could face competition from his right by businessman Curtis Coleman and state Rep. Debra Hobbs. Regardless of who emerges from the two parties' primaries, the contest should be competitive. Still, given the state's GOP drift, we're positing that it leans Republican.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R)

Once considered one of the nation's more vulnerable governors, Kasich's fortunes have continued to improve. A Quinnipiac poll in late June found Kasich with a 55 approval rating, compared to 32 percent disapproval. He also has a 47 percent to33 percent lead over Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, his most likely challenger, in a head-to-head contest. On his watch, Kasich has overseen an improved economy, a stronger fiscal picture, a lack of scandals and success in keeping some of his promises to lower taxes. Kasich has hewed to the middle more than most had expected, recently vetoing language in the budget that would have blocked a Medicaid expansion he supports. However, he's also kept conservatives happy, and drawn ire on the left by signing stiff anti-abortion proposals. Kasich has also backed initiatives with some appeal to Independents and Democrats, including provisions on education, mental health, sentencing reform and curbs on puppy mills. Republicans concede that FitzGerald has appeal -- he's youthful, with a good resume and roots in a big media market. However, the 2014 election may end up being a race where he builds his statewide presence for a future run.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R)

Haley has continued to struggle, but will South Carolina's strong Republican lean be enough to carry her to a second term? In the four-state, 750-mile-wide swath of the Deep South from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, no Democrat has won a gubernatorial election since 1999. Yet Haley is facing a tough re-election fight against state Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who came close to beating her in a 2010 open-seat contest. Although several Republican officeholders have put out feelers as possible GOP primary opponents, Haley increasingly looks to be unopposed in the primary. She can tout her record on attracting jobs to the state, including a significant workforce expansion by Boeing, and she's improved her relations with the legislature. But observers say her overall record of legislative accomplishments is thin. Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party is showing some surprising verve. State Rep. Bakari Sellers, son of a civil rights leader, has announced a bid for lieutenant governor, which could energize African-American turnout, and another African-American, Jaime Harrison, is winning notice for his energy and tactical skills as the new head of the state party. The bottom line is that this race is a whole lot closer than it ought to be, given recent electoral history in the Palmetto State.

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