Handicapping the 2013-2014 Governors Races: The Tossups

Which of the 38 gubernatorial contests are neck-and-neck?
July 18, 2013
 

The last few days, we've been breaking down the 38 gubernatorial races in 2013-2014 for the Republicans and the Democrats. In this final installment, we look at the contests that are too close to call.

For background, Republican currently hold 30 governorships, while the Democrats hold 20. Almost two-thirds of the upcoming contests are not competitive at this time, but the remaining seats are.

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.

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.

For ease of reading, we've broken up our handicapping into three separate pieces that have appeared over the past several days. We've already handicapped the Republican races and Democratic races. Now, we'll look at the seven tossup races. As with the previous installments, the list runs from the seat most likely to go Republican to the seat most likely to go Democratic. Still, all of the contests below are close enough to be labeled tossups.

Tossup

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R)

Snyder's self-styled image as a pragmatic conservative took a hit when he agreed to sign a right-to-work bill in a lame-duck session last year. This earned him the ire of Democrats, but he's now facing static on the right for his efforts to push a Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. The GOP-controlled state Senate adjourned without taking up the measure despite the fact that it was passed with bipartisan support in the state House. Snyder was upset and uncharacteristically furious at a press conference, blasting Republican lawmakers. The outburst probably helps him with independents and ticket-splitters, but Tea Party Republicans remain enraged that he tried to push for the expansion in the first place. In a late May Public Policy Polling survey, Snyder had a 40 percent approval and a 52 disapproval rating, giving Democrats an opening. State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a potential Democratic challenger, has taken herself out of the race, leaving former U.S. Rep. and former state Senate Minority Leader Mark Schauer as the only announced candidate. While there's been muttering that someone else, such as ex-U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak or ex-Wayne County prosecutor Mike Duggan, could give Democrats a better chance, that doesn't seem too likely for now. The PPP poll found Schauer leading Snyder, 42 percent to 38 percent, and it's clear that many of the Democrats who supported Snyder in 2010 will likely desert him in 2014. Still, it's a long way to Election Day.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D)

Malloy's numbers continue to be lukewarm at best, with the governor under water in some polls and trailing potential GOP challenger Tom Foley -- whom he narrowly beat in 2010 -- by three points in a June Quinnipiac poll. Malloy has been hurt most by the lack of economic progress in the state; the national recovery, slow even in the best of places, seems to have skipped Connecticut. In addition, Malloy's budget got less than rave reviews and was strongly attacked by Republicans. While the governor has won praise for his role in the wake of the Newtown shootings, Malloy's strong (and successful) gun control push has energized a core of conservatives who may be able to wield outsized influence in a low-turnout midterm election. In the GOP primary, Foley has an early edge over state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a lieutenant governor candidate in 2010. Still, some Republicans worry that Foley is vulnerable to being portrayed as an out-of-touch, eccentric millionaire. At least Malloy can take comfort in the fact that a Democratic primary is unlikely, and that his approval ratings are higher now than they've been for much of his term. But for a solidly blue-state governor, he's vulnerable, and much of his fate rests on the course of the economic recovery over the next year. Right now, this is a pure tossup.

Virginia: Open seat; held by Bob McDonnell (R)

This is perhaps the highest-profile gubernatorial race in the nation at the moment, pitting state AG Ken Cuccinelli against Democratic money man and strategist Terry McAuliffe. Both candidates have more baggage than a Boeing 747 -- Cuccinelli for holding positions that are well to the right of many residents of his purple state, and McAuliffe for a general perception that he's an oily carpetbagger. Initially, Cuccinelli seemed to have a slight advantage, particularly with negative scrutiny of some of McAuliffe's business dealings, but in recent months, the tide has turned. In May, a largely unknown preacher, E.W. Jackson, won the lieutenant governor nomination at a GOP convention dominated by social conservatives. This led to the uncovering of controversial comments he's made that put the party -- and Cuccinelli, who insisted upon the convention in the first place -- on the defensive. A series of revelations about incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell's family receiving gifts from a corporate supporter hasn't helped either. Cuccinelli also has ties to the same company, Star Scientific, and the run of bad press for both men has taken a toll. While April polling had Cuccinelli ahead by a modest margin, several polls since May have shown McAuliffe up by similarly modest margins. This one will likely go down to the wire -- a pure tossup in which the winner may do no better than stumble across the finish line.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)

After flirting with retirement or a congressional bid, LePage said in early July that he will seek another term as governor. His staunch conservatism and penchant for controversial comments limit his appeal, but another three-way race could make re-election possible by lowering the threshold of victory. The strongest Democrat in the state, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, is looking at a bid, as is Independent Eliot Cutler. If this three-way race comes to pass, the contest becomes a complete tossup.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R)

Scott has rebounded somewhat from the depths of unpopularity, amid concessions to the political center, such as his decision to back a Medicaid expansion (which was spurned by the GOP-controlled legislature), overtures to public school teachers and opposition to tuition increases in higher education. In addition, the economy is improving, and he has deep pockets. Still, the accumulated perception that Scott is a hard-edged, prickly ideologue has left him with a tougher path to re-election than almost any governor in the nation. Scott's approval ratings have risen slightly, but a Quinnipiac poll still found him trailing former Gov. Charlie Crist -- a Republican turned Independent turned Democrat -- by a whopping 47 percent to37 percent margin. Former state CFO Alex Sink, who lost narrowly to Scott in 2010, remains a possible challenger as well. This contest presents a good opportunity for Democrats, but in a state that went strongly Republican in the last midterm election, Scott's ouster is hardly a slam dunk despite his weaknesses.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R)

Corbett's liabilities continue to mount, and there is a growing sense that he may not be able to recover. A leaked Republican poll taken in April and May found that 65 percent of voters said Corbett didn't deserve to be re-elected, with just 28 percent saying that he does. Even Republicans in that poll backed him by only a three-point margin. Making matters worse, Corbett recently suffered defeats in the GOP-controlled legislature, with a failure to approve any of his three big policy initiatives on infrastructure spending, liquor privatization and state employee pensions. It is those failures, say state GOP operatives, that have led to "rampant" speculation that calls for the governor to step aside will mount in the coming months. Corbett has time to recover, and having an actual Democratic opponent should help focus his message. But for now, he's in dire need of some good news. On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (who led Corbett by 10 points in a recent Quinnipiac poll) and state Treasurer Rob McCord occupy the first tier, with former White House environmental staffer Katie McGinty and former revenue commissioner Tom Wolf also potential challengers. The way things look now, Pennsylvania's post-World War II streak of giving each party exactly eight years at a time in the governorship is at serious risk of coming to an end.

Massachusetts: Open seat; held by Gov. Deval Patrick (D)

The Bay State has a heavy Democratic lean, and Patrick has been reasonably popular during his two terms. But the state also has a long history of electing Republican governors, and either Charlie Baker, Patrick's GOP opponent from 2010, or former Sen. Scott Brown would mount credible campaigns. The potential Democratic field includes Donald Berwick, the former head of the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services under Obama; state Treasurer Steve Grossman; and U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano. Until nominee selection plays out, we're keeping this one a tossup.

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