An Update to 2012 Governors' Races

With less than four months to go, the 2012 gubernatorial contests are looking good for the GOP.
by | July 24, 2012
 

Several of this year's gubernatorial contests have seen changes since we last handicapped the races six months ago, but the overall landscape hasn't changed that much. We're shifting only four ratings: Montana goes from tossup to lean Republican; New Hampshire goes from lean Republican to tossup; North Dakota goes from likely Republican to safe Republican; and Vermont goes from likely Democratic to safe Democratic. Meanwhile, one contest has dropped off our list entirely -- the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall, which we had rated a tossup and which was won by incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

Republicans -- already in the driver's seat with a 29-20 lead in governorships nationally -- could gain two to four seats if current trends hold. If the Republicans were to post net gains of just three gubernatorial seats in 2012, it would push GOP control to an even more commanding margin of 32 Republicans, 17 Democrats and one Independent.

As always, our handicapping of the gubernatorial races -- based on interviews with a range of state and national analysts -- works in two ways. First, it categorizes every seat as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic.

Second, it ranks each seat in order of the likelihood of being won by a Republican or Democrat, with No. 1 being most likely to be won by a Republican and No. 12 being most likely to be won by a Democrat.

If our prognostication is sound, then after Election Day we should be able to draw a line somewhere in the tossup category and find all the seats above that line won by a Republican and all the seats below that line won by a Democrat. (In our 2010 gubernatorial handicapping of 37 states, only one, Illinois, ended up on the wrong side of that divide.)

Here are the current rankings, with capsule summaries of the state of play.

Safe Republican

1. Utah (R-held; no rating change). Republican Gov. Gary Herbert survived a six-way intraparty contest at the state GOP convention with an impressive 63 percent of the vote after Tea Party activist David Kirkham threw his support to Herbert after the first ballot. Retired Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Peter Cooke, the Democratic nominee, is considered an impressive figure, but the state Democratic Party is extraordinarily weak, having last won the governorship in 1980. Even the Utah Education Association's political action committee voted overwhelmingly to give a solo endorsement to Herbert. In his first gubernatorial bid two years ago, Herbert had to share a dual endorsement with his Democratic rival.

2. North Dakota (R-held; shift from likely Republican). Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple remains popular in a state with the shockingly low unemployment rate of 2.9 percent -- the best in the nation, thanks largely to an oil and gas boom. Dalrymple eased his path to re-election by dispatching with Paul Sorum, a Fargo architect with Tea Party support, at the state party convention. Dalrymple received the backing of 71 percent of delegates, precipitating in Sorum's decision to drop out of the June primary and helping unify the GOP behind Dalrymple. The incumbent has a significant fundraising lead over his Democratic challenger, state Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor. Taylor is a 42-year-old rancher who's respected on both sides of the aisle and who is thought to have a promising political future. Most expect the 2012 election to be a chance for Taylor to expand his reach with voters rather than actually oust a popular incumbent.

Likely Republican

3. Indiana (R-held; no rating change). There's been little in the past six months to slow the juggernaut of GOP Rep. Mike Pence in his bid to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels. Businessman Jim Wallace failed to collect enough certified signatures to get on the May 8 primary ballot, leaving Pence a free ride on the GOP side. Folksy, relatively conservative former state House Speaker John Gregg won the Democratic nomination, but as Gregg has been grappling with staff turnover, Pence has been all over the airwaves, utilizing his heavy fundraising advantage. Pence did get some negative attention when he compared the Supreme Court's health-care ruling to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He quickly apologized, and most observers agree that it will take more than that to derail his bid. A poll by Howey Politics Indiana in late March had Pence up, 44 percent to 31 percent.

Lean Republican

4. North Carolina (D-held; no rating change). With the decision by unpopular Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue to forgo a second term, it has fallen to Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton to hold the seat for the Democrats. Dalton may have a better shot of doing so than Perdue would have -- he's the kind of moderate Democrat who has historically won the governorship in the Tarheel State -- but former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who narrowly lost to Perdue in 2008, remains the modest favorite. Dalton helped his momentum and his statewide name identification with a 46 percent to 38 percent primary victory over former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge. Still, the contest depleted his resources, whereas McCrory has been stockpiling cash since his last bid in 2008. While Democratic-aligned groups have run ads attacking McCrory -- a sign suggesting that party strategists consider the race winnable -- it remains to be seen whether Democrats will continue to make the state a top presidential target, a decision that could have a significant impact on Dalton's chances. Meanwhile, both candidates will need to court a cranky electorate carefully; Dalton has to separate himself from Perdue's negative legacy, while McCrory has to demonstrate that he won't be a rubber stamp for a decidedly unpopular Republican-held Legislature. The polls have varied somewhat, but McCrory has consistently led by margins of two to seven points. At the same time, the Republican has been below 50 percent, suggesting that the race will remain close to the end. A wild card is Libertarian candidate Barbara Howe, who drew 7 percent in one poll and is presumably drawing support primarily from McCrory.

5. Washington state (D-held; no rating change). Republicans are still confident about taking the governor's chair after two terms under Democrat Christine Gregoire, but there's evidence the race has narrowed. The independent, nonpartisan Elway Poll, for instance, had GOP state Attorney General Rob McKenna up by two points over Democratic U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee in June. McKenna, who's comparatively moderate by today's Republican standards, got a boost from an endorsement by The Seattle Times, and he benefits from a pervasive sense that the Democrats have been in charge of the state for too long. But the Democratic candidate may be benefiting from increased name identification and the institutional advantages that come with running in a Democratic-leaning state. The race may hinge on whether Inslee can successfully tie McKenna to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

6. Montana (D-held; shift from tossup). Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock is trying to keep the governorship for his party after two terms under Gov. Brian Schweitzer. But Bullock's GOP opponent, former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill, likely benefited from his contested primary. It did deplete Hill's financial reserves, but it also allowed him time to refine and promote his pitch on key issues while Bullock was distracted by an ultimately unsuccessful effort to save a state campaign finance law at the U.S. Supreme Court. Bullock is youthful and photogenic, but in a state increasingly hostile to Democrats, he has a much trickier challenge in connecting with voters than Hill does. The GOP is unified behind a pro-resource-development, anti-regulation, anti-Obamacare message. Montana is also a cheap state to advertise in, and outside money is expected to pour in this fall. While much of the air barrage will likely address the tough re-election bid Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is facing, the gubernatorial race could feel an impact -- and of the two top contests, national Democrats are far more focused on keeping Tester in office than propelling Bullock into the governor's mansion.

Tossup

7. New Hampshire (D-held; shift from lean Republican). We're shifting this race from lean Republican to tossup -- not because of any significant partisan movement, but rather because New Hampshire's race is the least well-formed of any on this list. In the quest to succeed popular Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who's forgoing another term, both parties have competitive primaries. On the GOP side, it's two-time statewide candidate Ovide Lamontagne against younger upstart Kevin Smith, who as executive director of Cornerstone Action in the 2010 cycle attacked Lynch and the then-Democratic-led Legislature. On the Democratic side, it's former state Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan against former state Sen. Jackie Cilley. Despite some historical difficulties in the state, Obama has chalked up a series of modest leads over New Hampshire resident Romney in recent polls. In addition, some voters may appreciate the idea of a Democratic brake on a GOP-dominated Legislature. But the tenor of the race is likely to remain a question mark until at least the September primary.

Lean Democratic

8. West Virginia (D-held; no rating change). Earl Ray Tomblin knows his survival as governor depends on separating himself from President Obama, who is so unpopular in West Virginia that a felon behind bars in Texas won 41 percent of the state's Democratic presidential primary vote. So it's no surprise that Tomblin has accelerated his flight from the national Democratic Party. Tomblin hasn't said whether he'll vote for Obama, he's pledged not to attend the Democratic National Convention and taken a go-slow approach on embracing Obama's health-care law. Tomblin's tightrope walk has become common and relatively successful for Democrats in West Virginia in recent years; it has worked in the past not just for Tomblin but also for U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. It could well work again in Tomblin's rematch with Republican businessman Bill Maloney. A West Virginia Poll for the Charleston Daily Mail in April had Tomblin up, 60 percent to 32 percent, with Tomblin even winning 38 percent of the Republican vote. That edge has likely narrowed, or will before Election Day, but at this stage, Tomblin looks likely to have a better-than-even shot at victory. Probably the biggest danger Tomblin faces would be an onslaught of advertising by GOP-aligned super-PACs.

Likely Democratic

9. Missouri (D-held; no rating change). This contest hasn't really taken off yet -- the primary is in August -- but Gov. Jay Nixon remains the heavy favorite to win a second term. Nixon is a Democrat, but one who often riles his base, as when he recently distanced himself from the federal health-care law. The GOP has been hobbled by weak candidates, most recently businessman David Spence, who became a punch line when it was revealed that his claimed degree in economics was actually in home economics. Even in a year when GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is expected to win the former swing state easily, Nixon is expected to secure lots of ticket-splitting Republican votes. A Public Policy Polling poll in May had Nixon up by double digits.

Safe Democratic

10. Vermont (D-held; shift from likely Democratic). A Castleton Polling Institute survey in May had Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin at 60 percent, with Republican former state auditor and state Sen. Randy Brock at 27 percent and 11 percent unsure. Shumlin has moved well past his narrow 2010 victory thanks to his handling of the recovery after Hurricane Irene in August -- the state's worst natural disaster in memory. It won't hurt him to have President Obama and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders on the ballot in 2012 as well.

11. Delaware (D-held, no rating change). Republican challenger Jeff Cragg, a Mail Boxes Etc. owner in Fairfax, is trying to capitalize on a controversy over federal loan guarantees to Fisker Automotive, a clean-energy carmaker that was supposed to produce vehicles at a facility in Delaware but has so far failed to do so. However, the credibility of the GOP's charges against Fisker has taken some hits, and it will probably require quite a bit more to deprive Gov. Jack Markell of a second term. Not only is Markell gaining national prominence as the incoming chairman of the National Governors Association, but he presides over a blue-trending state where a famous native son, Vice President Joe Biden, will be on the ballot this fall.

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