2014 Governors Races: The Tossups

The number of gubernatorial elections that are too close to call has nearly doubled over the past few months.
by | September 10, 2014

It's been six months since we last looked at the 36 gubernatorial races in the 2014 midterms. Since then, the Democrats have continued to gain a bit of ground on the GOP, though the overall balance of power in gubernatorial seats looks unlikely to change dramatically on Election Day.

Overall, this campaign season features quite a few competitive seats – 16 in all, a bit less than half of all the gubernatorial seats being contested this year. That’s a pretty large percentage; it’s not much less than the 18 seats we rated competitive on the eve of the election four years ago, an election when there were many more open gubernatorial seats.

What this means is that a substantial number of the competitive seats are currently held by incumbents. These include seats held by Democrats Pat Quinn of Illinois, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, and by Republicans Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Paul LePage of Maine, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rick Scott of Florida and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

As we noted in our last handicapping in March, the fact that the GOP finds itself with more seats in jeopardy is not surprising, since the party's big gains in 2010 -- many of them in blue or purple states -- have left the Republicans with more seats to defend overall.

The crucial tossup category includes six Republican seats and four Democratic seats. As the election has neared, the number of tossup seats has swelled from six in March to 10 today.

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. So, on the list below, the races are ordered from most likely to go Republican at the top to most likely to go Democratic at the bottom.

For ease of reading, we've broken up our handicapping into three separate pieces. One piece includes every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Republican; this article features the tossup races; and another article includes every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Democratic. We've also compiled a full listing of the candidates and map of ratings in the 36 gubernatorial races here.

Here's the full rundown for the tossup contests:

Tossup

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

This race between Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson remains close, though in a state that has moved decisively to the right, Hutchinson has moved into the lead -- nine points in the most recent NBC News/Marist survey. A hard-fought U.S. Senate contest A hard-fought U.S. Senate contest pitting incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor and U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton is also close, and is attracting the lion’s share of media attention. It remains to be seen whether both races break the same way in November; at this point, any combination of winners and losers seems possible. Read more about this race here.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) (Shift from lean Republican)

Snyder’s status as an incumbent running in what should be a GOP-friendly year -- combined with his pragmatic appeal as “One Tough Nerd” -- started with a slight edge. But in July and August, his leads over former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer have ranged between just one and three points, and one poll by EPIC-MRA actually showed Schauer up by two. Out of an abundance of caution, we’re moving this slow-to-develop contest from lean Republican to Tossup. Read more about this race here.

Arizona: Open seat, held by Gov. Jan Brewer (R)

In August, state Treasurer Doug Ducey won a hard-fought Republican primary, finally raising the curtain on the general election campaign against Democratic former Arizona Board of Regents President Fred DuVal.

While Arizona has been a Republican-leaning state in recent years, the two parties’ nominees seem evenly matched. They’re polling almost identically, with a libertarian candidate taking a share in the low double digits. DuVal has a lead among independents, perhaps reflecting disaffection with the strongly conservative rhetoric in the GOP primary. Also of potential help to DuVal is this fall’s Navajo Nation election, which could boost Native American turnout. If Ducey can’t pivot quickly or effectively to the center, DuVal has a real shot.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) (Shift from lean Republican)

It has not been a good couple of months for Walker, who had been seen by some Republicans as a top-tier presidential candidate. He’s now facing a campaign-finance investigation and a credible challenger in Mary Burke, a businesswoman, school board member and former commerce secretary under then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Perhaps even more ominous for Walker is the state’s record on job growth, which has been modest to mediocre -- a problem because Walker had pledged to create a net 250,000 jobs during his first term. Recent polls have shown the race within the margin of error; in two recent polls, Burke has led narrowly. In a state with a highly energetic (and polarized) electorate, this race should go down to the wire. We’re shifting it from lean Republican to tossup.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R)

Scott remains vulnerable -- and the race continues to be a marquee contest nationally -- but the incumbent has gained ground, thanks in part to improvements in the state economy, and also to an ad binge that’s helped move the needle. Crist, who was once modestly ahead, is now modestly behind in many (though not all) polls. Crist tapped Annette Crist tapped Annette Taddeo, a Hispanic woman from south Florida, as his running mate after Scott had already chosen another Hispanic, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, as his. But will African Americans turn out at high enough levels to enable Crist to win? The Scott-Crist dynamic has become ugly, and with both candidates possessing endless ambition and access to significant funds, it should remain close until the end. We’re keeping this one at tossup.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D)

In solidly blue Connecticut, Malloy is still more vulnerable than any incumbent Democratic governor should be. The state’s struggling economy isn't improving, and Tom Foley, the Republican Malloy narrowly beat in 2010, is running again. Foley has been narrowly ahead in recent polls, but it remains to be seen whether the state falls back on a more familiar, if unloved, Democrat. The race remains a tossup.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) (Shift from lean Republican)

Brownback’s stumbles have been stunning -- a casualty of a hardline agenda that’s become too conservative even for solidly conservative Kansas. Brownback’s Democratic opponent, House minority leader Paul Davis, is now consistently polling five to 10 points ahead, well beyond Democrats’ wildest dreams of a few months ago. Kansas voters have frequently elected Democratic governors, usually when GOP incumbents have been stuck with a divided party. With plunging revenues in the wake of tax cuts and a series of bond rating downgrades, Brownback faces a difficult path to re-election. More on this race here.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) (Shift from lean Democratic)

In recent weeks, both parties in Colorado have avoided some of their most worrisome obstacles. Republicans got a less polarizing, if still somewhat lackluster, nominee in Bob Beauprez, while Hickenlooper struck a deal to remove from the ballot an anti-fracking initiative that some Democrats feared could spur a backlash against the incumbent. Polling in the contest has narrowed to right around the margin of error, leading us to shift the race from lean Democratic to tossup.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)

Not much has changed in this race in recent months -- this remains a three-way contest between the outspokenly conservative incumbent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, and Independent Eliot Cutler. LePage hasn’t been able to boost his numbers beyond the high 30s he garnered in a similar three-way race in 2010. The big difference this time is the relative strength of the Democrat, who’s polling in the low 40s, and the relative weakness of the Independent, who’s polling in the mid-teens. The race is fluid enough to remain a tossup, but it’s still one of the best chances the Democrats will have for a win this fall.

Hawaii: open seat, Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) defeated in primary (Shift from lean Democratic)

Hawaii’s gubernatorial race continues to mystify. In one of America’s bluest states, the incumbent Democrat was soundly defeated in a primary by state Sen. David Ige. Now Ige faces former Republican lieutenant governor James "Duke" Aiona and, running as an Independent, former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hanemann. In one of the nation’s hardest states to poll, the figures are all over the map. Objectively, it’s hard to believe the Democrats would lose this race, but the three-way contest is so unsettled that we’re keeping it in the tossup category for now.