In Red-State Races for Governor, Democrats Could Score Wins

Democrats have a chance at winning in five states that voted against Barack Obama in 2012.
by | October 28, 2016
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, left, debating his Republican opponent, Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL. (AP)

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As this election year began, it looked as if the GOP might break its own record for the number of governorships under the party's control. That's looking less likely now.

Democrats are not only hanging tough in states that typically vote Republican for president -- including some that appear to be sticking with Donald Trump this year -- but actually leading in several of them.

"In theory, the stars should have been aligned for the Republicans," said John Messmer, a political scientist at St. Louis Community College.

He was referring to the governor's race in Missouri but might well have been describing the contests in Indiana, Montana, North Carolina or West Virginia.

Republicans currently hold 31 governorships, compared with 18 for the Democrats. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is an independent. The GOP's modern high is 32. Democrats are defending eight of the 12 governorships up for grabs this year, including those in three states that voted against Barack Obama twice.

But polls show Democrats enjoying slim leads in the five red states mentioned above, each of which supported Republican Mitt Romney for president four years ago. (For the latest ratings of all 12 gubernatorial races, click here.)

"All of these states are ones where Democrats have outperformed the top of the ticket in recent key Senate and/or gubernatorial races," said Kyle Kondik, who follows gubernatorial elections for The Crystal Ball, a political newsletter published by the University of Virginia.

As Kondik notes, all of these races naturally have their own idiosyncrasies.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, Democratic state Attorney General Roy Cooper has enjoyed a fundraising advantage and a polling lead for months against GOP Gov. Pat McCrory.

The governor has been pummeled by Democrats and much of the North Carolina media for signing House Bill 2, which blocked anti-discrimination measures protecting LGBT individuals. Since its passage in March, numerous companies and major sporting events have pulled out of the state.

Nevertheless, the race has tightened in recent weeks. Two polls released this week showed a virtual tie, including one that had McCrory up by a point. A third poll, though, showed Cooper ahead by 6 percentage points.

McCrory's comeback has coincided with his handling of Hurricane Matthew, for which he's won praise.

"McCrory has learned the lesson that you don't mess up a natural disaster," said Ferrell Guillory, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina.

But McCrory's recent surge may also have something to do with the political fundamentals of the state. Republicans dominate its state government, but North Carolina is more purple than red -- it voted for Obama in 2008, although it switched back to Romney in 2012. Given the state's closely-divided political culture, a close race was probably inevitable.

"My sense is the voters have gone back to their partisan tribes," said Michael Bitzer, provost of Catawba College.

If the election ends up being tight, it's possible that turnout efforts could make the difference. North Carolina is considered a presidential battleground state, but Hillary Clinton is devoting far more resources to it than Trump. The state Democratic Party has more than 300 people on its payroll -- three times as many as the state GOP. And Clinton is outspending Trump in the state by a 2-to-1 margin.

Indiana

Down-ballot Republicans are having to run ahead of Trump to have a chance in many states. But there are a number of places -- including Indiana -- where Trump looks to be comfortably ahead, yet Democrats could still win the race for governor.

The state is the home of Trump's running mate, Gov. Mike Pence. Pence was up for re-election but stepped aside to join the national ticket.

His replacement was Eric Holcomb, who had taken the job of lieutenant governor just this spring. Holcomb's late start has hurt his chances against John Gregg, a former state House speaker who has been running virtually ever since losing to Pence four years ago.

Campaign finance regulations prevented Pence from transferring as much of his treasury to Holcomb as both had hoped. Nevertheless, the bulk of Holcomb's funding has come either from Pence or the Republican Governors Association.

Recent polls show Gregg up by four or five points, just outside the margin of error.

"Holcomb has not been able to get over any kind of hump," said Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight. "The people of Indiana don't know the guy. He comes across as likable, but he hasn't done anything to distinguish himself."

Missouri

Missouri is another state where Trump is ahead, but the Democrat is leading the governor's race to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

State Attorney General Chris Koster was once a Republican but is now the Democratic nominee. Koster continues to fashion himself as a conservative and has maintained the support of some traditionally Republican groups. He's won endorsements, for instance, from the National Rifle Association and the Farm Bureau.

"Like Jay Nixon, he will likely do better in rural Missouri than Democrats would normally be expected to do," said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri.

Koster's opponent is Eric Greitens, who was once a Democrat. Greitens is also a former Navy SEAL and his campaign has relentlessly hit the message that Koster is an insider and the state needs a political outsider to shake things up.

But Greitens had to survive a tough primary election season that only finished in August, and some say his outsider message may not resonate with Missouri voters.

"At the federal level, it's all, 'Let's drain the swamp,'" said Messmer, the political scientist at St. Louis Community College, suggesting a strongly anti-incumbent mood regarding politicians in Washington. "At the state level, voters seem to be satisfied with governance."

West Virginia

Like Missouri, West Virginia hasn't supported a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1996. Once solidly Democratic, it's turned red, with the GOP winning control of both legislative chambers in 2014.

West Virginia is likely to be one of Trump's strongest states, but the governor's race isn't turning out as Republicans had hoped. The Democratic candidate for governor, Jim Justice, is enjoying a double-digit lead in the polls against Republican nominee Bill Cole, the state Senate president.

Justice has pulled off something that was once common among southern Democrats but has lately become rare and difficult: He's managed to separate himself from the national party that's unpopular in the South.

How?

Justice says he won't vote for Hillary Clinton. Beyond that, the coal baron -- the richest man in the state -- has been able to maintain an independent image. He's associated more with hospitality and sporting events as the owner of the Greenbrier resort hotel than partisan politics.

And, of course, he has more cash at his disposal than Cole.

"The kind of race he's running is very much tied to his image as a leading businessman and a staunch defender of the coal industry," said Scott Crichlow, who chairs the political science department at West Virginia University. "The Cole campaign seems to be much less visible than the Justice campaign."

Montana

Finally, in Montana, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who won narrowly in 2012, looks like a reasonably safe bet for re-election.

His approval ratings are in the 60s, and a poll released Tuesday showed him leading his Republican opponent, software executive Greg Gianforte, by a 12 percentage point margin.

"Bullock is an incumbent and he's also a popular incumbent," said Jeremy Johnson, a Carroll College political scientist. "Even though Montana has a Republican lean, he's established enough goodwill that some voters who might vote Republican for other races will cross and vote for Bullock."

It wouldn't be a huge shock if Republicans end up winning in any of these states. But a combination of the candidate mix and the fact that Democratic turnout is strongest in a presidential year has kept Democrats competitive in more red states than seemed likely as the year began.

"There are voters in these places willing to split tickets, and in each of them Democratic candidates are giving them a reason to do so," said Kondik, of the University of Virginia. "Whether they can maintain that up until Election Day, though, is an open question."

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