Breaking Down the 2016 Governors Races

Republicans could strengthen their power in many states this year, but Democrats only have realistic chances in two.
by | January 2016
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (AP)

Republicans are near their postwar high in the number of governorships they control. At 31, they still have plenty of opportunities to add to their total in this fall’s elections.

Democrats hold eight of the 12 governorships up for grabs in 2016, including five that will be left vacant by retirements. Like Kentucky -- where Republican Matt Bevin was elected in November -- both Missouri and West Virginia are home to Democratic incumbents who are term-limited, and those states have not supported a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton was on the ballot.

West Virginia is one of several states where Democrats failed to recruit their top choice to run: in this case, U.S. senator and former Gov. Joe Manchin. Republicans took over both chambers of the legislature in 2014, giving early momentum to GOP Lt. Gov. Bill Cole.

Missouri is less certain for Republicans. The suicide of gubernatorial candidate and state Auditor Tom Schweich last February has cast a long shadow over the race. A large group of Republicans will be battling up until the primary in August, giving well-funded Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster time to position himself for the general election. “The Schweich incident truly divided the Republican party here in Missouri,” says Ken Warren, a pollster at Saint Louis University.

The GOP may also find fertile ground in an unlikely region: New England. In Vermont, Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin -- who barely won re-election in 2014 -- is stepping down. Power has switched between the parties every time the office has come open since 1962. What’s more, GOP Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is popular and the type of moderate Republican who does well in the state and region. Democrats also received a blow in November when state House Speaker Shap Smith bowed out of the race.

While Vermont has a history of ticket-splitting, the race in New Hampshire is more likely to be swayed by the vote for president, as well as the outcome of the U.S. Senate contest featuring outgoing Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. The race for chief executive remains wide open for now.

In Montana, Republicans are hopeful about unseating Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. His approval ratings are in the 60s, but he could have a real race in a red state against self-funding tech entrepreneur Greg Gianforte.

By contrast, Democrats only have two realistic chances to make gains. In North Carolina, GOP Gov. Pat McCrory will have to answer for a slew of conservative policies enacted in a purple state. Polls show him in a tossup race against Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper. And in Indiana, GOP Gov. Mike Pence’s approval ratings have been subpar.

A University of Minnesota study found that in the 2010s Democrats have won the lowest percentage of races for governor of any decade over the past century. Given the landscape, it’s not hard to imagine there will be more Republican governors in 2017 than there are now.