Handicapping the 2016 Governors Races

In a year of political upheaval, the gubernatorial elections stand out for how little has changed.
by | July 7, 2016
Indiana gubernatorial candidate John Gregg lost to Gov. Mike Pence in 2012. This year, he has a rematch. (AP/Michael Conroy)

In a year of political upheaval, the 2016 gubernatorial races stand out for how little has changed in the six months since we published our last handicapping in January.

No race ratings have changed since then, though we’ve tweaked the order slightly. Specifically, we’ve pushed North Carolina and Missouri slightly in the Democrats’ direction and West Virginia and Montana slightly in the Republicans’ direction.

A big reason for the stability over the past six months is that several of the states with gubernatorial races this year have not yet had their primaries -- and some won’t have nominees for months. That’s true in Missouri, New Hampshire and Vermont. Once the nominees are set, we may see some movement in the ratings.

All told, Democrats hold nine of the 12 seats being contested this year, putting their already weak national numbers under added strain. Currently, Republicans hold a historically large 31-18 lead in governorships. (There's one independent, Alaska's Bill Walker.)

Of this year’s 12 gubernatorial races, Governing classifies eight as being competitive, meaning they're either a tossup, lean Democratic race or a lean Republican race.

Democratic victories in each of the competitive contests would produce a two-seat gain, resulting in a reduced GOP edge of 29-18. By contrast, a Republican sweep of all competitive seats would result in a six-seat gain and a strikingly dominant overall GOP edge of 37-12. As usual, the most likely outcome is somewhere in the middle -- and however 2016 shakes out, the GOP will end the year with a continued big lead in governorships.

The list below gives each race a rating -- safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic -- and also rank-orders them within each category so that they go from most likely to vote Republican to most likely to vote Democratic.

Safe Republican

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R)

As expected, Herbert, a pragmatist in a solidly red state, defeated Overstock.com president Jonathan Johnson in the GOP primary in late June. Johnson had challenged the incumbent from the right. Herbert should now have an easy re-election contest against his Democratic opposition, Michael Weinholtz.

North Dakota: Open seat; held by Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R)

In a come-from-behind primary victory, businessman and political novice Doug Burgum easily beat the GOP’s convention-endorsed candidate, long-serving Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Burgum -- the former CEO of Great Plains Software, which was sold to Microsoft for $1.1 billion in 2001 -- proved successful at retail politics, traveling more than 16,000 miles throughout the state and winning 49 of 53 counties, including Stenehjem’s home turf. His outsider persona played well in a year favorable to nontraditional candidates, and his business background should prove attractive in a once-booming state now grappling with depressed oil and crop prices. In November, Burgum will face Democratic state Rep. Marvin Nelson, a crop consultant, and Libertarian Marty Riske, a businessman -- neither of whom is well-known. Burgum should win easily -- and could become a governor to watch nationally.

Tossup

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) 

Pence is under consideration to be Donald Trump’s running mate. If he isn’t picked, he'll remain locked in a tight race for a second term. He's focused on jobs, highway spending and early education but hasn’t fully recovered from the nationwide controversy over a religious freedom law he signed last year that spawned a pro-LGBT rights backlash. Despite an improving economy in the state, Pence hasn’t benefited much. He had a 40 percent approval rating, compared to 42 percent disapproval, in a recent poll. In a rematch, he'll face John Gregg, a Democratic former state House Speaker who lost narrowly to Pence in 2012. This time around, Gregg seems to have upped his campaign game -- though the contest seems likely to be a referendum on Pence, not Gregg. Until we detect sustained movement in one direction or another, we’re keeping this race at tossup. And we’ll entirely reassess if Pence runs for vice president instead.

West Virginia: Open seat; held by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D)

This is the likeliest Democratic-held seat to flip to the GOP in 2016. Billionaire Jim Justice won a contested primary and seeks to keep the governorship in Democratic hands in a state that has shifted strongly to the GOP in recent election cycles. But his business record includes some controversies that Republicans are trying to exploit. The GOP, on the other hand, has unified behind state Senate President Bill Cole. Cole isn't as well-known as Justice, but he’s enhanced his stature recently by helping to forge a budget deal that averted a government shutdown. A Trump candidacy in the presidential race could also boost Cole’s prospects. Democrats with home-state credibility, however, have managed to beat the odds in past statewide races, and Justice should be able to portray himself as a business-minded outsider in that mold. We’re keeping this race at tossup.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R)

McCrory is still the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in 2016, and the hubbub surrounding his re-election bid -- already the year’s marquee gubernatorial contest -- has only been intensified by the passage of H.B. 2. That's the law that limits transgender people from using the restroom of their choice, which provoked strong opposition from Democrats and some moderate Republicans both locally and nationally. The controversy over the “bathroom bill” put McCrory on the defensive and stepped on his economic message, which may have been gaining traction. The Democratic nominee, four-term Attorney General Roy Cooper who refuses to defend H.B. 2 in a federal lawsuit, has also attacked the incumbent over teacher pay and other education concerns. Observers see H.B. 2 and other controversies firing up each party’s base voters, meaning that turnout in November could play a big role. The hotly contested presidential race in the state will also shape turnout, as could a trio of constitutional amendments being proposed for the ballot -- one on capping the state income tax, another that would limit eminent domain and a third that would reinforce the right to hunt and fish. Polling has consistently shown McCrory and Cooper nearly even, and that should continue through the fall. This race stays at tossup.

New Hampshire: Open seat; held by Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) 

The race in this swing state remains wide open, and it should remain that way until the Sept. 13 primary. The GOP field includes Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, state Sen. Jeannie Forester and state Rep. Frank Edelblut. The Democrats have a tight contest between Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand and former state Securities Commissioner Mark Connolly.

Vermont: Open seat; held by Gov. Peter Shumlin (D)

This state’s late primary date -- Aug. 9 -- has kept the race volatile. On the Democratic side, a competitive three-way primary is under way among Matt Dunne, a former legislator and 2010 gubernatorial candidate; Sue Minter, a former legislator and state secretary of transportation; and Peter Galbraith, a former state senator who is making a play for the party’s progressive wing. With turnout expected to be low, the primary outcome is hard to predict. On the GOP side, the frontrunner is Phil Scott, a popular and moderate lieutenant governor who faces retired Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman. Scott would be considered a strong contender in the general election despite Vermont’s strongly blue tinge. That's because Shumlin’s mixed tenure in office provides the GOP with a good time-for-a-change argument, and Scott’s high name recognition and favorability (as well as his effort to distance himself from Donald Trump) gives him a leg up. That said, Scott would have to win over a significant fraction of Hillary Clinton voters to prevail, which is no easy task. Until more polling of a general contest surfaces, we’re leaving this one as a tossup.

Lean Democratic

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D)

Bullock, who’s successfully navigated difficult currents for a Democrat in Montana, will face Republican Greg Gianforte and Libertarian Ted Dunlap in November. Gianforte has deep pockets from co-founding a company that sold to Oracle for $1.8 billion, and he may be able to leverage the outsider card in a state where Trump support seems strong. He’s had a stumble or two, including the revelation that he and his wife sued the state seven years ago to remove an easement over their land that provided access to fishing. But at the same time, Gianforte, a conservative, is building bridges to moderate Republicans who have been turned off by other recent GOP candidates. Bullock, on the other hand, has racked up cash at a quicker pace than Gianforte, and he’s got a record of legislative achievements to run on. This contest could definitely narrow as Election Day nears. But for now, Bullock continues to maintain a slight edge.

Missouri: Open seat; held by Gov. Jay Nixon (D)

Ahead of the Aug. 2 primary, the GOP field remains as unsettled as ever. The field includes former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, wealthy businessman John Brunner and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens -- all of whom are hammering each other and bleeding money. By contrast, on the Democratic side, Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster is benefiting from his free pass to the general election, enabling him to continue solidifying his war chest for a sprint to the finish. With Missouri voters generally moving in the GOP’s direction in recent years, the GOP nominee will almost certainly have a shot at winning. But until that nominee emerges and proves themselves, we’re keeping this contest at lean Democratic.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D)

Inslee should get a big boost from running in a blue state in a presidential year, but that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to win. He isn’t overwhelmingly popular, so he’ll need high Democratic turnout in populous King County (which includes uber-liberal Seattle) to win a new term. Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant, Inslee’s expected GOP challenger, is a credible though relatively obscure candidate. Bryant’s fundraising, however, hasn’t been that impressive. If he wins the Aug. 2 primary, Bryant’s biggest boost could come from a concerted effort by the national GOP to help him out. If that doesn’t happen, this contest could shift to likely Democratic.

Likely Democratic

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D)

Brown, who took over for Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber when he resigned just months after winning a new term, is running in a special election to fill the final two years of Kitzhaber’s term. She's faced some unwanted issues -- the detection of toxic airborne and water-borne metals in Portland and an oil train derailment -- but she’s received solid marks for her responses. A bigger challenge could prove to be a measure to raise corporate taxes that has qualified for the general election ballot. Brown’s public-sector union allies are battling business groups over the tax proposal, and the conflict could become intense and possibly awkward for Brown. William Pierce, former president of the Oregon Medical Association who self-funded his bid, won a contested GOP primary by running as a relative moderate, but it's going to take more than his own money to run a credible campaign against Brown in a solidly blue state in a presidential election year.

Safe Democratic

Delaware: Open seat; held by Gov. Jack Markell (D)

Though the Delaware primary date is late -- Sept. 13 -- U.S. Rep. John Carney remains the overwhelming favorite to succeed Markell. Carney lost to Markell in the 2008 Democratic gubernatorial primary. It looks like Carney should at least have a Republican opponent -- state Sen. Colin Bonini --which was no certainty in this increasingly blue state. But for Carney, victory seems like only a matter of time.