Election

2014 Governors Races: A Look at the Too-Close-to-Call Contests

We examine the tossup gubernatorial races in the six states where votes will likely matter the most.
by | March 6, 2014
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, center, speaks to reporters outside the White House following a meeting between President Obama and the National Governors Association.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, center, speaks to reporters outside the White House following a meeting between President Obama and the National Governors Association. AP/Charles Dharapak
 

Now that we've looked at the seats where the GOP has high hopes in the 2014 gubernatorial contests, it's time to turn our attention to states where the next governor could be from either party -- it's anyone's guess.

Find full state and local elections coverage here.

To recap, the Republicans still hold the lead in governorships: 29 to the Democrats 21 seats. The Democrats could net as many as four gubernatorial seats and the Republicans could net as many as three. On balance, a "typical" gain might be a one- to two-seat gain for the Democrats, a modest improvement from our projection eight months ago, which was roughly a wash.

As before, the GOP's substantial lead in governorships seems relatively secure, though it could certainly shrink a bit.

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.

The governorships are listed in order from the most likely to be won by the GOP to the most likely to be won by the Democrats. The idea is that, once the results are in, we should be able to draw a line somewhere in the middle of the tossup category that divides the seats won by the GOP and the seats won by the Democrats. (We achieved this result in 2012 and were off by just one contest in 2010.)

For ease of reading, we've broken up our handicapping into three separate pieces that will appear over the next several days. This second piece features the seven-tossup races. The third article will include every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Democratic. And the first article included every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Republican.

Here's the full rundown for the tossup contests:

Tossup

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) (Shift from Lean Republican)

Brewer -- whose drift to the center recently culminated in a veto of a bill that would have allowed business owners to deny service to people, such as gays and lesbians, for religious reasons -- is widely assumed to be serving her last term, though she's keeping her options open after having served a partial term prior to winning in 2010. (Running again would likely require winning a legal battle.) If she doesn't run, there's a large and unsettled potential Republican field that includes Secretary of State and former state Senate President Ken Bennett, attorney and businesswoman Christine Jones, former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, state Treasurer Doug Ducey, state Sen. Al Melvin and former U.S. Rep. (from California) Frank Riggs. The Democratic field includes former Arizona Board of Regents President Fred DuVal and Marine Corps veteran Ron Cavanaugh. In a February poll by the Behavioral Research Center, Bennett led DuVal by four, but DuVal led Ducey and Smith by two and three points, respectively, with a large majority of voters uncommitted. While Arizona is generically GOP-leaning, this is one of the nation's most unsettled races, so until we have a better grasp on the contenders, we're moving it to the tossup category.

Arkansas: Open seat; held by Gov. Mike Beebe (D) (Shift from Lean Republican)

Beebe remains popular -- so popular that, if Democrat Mike Ross, a former Congressman, manages to win in November, he'll owe a lot to his predecessor, who's been all over the airwaves singing his praises. In recent election cycles, Arkansas has taken a strong right turn, but moderate-to-conservative Democrats like Beebe and Ross can still win if they run a smart campaign. So far, Ross is running a competitive and well-funded race against GOP frontrunner Asa Hutchinson, a former U.S. House member and 2006 gubernatorial candidate. Hutchinson faces two candidates to his right in the primary -- businessman Curtis Coleman and state Rep. Debra Hobbs. A February poll by Rasmussen found Ross ahead of Hutchinson, 44 percent to 41 percent. In previous campaigns, Hutchinson has never quite clicked with voters; to win, he'll have to hope the race becomes shaped by national issues, which is possible since the other big race in the state this fall is a hard-fought U.S. Senate contest. For now, this looks like a pure tossup.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D)

In solidly blue Connecticut, Malloy is more vulnerable than any incumbent Democratic governor ought to be. The struggling economy isn't helping, nor is the incumbent's reputation for brusqueness. Tom Foley, the Republican he narrowly beat in 2010, is running again, but observers say Foley hasn't upped his campaign game that much. Some suggest that Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, an engaging moderate, could pose a stronger threat in the general election. After all, prior to Malloy, there hadn't been a Democratic governor in Connecticut since 1991, and the Republicans who won largely fit the moderate mold. We'll keep this contest at tossup.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) (Shift from Lean Democratic)

Quinn remains highly vulnerable, despite serving in a state with a strong Democratic tilt. Some good news for Quinn is that he has avoided a top-tier primary challenger, after both former White House Chief of Staff William Daley and Attorney General Lisa Madigan decided not to run. Even better news for Quinn is that the GOP's primary has been messy. The GOP frontrunner -- up by 20 points against his Republican rivals in recent polls -- is billionaire Bruce Rauner. State Treasurer Dan Rutherford had ranked second in the field, but he's had to deal with some explosive allegations. Two other GOP candidates are in the race but have little money -- socially conservative 2010 nominee Bill Brady and Sen. Kirk Dillard. Quinn's approval ratings have been weak for a while, but he can at least tout some victories, having enacted major pension reform legislation, same-sex marriage, abolition of the death penalty, and overhauls of workers compensation, ethics and campaign finance.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)

LePage hasn't eased the throttle much on his outspokenly conservative approach and agenda -- something that appeals to the Republican base but not to a majority of Maine voters. Fortunately for LePage, he was elected narrowly in a three-way race in 2010 and now faces another in 2014, featuring Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Independent Eliot Cutler. This means LePage only needs to win as little as 34 percent of the vote. Among this trio, Michaud is probably the frontrunner, but the race is fluid enough that we're keeping it at tossup.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R)

The Florida gubernatorial race remains one of the marquee contests of the 2014 cycle. Scott, elected narrowly in 2010 as an uncompromising conservative, has softened his positions somewhat, but voters haven't really warmed to him, making him one of the most vulnerable Republican governors in the country. The leading Democrat in the race is former Gov. Charlie Crist, elected originally as a Republican before switching to Independent and finally to the Democratic Party. Crist polls well in head-to-head matchups against Scott, although he has less of an edge on specific issues such as the economy; he will also have to answer questions about his shifting positions over the years. Scott, who will likely have the money edge, may have boosted his prospects by tapping Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a popular Hispanic from Miami-Dade County, to fill the vacant lieutenant governorship. For his part, Crist (who must first get past primary opposition from former state Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich) could get a boost in November from a medical-marijuana amendment that is headed for the ballot; Crist supports it, but Scott opposes it. Crist has been ahead by margins in the mid-single digits -- seven points in a January University of Florida poll and eight in a Quinnipiac poll -- but given the volatility of Florida politics, we're keeping this one at tossup.

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