Rating the 2016 Governors’ Races

Eight of the 12 states with elections this year could soon have a new party in power.
by | January 25, 2016
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has yet to rebound from an attempt to pass a religious freedom law that spawned a nationwide backlash from the gay rights community. AP

It’s been a busy few months for gubernatorial races. In November, two of the three contests resulted in party switches -- a Democratic-to-Republican switch in Kentucky and a Republican-to-Democratic change in Louisiana. For the 2016 races, things are heating up in a few states, leading to changes in how their residents will likely vote. When all is said and done, the watchword remains “competitive.”

There are 12 governors' races this year, eight of which Governing classifies as up for grabs, meaning they're either tossup or lean Democratic or Republican. Since our most recent handicapping last August, some things have changed.

In New Hampshire, the decision of Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan to run for a U.S. Senate seat pushed the newly open-seat contest from lean Democratic to tossup. In Washington state, the re-election bid by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee moved from likely Democratic to lean Democratic. And the quest for a second term by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, went from lean Republican to tossup.

All told, it’s still a tough cycle for the Democrats. They hold nine of the 12 seats being contested, including several in states like Missouri, Montana and West Virginia that are increasingly GOP-leaning in federal elections. That said, the Democrats have a path to victory in each of those three states, and they could pick up GOP governorships in Indiana and North Carolina.

Nationally, Republicans hold a historically large 31-18 lead in governorships. (There's one independent, Alaska's Bill Walker.)

As usual, we’re dividing the gubernatorial elections into seven categories: safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic.

A Democratic sweep of all competitive contests in the current ratings 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.

Safe Republican

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R)

Herbert was elevated to the governorship in 2009, then won a 2010 special election for a partial term and a regular election in 2012. Now running for his second full term, Herbert remains the favorite to win in this solidly red state. Overstock.com president Jonathan Johnson is challenging Herbert from the right in the GOP primary. Herbert has outraised Johnson, though the latter could dig into his own deep pockets if he chooses. Though polling in the race is scarce, Herbert’s pragmatic approach seems to be popular, and the Democrats aren’t expected to offer much more than token opposition. This is a safe seat for the GOP, the safest on this list.

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

It’s been a busy few months since we last looked at the North Dakota gubernatorial race. Dalrymple opted to retire, and Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, a top GOP contender, opted not to run after announcing that he’d had an extramarital affair. On the Democratic side, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp -- her party’s best shot at winning the governorship -- announced that she’d remain in the Senate. Then, in mid-January, businessman Doug Burgum announced he’d be entering the race. Burgum joined a GOP field that already included state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and state Rep. Rick Becker. Stenehjem, the longest-serving state attorney general in North Dakota history, is a fixture in state political circles. But there’s some buzz around Burgum, the former CEO of Great Plains Software, which was sold to Microsoft for $1.1 billion in 2001. He’s promised to run in the primary even if he doesn’t win the state party convention. The likely Democratic candidate is Sarah Vogel, a former agriculture commissioner who’s been retired for about a decade. North Dakota is solidly Republican these days, but the state’s recent troubles -- stemming from low oil and gas prices -- should provide fodder for an interesting campaign.

Tossup

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) (Shift from lean Republican)

By now, many had expected Pence to have rebounded from a botched attempt to pass a religious freedom law that spawned a pro-LGBT backlash among Democrats and the GOP-leaning business community. But a year later, Pence is still hobbled by that controversy, which remains unsettled due to pending legislation. Once seen as a rising GOP star with national ambitions, Pence can't seem to make anyone at either end of the spectrum -- and even those in the middle -- happy. Republican legislators, who have a supermajority, have shown little deference, and Pence’s highly billed State of the State address, intended to turn a new page, doesn’t appear to have changed minds. Pence will have money to spend on his re-election, and he should benefit from an improving economy in the conservative state. Still, this contest, already competitive when we last looked, has moved toward the Democrats, as former state House Speaker John Gregg, who lost narrowly to Pence in 2012, has coalesced Democratic support. Gregg isn't considered a great campaigner, but he raised $2 million during the last half of 2015. A possible Libertarian candidacy could have an impact too: Pence won in 2012 by a narrow plurality, not a majority. This contest could bounce back and forth before Election Day. For now, though, we’re moving the race from lean Republican to tossup.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R)

North Carolina remains the Democrats' best chance for a gubernatorial pickup. During his first term, McCrory signed much of the aggressively conservative -- and controversial -- agenda pursued by the GOP-held legislature. Voters were reminded of this polarizing push earlier this year when a law took effect that requires doctors performing an abortion after 16 weeks to provide the government with an ultrasound. Democrats, all the way up to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, are making an issue of the measure. McCrory is seeking to turn a page in his re-election bid, touting a “Carolina comeback” at a time when the state’s economy is improving. The expected Democratic nominee is four-term Attorney General Roy Cooper. Polls show the race -- probably the marquee gubernatorial contest of 2016 -- to be neck-and-neck in most polls. As a battleground state, it also could be shaped by the course of the presidential contest.

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

The West Virginia gubernatorial race has grown more complicated in recent months. A two-candidate Democratic race -- between billionaire Jim Justice, a coalmine owner, and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler -- is now a three-way race with the entry of former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. Internal polling for Justice -- who helped himself with a series of positive TV ads last fall -- has him at 39 percent, with 19 percent for Kessler, 13 percent for Goodwin and 29 percent undecided. Justice fares best with the Democrats’ moderate-to-conservative wing, while Kessler is considered the standard bearer for the party’s more liberal wing. Less clear is the constituency for Goodwin, the cousin of former U.S. Sen. Carte Goodwin and the prosecutor in the case against former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who operated the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 coalminers died after a 2010 explosion. The fact that the Democrats have three credible candidates is a hopeful sign that the party might be able to keep the governorship in a state where Republicans have been on a roll recently. Republicans, for their part, have unified behind state Senate President Bill Cole. This has the makings of a highly competitive race: A Metronews West Virginia poll in September found that 37 percent of voters favored a generic Republican, 34 percent favored a generic Democrat and 29 percent were undecided. That said, the GOP’s recent momentum in the state, combined with the likelihood that the Democrats won’t get the kind of presidential-year turnout advantage in West Virginia that they can count on in other states, makes this the likeliest Democratic-held seat to flip to the GOP in 2016.

New Hampshire: Open seat; held by Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) (shift from Lean Democratic)

Hassan would have been the favorite to win another two-year term, but national Democrats successfully recruited her to run against Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte in a race that could determine control of the chamber. Her departure from the race leaves it wide open. The top names in the GOP field are state Rep. Frank Edelblut and Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, whose father is former Gov. John H. Sununu and whose brother is former Sen. John E. Sununu. On the Democratic side, the leading figures considering runs are Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern; Stephanie Shaheen, daughter of Jeanne Shaheen, a former governor and current U.S. Senator; and Mark Connolly, a former state commissioner of securities. The gubernatorial race may fly under the radar given the intense attention to the presidential race and the U.S. Senate contest. A recent Public Policy Polling survey had voters evenly split between Democrats and Republicans on a generic ballot test, with a large share saying they didn’t know much about the particular candidates. That, combined with the state’s late primary date of Sept. 13, suggest that it’s too early to handicap a winner. So we’re moving this from lean Democratic to tossup.

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

The race to succeed Shumlin is wide open, with lots of time to go before the Aug. 9 primaries. On the Democratic side, there will likely be a competitive primary between Matt Dunne, a former legislator and 2010 gubernatorial candidate, and Sue Minter, a former legislator and state secretary of transportation. Dunne is a strong fundraiser and aggressive campaigner, and he’s been out of office for several years -- a badge of honor in the current political environment. On the other hand, Dunne has previously lost two statewide races. Minter, for her part, is a first-time statewide candidate who isn’t as well-known or well-funded as Dunne. But observers say she’s made a good impression on the trail and would be Vermont's first female governor since Madeleine Kunin left office in 1991. On the GOP side, the field includes Lt. Gov. Phil Scott -- a moderate who has high name recognition, solid approval ratings and the support of many GOP officeholders -- and Bruce Lisman -- a retired Wall Street executive with significant financial resources. In the general election, the Democrats would start off with important advantages since Vermont is a solidly blue state and it’s a presidential year. But Republicans have historically done well in Vermont gubernatorial races, and in this case, they’re the out-of-power party that can make a good argument that it’s time for a change. The Vermont governorship has reliably changed hands in open-seat elections since 1968, and there’s a chance that a Progressive third-party candidacy could drain votes from the Democratic nominee. Despite the state’s Democratic lean, there’s enough uncertainty that we’re keeping this race at tossup for now.

Lean Democratic

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

Missouri’s Republican leaning in federal races has convinced a bevy of GOP candidates to see if they can flip the governorship. The Republican field includes former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, wealthy businessman John Brunner and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens. Of these, Greitens is the most intriguing candidate -- his nonpolitical resume should be an asset in an anti-establishment year, and he’s been a strong fundraiser. But the candidates have been attacking each other pretty heavily, and with the primary in August, it will be hard to know how good a shot the GOP will have. Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster -- who had already had a slight edge in the general -- hasn’t done anything to hurt himself, and his lack of primary opposition allows him to expand his warchest.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D)

Bullock remains in better shape than one would expect for a Montana Democrat, but he’s had a rocky couple of months, notably the acrimonious exit of Lt. Gov. Angela McLean. Bullock seems to have limited the damage with his well-received pick of Mike Cooney, a three-time secretary of state and a veteran legislator and state official, to become his third LG in three years. Bullock is running on his not-insignificant accomplishments -- Medicaid expansion, campaign finance reform and a budget in relatively good shape. His likeliest opponent is Republican Greg Gianforte, who’s running on a platform to cut taxes and regulations. Gianforte can rely on deep pockets -- he co-founded RightNow Technologies, which sold to Oracle for $1.8 billion -- but Bullock is also posting strong fundraising figures. Public Service Commissioner Brad Johnson is another potential Republican, though Gianforte’s personal resources give him the edge on the GOP side. While this seat leans Democratic, it should definitely be a competitive contest.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) (shift from likely Democratic)

Inslee has a natural edge in a blue state during a presidential year, but voters haven’t exactly been in love with him during his first term. A late December Elway poll had 58 percent of respondents saying Inslee was doing a “poor” or “only fair” job, up nine points from July 2013. But can the Republicans, who control the state Senate and aren’t far behind in the state House, take advantage? Inslee’s presumed Republican opponent, Bill Bryant, is Seattle port commissioner, a post that isn’t a traditional launching pad for higher office. Bryant took 30 percent of the vote in the Elway poll, compared to 39 percent for Inslee and 31 percent undecided. That’s a good head start for the GOP, but after several gubernatorial elections in which their nominee lost narrowly, it’s not going to be easy.

Likely Democratic

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D)

Brown, who took over for Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber when he resigned amid turmoil just months after winning a new term, has to run in a special election to fill the final two years of Kitzhaber’s term. Brown has lucked out so far in terms of challengers. Her strongest potential primary rival, state Treasurer Ted Wheeler, has filed to run for mayor of Portland, easing Brown’s path to renomination. As for the Republicans, both Knute Buehler of Bend, the nominee against Brown for secretary of state in 2012, and Monica Wehby of Portland, the nominee for a U.S. Senate seat in 2014, have said they won't run. William (Bud) Pierce, former president of the Oregon Medical Association, remains the most prominent Republican in the race. Also weighing a run is Allen Alley, a businessman and former GOP state chairman who has run twice for statewide office. In a blue state and a presidential year, Brown's thorniest problem may not be her own race, but rather a looming battle between her strong supporters -- public-sector unions -- and business interests who are fighting over an increase in corporate taxes and a possible minimum-wage increase.

Safe Democratic

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

The late primary date -- Sept. 13 -- means that this race has been slow to develop. That said, U.S. Rep. John Carney is in the driver’s seat to succeed Markell, the man he lost to in the 2008 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Republicans, with a thin bench in this increasingly blue state, are not putting this contest high on their list of pickup opportunities.