Democrats Have More Seats to Defend in 2015-2016 Governors Races

Despite holding far fewer seats overall, the Democrats have more governorships to defend than the Republicans.
by | January 23, 2015

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that the 2014 midterm elections didn't go so well for Democrats. Republicans surged to a 31-18 lead nationally (there's one Independent, Alaska's Bill Walker).

The upcoming gubernatorial election cycle won't be any easier for the party. Despite holding far fewer seats overall, the Democrats have more governorships to defend in 2015 and 2016 than the Republicans do. The Democrats hold eight of the 14 seats being contested.

In this, Governing's first handicapping of the 2015-2016 gubernatorial cycle, we will be following our traditional practice of initially separating races into one of three categories: vulnerable, potentially vulnerable and safe. At this time, there are four vulnerable governorships. Three are Democratic-held seats that are coming open due to term limits -- Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia -- and the fourth is held by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina.

Meanwhile, we are classifying the governorships of four other states as "potentially vulnerable." All four are currently held by Democratic incumbents -- Steve Bullock in Montana, Jay Inslee in Washington state, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire and Peter Shumlin in Vermont. (New Hampshire and Vermont are the only two states that have gubernatorial terms of two years, rather than four.)

Finally, we've classified the remaining governorships as "safe" for the party currently in power. One, Delaware, is a Democratic-held seat that is coming open. The other five are Republican-held. One, Louisiana, is coming open due to term limits. The other four are held by GOP incumbents -- Mike Pence in Indiana, Jack Dalrymple in North Dakota, Phil Bryant in Mississippi and Gary Herbert in Utah.

All told, the Democrats have the most on the line in the 2015-2016 cycle. Seven out of the eight governorships are labeled either vulnerable or potentially vulnerable are currently in Democratic hands, compared to just one for the Republicans. If the Democrats were to lose each of their vulnerable governorships and fail to oust McCrory in North Carolina, the GOP's gubernatorial edge would surge to 34-15 -- a disheartening prospect for Democrats.

Three of the 14 races over the next two years will be held in November 2015 -- Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. The remaining 11 contests will go to the voters in 2016.

Here's a summary of the state of play in each of the 14 states.

Vulnerable

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R)

Although he has not officially announced that he will seek another term, McCrory is expected to run. The Tar Heel state ranks as the Democrats' only hope over the next two years in winning back a Republican-held governorship. Since taking control of both the governorship and legislature in 2012, Republicans have pursued a staunchly conservative agenda, which has prompted a long-running series of protests at the state Capitol and raised questions about McCrory's ability to win a second term in a presidential year.

McCrory is banking on voters to give him and his party a measure of credit for the state's improving economy. While it's possible that McCrory could get a primary challenge from his right flank, his biggest worry is the general election. The presumptive Democratic challenger is Roy Cooper, who has served four terms as attorney general, consistently out-performing most Democrats, and a lot of Republicans, at the polls. Cooper's biggest liability will be problems in the state crime lab, which his office oversees.

Given that the state will be pivotal in the 2016 presidential race, most observers expect a hard-fought and expensive contest for governor, with lots of outside money flowing in.

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

Missouri has been trending Republican for years. In fact, the term-limited Nixon may have only hung on this long because of his moderate-to-conservative approach to governance. That said, the likely Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Chris Koster, has proven to be a solid vote-getter and, in a presidential year when Democratic turnout tends to be high, he should be able to make a strong bid to keep the governorship in Democratic hands.

The leading Republican contender is former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway. Because Hanaway is being backed by billionaire Rex Sinquefield, she should be able to run a well-financed race. She'll need it, since her name recognition is not considered particularly high. Republican state auditor Tom Schweich has also been considering a bid.

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

Long a solidly Democratic state, West Virginia began voting Republican for president in 2000. Fourteen years later, that trend has accelerated and in November, the GOP swept to majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Could the governorship be next?

The Democrats' strongest candidate to succeed term-limited Tomblin is a previous occupant of the office, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. Manchin has said he'll decide whether to make a run by summer. If he doesn't run, possible candidates include State Treasurer John Perdue and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

The potential GOP field includes Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and any of the three Republicans representing the state in the U.S. House.

Kentucky: Open seat in 2015; Gov. Steve Beshear (D)

Beshear has had a successful and popular run as governor despite the Bluegrass State's strong Republican lean in federal races. Yet many Democrats have passed on the chance to succeed him, leaving only Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway. Conway lost a closely watched U.S. Senate race in 2010 to Republican Rand Paul. More than losing, though, Conway attracted widespread criticism in that race for running an ad that took Paul to task for a college-age prank. Conway seems to have recovered, but winning the governorship will be no easy task, especially since no candidate who has claimed Louisville as his residence has won the job in over a century.

The Republican field is somewhat less settled. It includes former Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, businessman Hal Heiner and, a potential wild card, businessman Matt Bevin, who ran an unsuccessful, Tea Party-aligned challenge to McConnell in the 2014 GOP primary.

Potentially vulnerable

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D)

Republicans control Montana's state legislature. As a result, Bullock is hardly a shoo-in for a second term. But he's likable, he's been raising money at a good clip and, perhaps most important, he doesn't have a surefire Republican challenger yet.

The potential GOP field includes Attorney General Tim Fox, wealthy technology executive Greg Gianforte, former state Senate president and current state Rep. Jeff Essmann, and incoming Senate Majority Leader Matt Rosendale.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D)

For the most part, Washington state is solidly blue, but voters are lukewarm on Inslee, who is proposing to increase taxes and is backing an aggressive cap-and-trade measure.

The best thing Inslee has going for him is the lack of a strong GOP opponent. The Republicans' surest bet, moderate former Attorney General Rob McKenna, is now in the private sector and doesn't look like he's going to run. U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert is another possible Republican challenger, but he has not indicated a strong interest yet.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D)

Hassan was just elected to her second term, albeit by a somewhat-closer-than-expected five-point margin. It's way too early to gauge how her prospects will look in 2016. Still, New Hampshire has been prime battleground territory for the two parties in recent years -- and, more important, Hassan has been discussed as a possible challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2016. If Hassan enters the Senate race, both parties would have a reasonable chance of seizing the governorship in two years' time.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D)

In an election that officially concluded two full months after Election Day, Shumlin stumbled across the finish line and into another term, thanks to Vermont's curious system of having the legislature choose the governor if no one wins a simple majority of the vote.

To make matters worse, Shumlin recently announced he was pulling the plug on the state's single-payer system. But the Democrat has time to recover should he decide to run in 2016. The only wild card is if U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, decides to retire. It could kick off a game of musical chairs. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, also a Democrat, would be a leading contender for Leahy's seat, and Shumlin could decide to run for Welch's. Alternately, Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith could run for the open U.S. Senate seat.

As for the Republicans, Scott Milne, Shumlin's 2014 opponent, could decide to run again. In addition, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott could run; he's a moderate who would have a good shot at following in the footsteps of former moderate GOP governors like Jim Douglas.

Safe

Louisiana: Open seat in 2015; Gov. Bobby (R)

Even though Jindal has had a weak year or two back home, that hasn't given Democrats much hope of seizing the governorship. Most of the action to succeed Jindal in this red state will take place on the Republican side.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter starts out as the clear favorite. Other possible contenders on the GOP side include Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who is one of the more pragmatic-minded Republican figures in the state; Scott Angelle, a public service commissioner and former Jindal confidant; Gerald Long, a cousin of the famous governors Huey and Earl Long; State Treasurer John Kennedy, who may be more interested in attorney general or an appointment to the U.S. Senate; and Louisiana State Penitentiary Warden Burl Cain.

The most frequent Democrat being mentioned is House Minority Leader John Bel Edwards. His populist approach and West Point background hold some appeal, but running as any kind of Democrat in Louisiana these days is hard -- just ask former Sen. Mary Landrieu, who was routed in her 2014 re-election bid. Less frequently mentioned on the Democratic side is Baton Rouge businessman Jim Bernhard.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R)

Pence is the only incumbent governor seeking re-election in 2016 who is also considered a potential presidential candidate (or, perhaps more plausibly, a vice presidential candidate). Pence has said he won't be announcing his presidential intentions until April, but the possibility that he might throw his hat into the ring is serious enough that a proposal is circulating in the legislature to let him run for two offices simultaneously.

Pence is popular in the state, and Hoosier State Democrats, unlike Indiana Republicans, have a thin bench. Two Democratic possibilities are former state House Speaker John Gregg, who came surprisingly close to defeating Pence during the open gubernatorial contest in 2012, and former U.S. Rep. Baron Hill.

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

Delaware has become so solidly Democratic that the party is in the driver's seat to keep the governorship that is set to be relinquished by the term-limited Markell. Less clear is who precisely the successor will be.

For a long time, it was presumed to be Beau Biden, a son of Vice President Joe Biden. But he's also had serious health issues, and some observers wouldn't be surprised to see him back out of a bid. If it's not Biden, the Democrats could turn to the attorney general who succeeded Biden, Matt Denn, or to U.S. Rep. John Carney, who lost to Markell in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2008. Another possibility is New Castle County executive Tom Gordon, though he's considered a polarizing figure.

The Republicans have one credible contender -- should he decide to run -- newly elected State Treasurer Ken Simpler.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R)

North Dakota is in the midst of an unprecedented, oil-and-gas-driven boom, and that's helped Dalrymple amass widespread popularity. It's not clear whether he'll run for a second term, though. If he does, he'll skate to victory. If he doesn't, the GOP has a good chance of keeping the seat.

The Democrats' best hope would be if U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp runs for governor again (she ran unsuccessfully in 2000). She's popular and a good campaigner. If Heitkamp doesn't run, former U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, state Sen. George Sinner Jr., former state Sen. Ryan Taylor, and Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider would make credible runs in an open-seat contest.

The two most prominent Republican names being floated are Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Wrigley is considered more conservative than Stenehjem, but the long-serving AG is popular.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R)

In solidly Republican Utah, Herbert has taken a relatively moderate approach, proposing increases to school funding and floating the idea of raising taxes to fund infrastructure needs. He could be vulnerable to a challenge from his right, but so far nothing serious has emerged. Democrats with statewide cachet are few and far between, with the possible exception of former U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) in 2015

Bryant has governed as a staunch conservative, but that's been popular in ruby-red Mississippi. No top-tier contenders have emerged in the race at this time.