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With elections just one week away, the 2012 gubernatorial landscape has tightened just a little bit.
The headline from our current handicapping of this year’s 11 gubernatorial contests -- our first since late July -- is the shift of two contests from lean Republican to tossup. The two shifts involve the open-seat races in Washington state and Montana. We’re also reclassifying Indiana’s GOP-held open seat, from likely Republican to safe Republican.
Overall, we rate three contests as tossups -- Washington, Montana and New Hampshire. All three are open-seat contests currently held by the Democrats. But only two other races remain competitive, and they’re less competitive than they were in July -- the reelection of West Virginia Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin and North Carolina Republican Pat McCrory’s bid to succeed Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.
Republicans -- already in the driver's seat with a 29-20 lead in governorships nationally -- could gain one to three seats if current trends hold, down slightly from our estimate of two to four in July. If the GOP manages to run the table and get to 34 governorships, it would be the most for the party since 1922. But that seems unlikely right now.
As always, our handicapping of the gubernatorial races -- based on interviews with a range of state and national analysts -- works in two ways. First, it categorizes every seat as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic.
Second, it ranks each seat in order of the likelihood of being won by a Republican or Democrat, with No. 1 being most likely to be won by a Republican and No. 12 being most likely to be won by a Democrat.
If our prognostication is sound, then after Election Day we should be able to draw a line somewhere in the tossup category and find all the seats above that line won by a Republican and all the seats below that line won by a Democrat. (In our 2010 gubernatorial handicapping of 37 states, only one, Illinois, ended up on the wrong side of that divide.)
Here are the current rankings, with capsule summaries of the state of play.
1. Utah (R-held; no rating change). There have been no recent polls, but Republican Gov. Gary Herbert should have no problem dispatching retired Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Peter Cooke, the Democratic nominee in this staunchly Republican state.
2. North Dakota (R-held; no rating change). Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple has maintained a solid, double-digit lead over state Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor.
3. Indiana (R-held; shift from likely Republican). GOP Rep. Mike Pence is still in the driver’s seat in his bid to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels. The Democratic nominee, former state House Speaker John Gregg, hasn’t caught on, allowing Pence to avoid taking risks that would jeopardize his longstanding edge. A wild card is Rupert Boneham, the Libertarian nominee who previously appeared on the reality show “Survivor.” He’s attracted some attention, but his bid is unlikely to have a major effect on the results.
4. North Carolina (D-held; no rating change). Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican nominee who narrowly lost to Perdue in 2008, has widened his edge over Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. Recent polls have shown leads for McCrory in the low double digits, up from the mid-single digits over the summer. Both Republican and Democratic groups have decreased their spending in the final weeks of the campaign, suggesting that the race has gotten away from Dalton. The one thing keeping us from shifting the race to likely Republican is the strong Obama ground effort in the state. While North Carolina is now considered less of a presidential battleground than it was earlier this year, shifting modestly toward the GOP, early voting patterns do give Democrats some hope.
5. Montana (D-held; shift from lean Republican)> Attorney General Steve Bullock is trying to keep the governorship in Democratic hands after two terms under Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Bullock faces former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill, a Republican. Of the three tossup races on our list, Montana seems the likeliest to go to the GOP, largely because the Republicans are expected to have a strong Election Night in the state. However, a Public Policy Polling survey in early October showed a virtual dead heat in the gubernatorial race, and both national parties consider Montana to be on their tossup list as Election Day approaches.
6. Washington state (D-held; shift from lean Republican). Republicans remain optimistic about the chances of victory forGOP state Attorney General Rob McKenna,who stands to become the first GOP governor in 28 years. But the race has steadily narrowed as Democrats have coalesced around their party’s nominee, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, leading us to shift the race to tossup. Most of the polling in the race has hovered within the margin of error. The winner will likely depend on whether general partisan leanings favoring Inslee outweigh the voters’ desire for change.
7. New Hampshire (D-held; no rating change). The New Hampshire gubernatorial race remains a muddle, due in part to a late primary and a surplus of other competitive races in the state, particularly the presidential faceoff. Democratic Gov. John Lynch is forgoing another term, leaving two-time statewide Republican candidate Ovide Lamontagne to face off against former Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan. All indications are that this is a fluid race, with the most recent polls, all taken in mid-October, ranging from Lamontagne up by six to Hassan up by eight – and with a large share of undecided voters. Ultimately, this contest will likely track with the presidential results in the state, which are close to a pure tossup.
8. West Virginia (D-held; no rating change). The Democratic incumbent, Earl Ray Tomblin, has done everything he needs to do to defeat (for a second time) Republican businessman Bill Maloney. He’s secured labor and business endorsements, and he’s successfully distanced himself from President Obama, who is highly unpopular in the state. Observers say Maloney hasn’t gained traction; the most recent poll, in late August, had Tomblin up by about 20 points. The only thing keeping this from likely Democratic is the (slim) possibility of an anti-Obama wave so strong that it cripples down-ballot Democrats.
9. Missouri (D-held; no rating change). Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon remains the heavy favorite to win a second term, thanks to moderate positioning in an increasingly conservative state. The GOP nominee, businessman David Spence, improved his standing in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll in late October, narrowing the gap to six points, and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is expected to win the former swing state handily. But other polls have had Nixon up by double digits and, crucially, strong with independents.
10. Vermont (D-held; no rating change). Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin won his first term in 2010 only narrowly, but that’s ancient history. An August Castleton Polling Institute survey in May had Shumlin up by a yawning 34 percentage-point gap over Republican former state auditor and state Sen. Randy Brock.
11. Delaware (D-held, no rating change). There’s been no public polling, but Republican challenger Jeff Cragg, a Mail Boxes Etc. owner in Fairfax, is not expected to give Democratic Gov. Jack Markell much of a challenge in his bid for a second term.