2015-2016 Governors Races Give Democrats (a Little) Hope

A state-by-state breakdown of the 14 upcoming elections shows where Democrats can take a few seats from Republicans.
by | August 6, 2015
With Attorney General Roy Cooper running against GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, the Democrats' best hope for gaining ground is in North Carolina. (Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

I recently wrote about how winning gubernatorial races would be increasingly difficult for Democrats in the coming years since a majority of them are held in midterm cycles when electorates have tended to tilt toward the GOP. But the 2016 election cycle is a presidential election cycle, and that explains why Democratic hopes are surprisingly high in such presidential red states as Missouri, Montana and West Virginia.

That said, Democrats should resist the urge to become irrationally exuberant. The party already holds the governorships of Missouri, Montana and West Virginia as well as the governorship of Kentucky, which holds its election in 2015. So even if the Democrats manage to win each of these seats this cycle, the party nationally would do no better than tread water at a time when Republicans hold a historically large 31-18 lead in governorships. (There's one independent, Alaska's Bill Walker.)

The Democrats' main hope for gaining ground in gubernatorial seats this cycle is in North Carolina, where they have a shot at ousting vulnerable first-term Gov. Pat McCrory. They also have a more-than-outside chance of knocking off Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence. At the same time, though, the Democrats will have to defend a Democratic-held open seat in Vermont that could become competitive.

Overall, the Democrats have more governorships to defend in 2015 and 2016 than the Republicans do. The Democrats hold nine of the 15 seats being contested, including a special election in Oregon that emerged since our previous look at the governor's races this cycle.

Below, for the first time in the 2015-16 cycle, Governing is dividing the gubernatorial contests into seven categories: safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic. As is our usual practice, the initial handicapping of this cycle, in January, divided races into broader categories -- vulnerable, potentially vulnerable or safe for the incumbent party.

Based on the current ratings, a Democratic sweep of all 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.

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.

Safe Republican

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) in 2015

The Democrats were unable to get a top-tier contender for the race, so they're now stuck with an unknown truck driver, Robert Gray, as their nominee, after Gray unexpectedly beat attorney and political novice Vicki Slater in the primary. The race is over; in fact, it never really started. Bryant, a staunch conservative in a solidly red state, is poised to get four more years.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R)

Herbert's pragmatic approach, including his work to enact a compromise gay rights measure, has won him wide support in solidly red Utah. There is talk of a possible primary challenge from the right, possibly by Overstock.com president Jonathan Johnson. Still, while Herbert would have to win renomination first, he is in a reasonably strong position to win another term. A UtahPolicy.com survey in May found that 57 percent of registered voters believe he should be re-elected. The Democrats are almost certain to be a nonfactor in the race.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R)

North Dakota's oil and gas boom has plateaued, but the state is so solidly red that Dalrymple is in a good position to win another term, assuming he runs. Dalrymple will be 68 in October and hasn't announced his intentions yet. If he decides not to run, the GOP has a deep bench, including Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. The Democrats' main hope would be U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, but she is facing intense pressure from Senate Democrats in Washington not to give up a seat the party would likely lose if she goes back home to run. Among other Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider could step up if Heitkamp doesn't. But regardless of who runs, this seat is safe for Republicans.

Likely Republican

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

Louisiana Republicans have a distinct edge in this increasingly red state, despite the deep unpopularity of Jindal, a presidential candidate. The field has narrowed to four major candidates. Three are Republicans -- U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle -- and one is a Democrat, state Rep. John Bel Edwards. Edwards should be able to consolidate the shrinking Democratic vote, which will likely guarantee him a spot against one of the Republicans in a runoff. Louisiana's electoral system is quirky; it's an all-party primary followed, if necessary, by a runoff. Vitter has been the frontrunner for a while now, bolstered by a super PAC that has raised more than $9 million. A late-June poll had Vitter leading with 31 percent, followed by Edwards at 30 percent, Angelle at 14 percent and Dardenne at 11 percent. The Democrats shrinking prospects in the state, however, lead us to rate this likely Republican.

Lean Republican

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R)

Pence has had a rough couple of months, due in large part to his botched attempt to pass a religious freedom law that spawned a pro-LGBT backlash not just among Democrats but also the GOP-leaning business community. Pence has retained the backing of Christian conservatives and Tea Party supporters, but his standing among other Hoosiers has dimmed. A June poll by Bellwether Research and Consulting found that 54 percent of respondents favored giving someone else a chance to be governor. But the Democratic bench in Indiana is thin these days, and the question is whether any Democrat -- such as former state House Speaker John Gregg, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, state Sen. Karen Tallian, or former U.S. Rep. Baron Hill -- will have enough juice to oust him. The rating could change if one of these Democrats catch fire, but for now it's lean Republican.

Tossup

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

In West Virginia -- where the GOP has routed the Democrats in recent presidential, congressional and legislative elections -- the open-seat gubernatorial contest is shaping up to be highly competitive. The Democrat attracting the most attention is billionaire Jim Justice, a coal mine owner and proprietor of the iconic Greenbrier Resort. His coal background insulates him from Republican "war on coal" attacks that have been successful in tarring Democrats in federal races. Also running in the Democratic primary is state Sen. Jeff Kessler, who was majority leader until the GOP seized control of the chamber. The leading GOP contender is state Senate President Bill Cole.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R)

North Carolina is the Democrats' best chance for a gubernatorial pickup this election cycle. McCrory has been the face of a staunchly conservative and polarizing agenda, and Democrats in the state and nationally would love to oust him after just one term. McCrory's polling numbers aren't great, and his legislative agenda is hanging tenuously. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, found McCrory reaching the lowest approval rating of his term -- 33 percent -- in June. Worse for McCrory, the decline had a lot to do with the growing unhappiness of Republican voters. Other polls by GOP-leaning pollsters have found better results. Roy Cooper, who has served four terms as attorney general, remains a strong Democratic challenger, and he even gained a bit of distance from one of his biggest liabilities -- problems in the state crime lab -- after lawmakers moved the crime lab into a separate agency. With a swing state presidential election on tap, there will be lots of money and interest in the gubernatorial race.

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

While Kentucky has turned solidly Republican in presidential and most congressional races, it's more competitive -- even arguably Democratic-leaning -- in state races, and Beshear is closing out his second term with strong popularity. Unemployment in the state is below the national average, and Beshear just deposited more than $80 million into the state's rainy day fund. Also, Democrats were happy with the results of the May GOP primary: By a razor-thin margin, Tea Party-aligned Matt Bevin won the nomination over Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, whose more mainstream views might have made for a stronger general election candidacy. Bevin also irritated some Kentucky Republicans during his primary challenge to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014. The Democratic candidate is Attorney General Jack Conway. Despite getting their preferred Republican opponent, it's premature to say that Democrats are on their way to victory in a red state like Kentucky, especially in an off-year election; in fact, a June post-primary poll by Public Policy Polling found Bevin ahead, 38 percent to 35 percent, with 20 percent undecided.

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

After a near-loss in Vermont's biennial gubernatorial election last year, Shumlin decided not to run for a fourth term in 2016. Despite Vermont's solidly Democratic leanings, the open-seat race is murkier than one might expect. On the Democratic side, August 2016 could feature a wide-open primary that includes Matt Dunne, a former legislator and 2010 gubernatorial candidate; Sue Minter, a former legislator and state secretary of transportation; and Shap Smith, the speaker of the House. On the GOP side, Scott Milne, who almost beat Shumlin in 2014, could decide to run again. Other possibilities on the GOP side include Randy Brock, a former legislator, state auditor and 2012 gubernatorial candidate; and Dan Feliciano, a 2014 gubernatorial candidate. But the big GOP "get" would be Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a moderate with a similar profile to former GOP Gov. Jim Douglas. Bruce Lisman, a retired Wall Street executive, could play a wild-card role as an independent, and the left-wing Progressive Party could also be a factor. If Scott decides to run and is the GOP nominee, this race could easily shift to lean Republican.

Lean Democratic

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

The Missouri gubernatorial race is a reminder that while the Show-Me state has taken a distinct turn to the right in presidential contests, the Democratic Party still has some mojo in state races. Currently, each statewide office save two is occupied by a Democrat. Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster is a strong candidate, running in a presidential year when Hillary Clinton is poised to do at least somewhat better than the 10-point deficit President Obama experienced in 2012. Without significant primary opposition, Koster, a former Republican, will be free to hoard money and occupy the political middle, setting him up for the general election. The Republican field is more muddled. The initial Republican frontrunner was former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, who has had the backing of billionaire Rex Sinquefield. But she has struggled to increase her name identification, and the Feb. 26 suicide of onetime GOP gubernatorial hopeful Tom Schweich, the state auditor, cast a shadow over the contest. Other actual or potential GOP candidates include Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who's previously faced controversies including questionable expenses paid by taxpayers; former state Rep. Randy Asbury; businessman John Brunner; former state lawmaker Bob Dixon; state Rep. Bart Korman; and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens. Republicans will have to wait for the August 2016 primary to know who their candidate will be, and the nominee may be left with a depleted warchest from the primary, and little time to rebuild it.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D)

Despite the fact that Republicans control the state legislature and Montana has turned to the right in federal races, Bullock is in better shape than one would expect for a Montana Democrat. 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. Bullock has notched some significant legislative achievements, including working with moderate Republicans to draft a compromise Medicaid expansion plan and enacting a bill requiring the disclosure of spending by "dark money" groups on state races. Bullock is also head of the Democratic Governors Association this year, which should keep his survival high on the party's agenda. The potential GOP field includes wealthy tech executive Greg Gianforte and former secretary of state and current public service commission member Brad Johnson. No Democrat can rest easy in Montana these days, but Bullock starts out with the edge.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D)

The shape of the 2016 gubernatorial race hinges on whether Hassan runs for another two-year term or not. She is facing pressure from national Democrats to challenge GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2016. If she runs for governor again, Hassan would have the edge over the GOP frontrunner, executive councilor Chris Sununu, whose father is former Gov. John H. Sununu and whose brother is former Sen. John E. Sununu.

Likely Democratic

Oregon: Gov. Kate Brown (D) in 2016

Brown took over for Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber when he resigned amid turmoil just months after winning his second consecutive term (and fourth overall). Now Brown has to run in a special election to fill the final two years of Kitzhaber's term. She should be able to avoid a serious challenge in the primary, although state Treasurer Ted Wheeler, who is term limited in 2016 and had been planning to run in 2018, may throw his hat into the ring. Brown has concentrated on not making any political missteps and on raising her profile around the state. She found some success leveraging her personality in the legislature, although some Republicans -- who represent a minority in both chambers -- complain that Brown engages less with them than Kitzhaber did. A Mason-Dixon poll had Brown at a 55 percent favorability in June, and the last time an Oregon sitting governor lost a primary renomination was in 1948. The potential Republican field includes William (Bud) Pierce, former president of the Oregon Medical Association; state Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend, who ran unsuccessfully against Brown for secretary of state in 2012; and businessman and former state GOP chairman Allen Alley.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D)

Despite serving in what is in many ways a solidly blue state, Inslee was elected in a relatively close open-seat race, and he's had to deal with a Senate controlled by the GOP and a House that has only a narrow Democratic majority. Despite this, Inslee has governed with a liberal bent, putting in place a moratorium on the death penalty, seeking to enact carbon emission cuts and proposing a $1.5 billion tax package. The latter two agenda items have faced resistance from Republicans, and the final budget ended up being similar to one passed by the Republican state Senate. Running in a presidential year, Inslee definitely begins as the favorite, particularly because no well-known Republican has stepped up to challenge him. Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant is a declared candidate, but his nonpartisan position has not historically been a launching pad for higher office. Donors and activists seem to be waiting for a bid by either U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert or state Sen. Andy Hill, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee. A Public Policy Polling survey in May found Inslee's job approval and disapproval basically equal, but he still led all GOP challengers.

Safe Democratic

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

The death of former Attorney General Beau Biden, who had announced his intention to run for governor, cast a pall over this contest. Still, it remains strongly in the Democrats' camp. U.S. Rep. John Carney, who lost to Markell in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2008, seems to be the likeliest Democratic candidate. New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon could pose a credible challenge to Carney in the primary, particularly among moderates and lapsed Republicans. The Republican bench is mostly bare. It includes state Sen. Colin Bonini and Lacey Lafferty, a retired state trooper and political novice. The most intriguing GOP candidate would be state Treasurer Ken Simpler, but he has indicated that he prefers to stay in his recently won position. Unless something unexpected occurs in this increasingly blue state, this seat should be safe Democratic.