Where Independents Could Shake Up Races for Governor

In seven states, third-party candidates could sway the outcome in November.
by | October 3, 2018
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, has a tough road to reelection. (Office of Governor Bill Walker/David Lienemann)

In about one-sixth of the 36 governors races this fall, the presence of a third-party candidate could stir things up -- especially for the Democrats.

While the national political environment and landscape of vulnerable seats tilts in their favor this year, it is Democrats who have the most to lose from third-party candidacies.

Only in Rhode Island, where a strong supporter of Donald Trump is on the ballot, is a third-party candidate a threat to Republicans' chances of winning.

It's hardly unprecedented for third-party candidates to play a role in gubernatorial races. Four years ago -- the last time so many states elected a governor -- five states had credible third-party candidates. But the impact could be even bigger this year, with more states featuring independent candidates polling in the high single digits.

Below is a rundown of the states where independents could impact the outcome.

Our rating categories are safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic. For an interactive version of our ratings map, and the latest news in each race, click here.

 

 

Alaska

Independent Gov. Bill Walker, who was first elected in 2014 after he teamed up with the Democratic nominee to run as a ticket against the incumbent Republican governor, is in a precarious position in this solidly Republican state.

His approval ratings are mediocre, making his reelection tricky even in a two-party race. But it's harder still in a three-way race, where two candidates are poised to split the center-left vote.

Walker is facing Democrat Mark Begich, a former Anchorage mayor and U.S. senator, and Republican Mike Dunleavy, an education administrator.

Some Democrats had wanted Begich to drop out to clear Walker's path and not split the non-conservative vote, but he rebuffed their suggestions.

Dunleavy, in the meantime, won the Republican primary handily, defeating more moderate candidates and consolidating the conservative base. That base may be enough to carry the race with as little as 34 percent of the vote.

Dunleavy "is well-financed, and his issue positions are well-attuned to economic and social conservatives," says Gerald McBeath, a University of Alaska political scientist.

In a poll conducted Sept. 21-25, Dunleavy led with 44 percent support, Begich gained 29 percent backing and Walker earned nearly 23 percent.

We currently rate this race lean Republican.

 

Connecticut

Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican Bob Stefanowski are facing off to succeed Democrat Dannel Malloy, whose popularity is weak due to persistent economic and fiscal challenges. A third-party candidate, Oz Griebel, is on the ballot, and while he has struggled in fundraising, he has been invited to a gubernatorial debate alongside the two major party nominees.

By taking an outsider's pragmatic approach, Griebel is hoping to snare voters in this blue state who are uncomfortable voting for a Republican, but who are disaffected after eight challenging years under Democratic control.

Griebel, a former Republican, is running on a ticket with a former Democrat. An August Quinnipiac poll had Griebel at 4 percent, drawing equally from Democratic and Republican voters. Lamont has had recent polling leads of between nine and 16 points.

We rate the contest a tossup.

 

Illinois

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is fighting for his political life against Democratic nominee J.B. Pritzker. It doesn't help that a pair of third-party candidates -- Sam McCann on the conservative party line, and Grayson Jackson on the Libertarian line -- are in the race as well.

In an August NBC Marist poll, the two third-party candidates combined for 10 percent of the vote. This suggests that they are eating into Rauner's base and hampering the incumbent's ability to win a second term.

However, Pritzker's lead in polls, which ranges from 30 percent to 46 percent, is larger than the combined third-party share of the vote, so their presence on the ballot may not matter in the end.

We rate the race lean Democratic.

 

Kansas

The controversial tenure of former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback gave Democrats an opening this year to flip the Kansas governorship. And few, if any, gubernatorial victories this fall would be sweeter to Democrats than defeating Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who has been a champion of voter identification laws and tough immigration policies.

But the presence of independent Greg Orman threatens Democratic hopes.

In the Republican primary, Kobach defeated Gov. Jeff Colyer -- who was elevated to the governorship after Brownback accepted a post with the Trump administration -- by just a couple hundred votes.

On the Democratic side, state Sen. Laura Kelly had an easier time, winning the primary with 52 percent of the vote. Kelly is relatively moderate, and in a head-to-head matchup against Kobach, she would have a solid shot at winning. Kobach is so conservative that he is considered unpalatable to more moderate Kansas Republican voters.

However, Orman, who ran a tough but ultimately unsuccessful race as an independent against long-serving U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014, complicates Kelly's path. Orman has deep pockets, and polls over the summer have shown him pulling between nine to 12 percentage points against his rivals. That's a big deal since the same polls show Kelly and Kobach neck and neck.

"The key question is how many independent and moderate Republican votes will Orman take, and will centrist Republicans really be able to vote for Kobach?" says University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis. "Without Orman, this is a tossup race, but with him, it leans Republican."

Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist, agrees. "All options are open," he says. "Orman could win outright, he could play the spoiler or he could make a lot of noise but with minimal results. His candidacy has totally blown up a race that without him would have been pretty easy to peg."

We rate the race lean Republican.

 

Maine

Maine has two independent candidates who could make a difference in November: Terry Hayes, the state treasurer, and Alan Caron, a policy researcher.

They will face Republican nominee Shawn Moody, a businessman who ran as an independent in 2010. "The people who supported [Republican Gov. Paul] LePage have shifted over to Moody, who frames himself as LePage with a smile," says Howard Cody, an emeritus political scientist at the University of Maine. "He's popular with the Republican base."

On the Democratic side, Janet Mills, the state attorney general who often battled the outgoing governor, is hoping to flip the state. Unfortunately for Mills, the two independents tend to draw from the center-left portion of the electorate.

While Maine has had independent governors before -- including Angus King, now a U.S. senator running for reelection this year as a Democratic-caucusing independent -- Hayes and Caron currently look more likely to play the role of spoiler than victor. In a Suffolk poll taken in August, Mills and Moody were essentially tied at 39 percent each, with Hayes and Caron collectively drawing about 7 percent of the vote - not enough to win, but more than enough to spell the difference in the election.

Democrats are high on Mills as a candidate, but support from party stalwarts won't be enough by itself, experts say. "If Mills is limited to the Democratic base, she can't win," Cody says. "She has to reach out to the 20 percent to 25 percent of voters in Maine who are not Democrats or Republicans or leaning toward one of the parties."

We rate this race a tossup.

 

New York

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is the favorite to win a third term over Republican nominee Marc Molinaro. Still, there's a chance that former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner could be a headache for Cuomo.

Miner, a former state Democratic co-chair, is no fan of the incumbent governor. "In theory, Miner could become a 'safe place' for people who want to lodge a protest vote but can't fill in the box for a Republican," says Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies. "But the likelihood of her making a difference is pretty remote. It would have to be a very close race against the Republican and that doesn't look like it's going to happen."

Another possibility is that Cynthia Nixon -- the actress who lost to Cuomo in the Democratic primary -- could be tapped to run for the left-leaning Working Families Party. If that happens, it could drain liberal support from Cuomo's column.

A July Quinnipiac poll found that a general election that included the four candidates would break out with Cuomo at 43 percent, Molinaro at 23 percent, Nixon at 13 percent and Miner at 1 percent.

We rate the contest likely Democratic.

 

Rhode Island

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is facing a rematch against Republican Allan Fung, her 2014 opponent.

Republicans have been able to win the Rhode Island governorship with some regularity, and the current popularity of Republican governors elsewhere in New England -- especially in such solidly blue states as Massachusetts and Vermont -- could make Rhode Island a ripe target for a GOP takeover.

That is, if it were not for an independent candidate, Joe Trillo, who ran Trump's campaign in the state in 2016 after serving as a state legislator for a decade and a half, including a stint as House minority whip. Trillo's presence on the ballot is a blow to Republican chances.

A late July WPRI/Roger Williams University poll had Trillo at 6 percent -- greater than the two-point margin between Raimondo and Fung. A September survey by the same pollster had Raimondo, newly victorious in her party's primary, up by seven points over Fung, with Trillo at 7 percent. "Trillo's name recognition is increasing and his numbers may trend upward," says Valerie Endress, a professor of political communication at Rhode Island College. "A three-way race with an independent candidate makes it a more difficult road for the GOP."

We rate the race a tossup.

Alan Greenblatt contributed to this article.