At this early stage in the 2011-2012 campaign cycle, the gubernatorial campaign landscape looks much like it ended up in 2010, with a likelihood of modest gains for the GOP.
All told, 14 states are expected to hold gubernatorial elections over the next two years. The phrase "expected to" is necessary because the timetable for a gubernatorial contest to succeed West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin -- who vacated his seat to make a successful run for the U.S. Senate -- is up in the air.
West Virginia aside, three contests will be held in 2011 -- Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi -- with 10 more held during the presidential election year of 2012. Two states with races in 2012 hold elections every two years -- New Hampshire and Vermont.
The following handicapping of gubernatorial races 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 rank-orders each seat by the likelihood of being won by a Republican, with No. 1 being most likely to be won by a Republican and No. 14 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 the line won by a Democrat. (In our 2010 gubernatorial handicapping, only one state, Illinois, ended up on the wrong side of that divide.)
For the 2011-2012 cycle, interviews with a range of state and national analysts suggest that nine races will be in play during the two-year period, with an "in play" race being defined as a tossup or a seat leaning to one party or the other. All of these nine seats are currently held by the Democrats. The five Republican seats up in 2011 and 2012 are not considered to be in play at this point; they are rated either likely Republican or safe Republican.
If our ratings are accurate, the GOP can expect to make a pickup of three seats. That would push GOP control from 30 Republican governors, 19 Democratic governors and one Independent to 33 Republicans, 16 Democrats and one Independent.
With extra luck, the GOP could end up with a net gain of six seats; with better luck for the Democrats, GOP gains could be held to a seat or two.
Our current ratings are inevitably shaped by the recent midterm elections in which the Republicans rode a national wave. The ratings could well shift in the Democrats' direction in the coming months if President Barack Obama's reelection bid improves the Democratic electoral outlook for 2012.
Such states as Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and Utah -- staunchly Republican in most elections these days -- have governorships solidly in the GOP camp. Indiana, which voted for Obama in 2008 but which returned to its Republican roots in several key races in 2010, also appears to be leaning strongly to the GOP.
A few solidly Democratic states, such as Delaware and Vermont, are leaning in the Democrats' direction.
The 2011-2012 election cycle could well be shaped by the outcome of five races in which the governorship is currently Democratic but the state has recently voted for Republicans in federal elections. These five states are North Carolina, Montana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri.
In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue has a weak approval rating, while in Montana, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer is term-limited and the Democrats have a thin roster of possible successors. In West Virginia, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has only just succeeded Manchin.
In Kentucky and Missouri, Democratic governors Steve Beshear and Jay Nixon face strong headwinds but appear to be well liked and are holding up so far.
Democrats will also be tested in Washington state and New Hampshire. In Washington state, which has generally leaned Democratic, the Republicans have a potentially strong candidate in Attorney General Rob McKenna. In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Democratic Gov. John Lynch was reelected in a very rough climate in 2010 and now faces new GOP majorities in the state House and Senate.
This is the second election cycle in which this author has handicapped the gubernatorial races. The author previously handicapped gubernatorial races for Roll Call and Stateline.org.
Here are the current rankings (in which no states are ranked likely Democratic or safe Democratic at this point):
1. Utah (R-held). GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, fresh off a 2010 victory for the right to fill the remaining two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman's term, will face the voters again in 2012 for a full four-year term. If he runs, he's expected to win. The main obstacle would be a primary challenge, perhaps by GOP U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, but that's purely speculative at this point. The Democratic bench in Utah is extremely thin, with one of the few credible candidates, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, considered unlikely to run for governor.
2. Mississippi (R-held; 2011 election). Republican Gov. Haley Barbour remains popular in this strongly GOP state, and while he's term-limited (and considering a presidential bid), he's expected to be succeeded by a Republican. GOP Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is the leading contender. Other GOP possibilities include Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, state Treasurer Tate Reeves and Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis. Contenders on the Democratic side include Delta businessman Bill Luckett and Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree.
3. Louisiana (R-held; 2011 election). GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal remains one of the most popular governors in the nation, and he should have an easy reelection in 2011, fueled by national buzz and strong fundraising. The strongest potential challengers -- former U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, former state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub, former state Sen. Randy Ewing, state House Democratic caucus leader John Bel Edwards and state Senate caucus leader Eric LaFleur -- have already said no to running. The remaining Democrats would be wild cards -- businessman and former state party head Jim Bernhard and Caroline Fayard, a former Clinton White House intern who won a surprising 43 percent of the vote in the 2010 special election for lieutenant governor. But barring something unexpected, Jindal should be able to take on all comers.
4. North Dakota (R-held). Republican Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple is poised to succeed John Hoeven as governor in December now that Hoeven has won election to the U.S. Senate. Dalrymple hasn't made clear whether he'd run for his own term in 2012. If he doesn't (or even if he does) the man Dalrymple tapped as lieutenant governor, former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, could. So could state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, though either one could be lured into a race against Democratic U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad instead. The Democrats could have some credible candidates if they run, including former state attorney general and tax commissioner Heidi Heitkamp and state Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor, who easily won reelection in a swing district despite being targeted by the GOP. Still, the odds are long for any Democrat running for statewide office in North Dakota these days.
5. Indiana (R-held). GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels is term-limited (and, like Barbour in Mississippi, considering a presidential run). While Obama won the state in 2008, Indiana reverted to its Republican lean in 2010 and the Democratic Party has some serious rebuilding to do. The Democrats' best hope is that former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh will run for governor, an office he held before serving in the Senate. If that happens, this race would become a marquee contest and likely move to tossup. But for now, Bayh is mum on a run. On the GOP side, the equivalent bigfoot is U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, who attracted national attention as a member of the Republican leadership that has now taken control of the U.S. House. Pence has long harbored national ambitions, and in fact, he may choose to run for president in 2012 instead of governor. If he doesn't seek the governorship, the leading Republican contender would be Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman. Plan B for the Democrats could involve any of the following: Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, former U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer, Lake County Sheriff Rogelio (Roy) Dominguez and former U.S. Rep. Baron Hill.
6. North Carolina (D-held). First-term Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue's approval ratings have been underwater for some time, and with the state GOP fresh off seizing the state House and Senate, they are champing at the bit to oust the incumbent. The most likely GOP nominee would be former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who lost narrowly to Perdue in 2008, when the state broke with tradition and went for Obama in the presidential race. A Public Policy Polling survey found McCrory leading in a head-to-head matchup by a 49 percent to 37 percent margin. Another potential Republican candidate would be state GOP chairman Tom Fetzer, a former mayor of Raleigh who helped execute his party's legislative victories. He also led Perdue in the PPP poll, but more narrowly -- 42 percent to 40 percent. Some see Democratic state Attorney General Roy Cooper considering a primary challenge if Perdue looks weak enough, but that would be pure speculation at this point.
7. Montana (D-held). Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer is popular but term-limited, and in an ordinarily Republican-leaning state, the GOP has the upper hand going into the 2012 gubernatorial election, despite the continuing warm feelings toward Schweitzer. A Public Policy Polling survey in November found a double-digit lead for the Republicans on the generic gubernatorial ballot. Former GOP U.S. Rep. Rick Hill is already in the race, and either he or current GOP U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who hasn't decided on a bid, could be strong contenders. The GOP field also includes former state Sens. Corey Stapleton and Ken Miller. Hill and Stapleton are considered conventional conservatives, with Miller seen as being a bit to their right. Schweitzer hasn't worked to anoint a Democratic heir, leaving the strongest Democratic nominee state Attorney General Steve Bullock. However, Bullock is only in his first term and may opt to seek reelection as AG instead. Other potential Democratic candidates could include the director of the state Transportation Department, Jim Lynch, and state Sen. Dave Wanzenried.
8. Kentucky (D-held; 2011). Kentucky has gone strongly Republican in recent elections, but Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear is in surprisingly good shape for his 2011 reelection bid. A recent Public Policy Polling survey found his approval rating at 48 percent positive, 34 percent negative. He also leads both announced Republican candidates -- businessman Phil Moffett and state Senate President David Williams -- by 19 and 9 points, respectively. By the numbers alone, Beshear would be a favorite, but the state's GOP lean in recent years leads us to be cautious at this point.
9. West Virginia (D-held). The timing of West Virginia's next gubernatorial election is up in the air, following the Senate victory by Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin. Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, is currently serving as acting governor, but there's a constitutional battle over whether there should be a special election to fill the remainder of Manchin's term in 2011, or a regular election in 2012. A special election in 2011 could draw lots of candidates, since as an off-year election, no elected official would have to give up a seat to run. The candidates could include Tomblin, state Treasurer John Perdue, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, state Sen. Brooks McCabe, House Speaker Rick Thompson, among others. But the biggest Republican -- of a relatively thin bench in the state -- is U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who would be a formidable candidate whenever the election is held. The Democrats' chances hinge on whether they can keep the party's negative national image at bay.
10. Washington (D-held). Washington state hasn't elected a Republican governor since John Spellman in 1980, but the GOP is excited about a strong potential candidate for 2012: state Attorney General Rob McKenna. If he runs, as many expect, the race would likely be a tossup. Two-term Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire would be able to run for a third term if she wishes. If she doesn't, contenders could include Rep. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine or state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown.
11. Missouri (D-held). One of the biggest surprises for the Democrats in the 2012 gubernatorial cycle is the relative strength of Missouri's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon. Democrats have stumbled in the Show-Me State in recent years: Obama lost the swing state in 2008 even as he was winning GOP strongholds like Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, and the party underperformed two years later in an open-seat Senate contest to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Kit Bond. But Nixon has governed as a centrist, cutting spending and resisting tax increases, and as a result has drawn support from some Republicans. Better than most leading Democrats, he connects with rural voters since he hails from a rural county south of St. Louis. If he can keep his base as well, analysts say, he might be on the road to a second term. The leading GOP contender for now is thought to be Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, though others are expected to weigh bids for the Republican nomination as well.
12. Vermont (D-held). Democrat Peter Shumlin narrowly won the 2010 gubernatorial race, flipping the seat to the Democrats after eight years under Republican Jim Douglas. Since he hasn't even entered office yet, we're rating this a lean Democratic seat based on the state's Democratic leanings and Shumlin's status as an incumbent. If Shumlin acquits himself well, the seat could eventually shift to likely Democratic.
13. New Hampshire (D-held). Democratic Gov. John Lynch won an unprecedented fourth two-year term in 2010, during a year in which the GOP seized both legislative chambers, flipped two U.S. House seats and held an open U.S. Senate seat. If Lynch runs again in 2012, he would be the favorite, having won reelection in such difficult times. But the state's shift to the GOP in 2010 complicates Lynch's governing options, and certainly makes it a competitive race for 2012.
14. Delaware (D-held). Among Democratic governors, Jack Markell appears to be in relatively good shape for 2012. His approval rating in a pre-election Public Policy Polling survey was 50 percent positive, 32 percent negative, and Delaware Democrats had a better election night in 2010 than those in most other states. This was due in part to the divisive Republican primary, in which conservative upstart Christine O'Donnell defeated long-serving moderate U.S. Rep. Mike Castle. Not only did O'Donnell's victory all but lose an easy Senate pickup for the GOP; it also opened a raw wound between two factions in the GOP. After a decade on the rise, Delaware Democrats have the stronger bench in the state anyway. Markell is no shoo-in, but he has to be considered the favorite so far.