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The 2014 Governors Races: Are the Democrats Fighting Back?

Republicans hold the lead in governorships, but Democrats may be making slight gains in this year's gubernatorial races.

Now that we've looked at the seats where the GOP has high hopes and at the tossups in the 2014 gubernatorial contests, it's time to turn our attention to states where the Democrats have the edge.

Find full state and local elections coverage here.

To recap, the Republicans still hold the lead in governorships: 29 to the Democrats 21 seats. The Democrats could net as many as four gubernatorial seats and the Republicans could net as many as three. On balance, a "typical" gain might be a one- to two-seat gain for the Democrats, a modest improvement from our projection eight months ago, which was roughly a wash.

As before, the GOP's substantial lead in governorships seems relatively secure, though it could certainly shrink a bit.

As always, our ratings are based on interviews with dozens of political observers in the states, as well as a review of recent polling data. In addition to rating each race as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic, we have sought to rank-order the seats most likely to be won by either party.

The governorships are listed in order from the most likely to be won by the GOP to the most likely to be won by the Democrats. The idea is that, once the results are in, we should be able to draw a line somewhere in the middle of the tossup category that divides the seats won by the GOP and the seats won by the Democrats. (We achieved this result in 2012 and were off by just one contest in 2010.)

For ease of reading, we've broken up our handicapping into three separate pieces. This final article features the seats that are currently leaning, likely or safe Democratic. The first article included every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Republican. And the second article featured the six tossup races.

Here's the full rundown for the Democratic-leaning contests:

Lean Democratic

Massachusetts: Open seat; held by Gov. Deval Patrick (D) (Shift from tossup)

Massachusetts is a solidly Democratic state, but this open-seat race should be competitive. Leading the Democratic field are Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steve Grossman; also running are Donald Berwick, the former head of the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services under Obama, former U.S. Department of Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem and pharmaceutical executive Joe Avellone. The GOP frontrunner is Charlie Baker, Patrick's GOP opponent from 2010. However, Baker's bid is complicated by the emergence of two independent candidates, Jeff McCormick and Evan Falchuk, who could eat into his target base of moderate independents; even a few points lost to these rivals could be problematic for Baker. This race will be no slam dunk for the Democrats -- prior to Patrick, the Republicans held the governorship for years -- but we're moving it from tossup to lean Democratic on the basis of two January polls, by Suffolk University and Purple Strategies, that found Coakley leading Baker by double digits.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) (Shift from tossup)

This race, always iffy for Corbett, has become even more so, making him the most vulnerable Republican governor in the country. Corbett got a transportation funding bill passed in late 2013 that has given him a notable legislative accomplishment, but his numbers remain weak, with less than a quarter of Pennsylvanians approving of his job performance. A February Quinnipiac poll found Corbett trailing no fewer than six Democratic candidates. His biggest deficit was against Tom Wolf, a businessman and former state revenue commissioner. That poll found Wolf up by a striking 19 points against Corbett, likely thanks to a big ad buy. Other hopefuls circling the weak incumbent include former state environmental and utilities official John Hanger, state Treasurer Rob McCord, former environmental official Katie McGinty, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and former state Auditor Jack Wagner. Corbett isn't dead in the water yet, and he will benefit if the Democratic primary turns divisive. But he remains seriously vulnerable.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D)

Hickenlooper has been buffeted by a series of crises during his first term, ranging from deadly shooting incidents to weather disasters. But, arguably, his biggest challenge has come from dealing with a legislature that has often pursued an agenda more liberal than his own, particularly on gun policy. Recently, he may have begun to get some of his mojo back, perhaps due to a "pot bump" -- ironic, since he hasn't been the biggest cheerleader for legalizing marijuana, a policy enacted instead by popular vote. He has also earned some plaudits for his role in handling fires and floods. A January Quinnipiac poll had Hickenlooper up by margins in the high single digits, thanks in part to a relatively weak GOP field, which includes Secretary of State Scott Gessler, former GOP Rep. and outspoken illegal-immigration opponent Tom Tancredo, former state senator and gun-rights advocate Greg Brophy, and former Senate minority leader and social conservative Mike Kopp. The GOP's best shot would come from the party's nominee riding a national wave of anti-Democratic sentiment in the midterms.

Rhode Island: Open seat, held by Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D)

Chafee, an embattled incumbent, first switched his party affiliation from Independent to Democratic; then, last fall, he decided to retire. This decision further opened up an already lively contest. The Democrats have three leading candidates: Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, and Clay Pell, the grandson of the Rhode Island's late, long-serving U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (and the husband of former Olympic skater Michelle Kwan). Observers expect the Democratic primary to be brutal. Raimondo's signature accomplishment -- pension reform legislation -- is detested by a key Democratic primary constituency, labor unions. But she leads the money race, although Pell should be able to provide some self-funding and Taveras is expected to have enough to be competitive. A February WPRI poll had Taveras at 31 percent, Raimondo at 27 percent and Pell at 15 percent, with a block of voters undecided. On the GOP side, Cranston Mayor Alan Fung, a pragmatist, faces Ken Block, who started the state's Moderate Party but bolted to run in the Republican primary. As of now, it looks like there won't be a strong third-party candidate, which makes the GOP climb tougher. The state's partisan lean suggests that the Democratic primary winner will be the next governor, but the primary won't be held until September, setting up a potentially unpredictable sprint to the general election. For now, we're calling it lean Democratic.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) (Shift from Safe Democratic)

This race is one of the hardest in 2014 to handicap. Early in the cycle, voters seemed to be in a funk about Abercrombie; later, as the economy improved, they seemed to warm to him. Recently, however, a Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll found the former Republican lieutenant governor, James "Duke" Aiona, leading Abercrombie (who had beaten him easily in 2010) by 8 points, while a Honolulu Civil Beat poll had Abercrombie tied with his Democratic primary challenger, state Sen. David Ige. However, some have raised questions about the accuracy of polling in Hawaii, given the state's unusual ethnic dynamics and uncertainties about who's likely to vote. We'll hedge our bets for now, shifting this race from safe Democratic to lean Democratic, even though our hunch is that the Democrats will ultimately have a clear edge in November.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) (Shift from Likely Democratic)

Dayton remains the favorite in this race, amassing a big warchest, but he looks a bit less secure in his bid for a second term than he did a few months ago. Dayton's approval ratings have sagged below 50 percent, due in part to the botched rollout of the state's health insurance website. He also chose a new running mate for 2014 when Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon decided against seeking a second term. Dayton tapped his chief of staff, Tina Smith, but not having Prettner Solon on the ticket deprives him of someone who had generated strong Democratic-Farmer-Labor support in the Iron Range. (By contrast, Smith, like Dayton, is from Minneapolis, adding little to the ticket geographically.) Dayton benefits from the GOP's lack of a surefire winner -- the field includes former state House Speaker Kurt Zellers, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, state Sen. Dave Thompson, former state House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, teacher Rob Farnsworth and venture capitalist Scott Honour. Still, the GOP is more confident than before, hoping to use a combination of insurance website woes and Dayton's record raising taxes. We're shifting this race from likely Democratic to lean Democratic.

Likely Democratic

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D)

Hassan, who must run again just two years after winning her first term, remains the favorite. A leading Republican opponent is Andrew Hemingway, a young businessman and Tea Party favorite. Observers think Hemingway has a future, but this may not be his year -- Hassan has been posting leads of more than 20 points in recent polls, though with a large chunk of voters undecided. A new potential challenger is former BAE Systems President Walt Havenstein. Though he's a newcomer to politics and not well known, Havenstein's business experience and connections to potential donors could make him a credible challenger. Still, because a freshman New Hampshire governor been unable to win a second term only twice in the past century, we're keeping this one at likely Democratic for now.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D)

The GOP remains at a steep disadvantage in Oregon, but the state's troubled health insurance marketplace have hurt Kitzhaber's reputation as a skilled technocrat, providing an opening for his Republican challenger, state Rep. Dennis Richardson. Kitzhaber is hoping that his successful efforts working with the legislature -- including progress on state pension reform and some added revenue for education -- will combine with voter distaste for Richardson's socially conservative issue portfolio to produce a fourth nonconsecutive term. If there's no acceleration of Kitzhaber's problems, this race will stay at likely Democratic.

Safe Democratic

Maryland: Open seat; held by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D)

As in Oregon, a poorly functioning health insurance marketplace is hurting the state's dominant Democratic Party. There's a spirited and competitive Democratic primary to succeed O'Malley, headlined by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Attorney General Doug Gansler and state Del. Heather Mizeur. Brown benefits from a base in the populous Washington, D.C., suburbs and lots of institutional support; his frontrunner status has been cemented by recent polls by both The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun showing him leading the primary field by roughly 20 points. However, his Democratic rivals see an opening because he had significant oversight responsibilities for the health-care website. Gansler's efforts to capitalize have been hampered by a series of awkward revelations about his treatment of the state troopers who drove him around the state and by his appearance at an alcohol-filled beach week party attended by his son. Mizeur trails the pack but has attracted support from the most liberal wing of the state party. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Larry Hogan, a former member of then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich's cabinet and president of the fiscally conservative group Change Maryland, is in front, but given the voting patterns in Maryland, he's going to have a tough time regardless of who wins the Democratic primary, even if the Democratic nominee emerges weakened. We'll keep an eye on this open-seat race, but for now, it remains at safe Democratic.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)

Barring something unexpected, the main question for Cuomo's re-election remains the size of his victory -- so much so that there's speculation that he's trying to shape the Republican field to his benefit. The main GOP contender appears to be Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive. Astorino's track record of winning in moderate suburban territory would be a plus in a statewide bid, but it's premature to say that Cuomo is vulnerable yet in any serious way. A February Siena poll had the incumbent up by more than 40 points.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D)

Not only have Republicans been unable to field many credible statewide candidates in recent election cycles but Brown has also perfected a socially liberal, fiscally moderate approach that appeals to the state's electorate. Brown's success in turning around the Golden State's budget picture has won wide applause. Brown now has a pair of Republican opponents -- former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari and state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly - but the incumbent should be able to cruise to victory.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D)

Shumlin has solidified his position, aided by the GOP's inability to recruit a top-tier candidate, such as Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, to run in 2014. Shumlin also repaired ties to progressives when he released a 2014 budget that included modest increases in education, environmental, and human services programs. The state's third-party Progressives now look unlikely to mount a candidate of their own. Shumlin should have no problem winning another two-year term. 

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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