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2014 Governors Races: Are the Republicans Losing Ground?

As Texans head to the polls in the year's first primary today, we look at how the Republicans are faring in this year’s gubernatorial races.

It's been eight months since we last looked at the 36 gubernatorial races in the 2014 midterms. And in that time, the Democrats have gained a little ground on the GOP, even as the party’s chances in congressional races have deteriorated.

Find full state and local elections coverage here.

As was the case in July, the fact that the GOP finds itself with more seats in jeopardy is not surprising, since the party's big gains in 2010 -- many of them in blue states -- have left the Republicans with more seats to defend overall. The number of competitive races has increased only slightly, though, from 16 to 17, with nine of them held by the Republicans and eight controlled by the Democrats.

In the current version of our handicapping, five seats have shifted in the GOP’s direction:

  • The seats held by Republicans Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Bill Haslam of Tennessee have moved from likely Republican to safe Republican.

  • Illinois’ Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s seat is moving from lean Democratic to a tossup. -- Democrat Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii suddenly finds himself in a competitive race. His seat is moving from safe Democratic to lean Democratic.

  • And Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota has seen his race getting a bit tighter. It’s shifting from likely Democratic to lean Democratic.
Meanwhile, seven seats shifted in the Democrats’ direction:

  • Republican Nathan Deal of Georgia finds himself in a slightly tougher race. His seat is moving from safe Republican to likely Republican.

  • The races of Republicans Sam Brownback of Kansas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin are both shifting to lean Republican from likely Republican.

  • Things are getting a lot tighter for Republican Jan Brewer of Arizona and for the candidates vying for Arkansas’ Democratic-held open seat. Both seats, previously rated lean Republican, are now tossups.

  • And the contest for the Democratic-held open seat in Massachusetts, as well as the reelection bid by of Republican Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, are shifting to lean Democratic from tossup.
Overall, though, the Republicans still hold the lead in governorships: 29 seats to the Democrats’ 21. The top Republican targets are in Arkansas, Connecticut and Illinois; other seats that are competitive include Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Rhode Island.

The top Democratic targets are in Florida, Maine and Pennsylvania. Also competitive are Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and Wisconsin.

In the best-case scenario, 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 that will appear over the next several days. This first piece includes every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Republican. The second article features the seven-tossup races. And the third article includes every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Democratic.

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

Safe Republican

1. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R)

Mead is facing two Tea Party challengers in the primary: Cindy Hill, head of the state education department, and Taylor Haynes. The Tea Party is weaker in Wyoming than in other solidly red states, however, so Mead has a leg up in winning the party’s ticket despite the opposition. Similarly, the Democrats are so weak in Wyoming these days that no potential names are even circulating. If this isn’t the safest gubernatorial seat up in 2014, it’s very close.

2. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) (Shift from Likely Republican)

Sandoval, one of the GOP's fresh Latino faces, has had so much success in his state governing as a moderate that the Democrats have failed to find anyone to run against him -- even though Obama won the state twice.

3. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) (Shift from Likely Republican)

With the focus on an FBI investigation into Haslam's family business diminishing, the GOP governor looks safer than ever. He’s managed to avoid a serious primary challenge from his right, despite entertaining such center-left ideas as free community college tuition for Tennessee high school graduates and an expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. There’s no top-tier Democrat in sight, and with the state these days firmly in the GOP camp, there’s little reason to believe that the deep-pocketed Haslam can’t secure a second term this fall. This race moves from likely Republican to safe Republican.

4. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R)

Bentley remains in a strong position to win a second term in this staunchly Republican state. After bigger Republican names decided against a primary challenge to the incumbent, Bentley is now the heavy primary favorite against Stacy Lee George, who became the first Republican to win election to the Morgan County Commission. On the Democratic side, state House Minority Leader Craig Ford opted against a run, but shortly before the filing deadline, former U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith filled the void. Griffith had been elected to Congress as a Democrat, but switched to the GOP. Now Griffith is a Democrat again, and his ability now to return successfully to the Democratic fold is in question. Even without that problem, Democrats simply aren’t very competitive in the state any more.

5. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R)

Daugaard faces a Tea Party challenge from former state Rep. Lora Hubbel, while Democrats have two candidates -- state Rep. Susan Wismer and former fire suppression commander Joe Lowe. In a state without frequent polling, Daugaard is presumed to be the frontrunner for both the primary and the general election.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R)

Branstad, now serving his fifth nonconsecutive term as governor, continues to cruise toward a sixth term, buoyed by an improving economy and a reputation for effective governance. Democratic state Sen. Jack Hatch is running, but he continues to trail by double digits in the polls and has much less money in the bank. Three recent polls -- Public Policy Polling, the Des Moines Register and Quinnipiac -- had the incumbent leading by between 12 and 23 points.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R)

Fallin's prominence continues to grow as she serves her term as chair of the National Governors Association, but for 2014, she's attracted a challenge from Democratic state Rep. Joe Dorman, who is term limited in the House. (Fallin escaped a primary challenge by former Republican state Sen. Randy Brogdon, a prominent Tea Party-aligned figure.) Fallin will be strongly favored. but she will have to mount a campaign rather than coast.

Nebraska: Open seat; held by Gov. Dave Heineman (R)

The GOP primary remains the focus of attention in the Cornhusker State’s gubernatorial race. The deepest-pocketed contender is Pete Ricketts, a former U.S. Senate candidate whose father founded TD Ameritrade and whose family owns the Chicago Cubs. Ricketts established a conservative think tank in Nebraska and helped bankroll the election of Deb Fischer to the U.S. Senate two years ago. Another top-tier contender is Attorney General Jon Bruning, who lost to Fischer in the U.S. Senate primary two years ago. Next in prominence is state Auditor Mike Foley, who has developed a reputation for taking on government mismanagement. Also in the hunt are state Sen. Beau McCoy, who has close ties to the term-limited Heineman; state Sen. Tom Carlson; and Omaha businessman Bryan Slone. The presumptive Democratic nominee is stronger than one might imagine due to his agricultural background -- former University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook, who spent years heading the liberal Center for Rural Affairs. Still, whoever wins the GOP primary should be the heavy favorite in November.

Texas: Open seat; held by Gov. Rick Perry (R)

For a race that -- by the numbers -- is still safe Republican, the contest is sure producing a lot of fireworks. Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott has essentially cleared the field of major candidates -- no small accomplishment in a state with an ambitious GOP bench that has been bottled up for more than a decade by Perry’s grip on the governorship. Meanwhile, Democrat Wendy Davis, who famously led a (doomed) filibuster of an anti-abortion bill in the state Senate, has been collecting unusually large amounts of money for a Texas Democratic candidate, much of it from outside the state. Both candidates have experienced turbulence recently -- enough to attract significant national media attention. Abbott appeared with outspoken gun-rights conservative Ted Nugent , who made several indelicate public comments. Davis, for her part, has been dealing with the emergence of discrepancies in her hardscrabble life story, which has cast some doubt on one of the cornerstones of her appeal. Ultimately, Abbott should win with relative ease -- he had an 11-point lead in a February University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. Still, expect a wild ride all the way to Election Day.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R)

Parnell, who served half the term won by Sarah Palin before securing a full four years in 2010, remains the favorite for re-election in solidly Republican Alaska, though a three-party race could make things interesting. Parnell should have smooth sailing to securing the nomination, but in November, he is likely to face both a Democrat, Byron Mallott, and a Republican-turned-Independent, Bill Walker. Mallott is the former mayor of Juneau, and Walker is a former mayor of Valdez, who lost to Parnell in the 2010 Republican primary. In all likelihood, the re-election bid of incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich will be a bigger priority for both parties, given the Democrats’ teetering majority in the Senate. An early February poll by Public Policy Polling had Parnell at 41 percent, Mallott at 25 percent and Walker at 16.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R)

Otter looks likely to seek a third term, judging by his campaigning and fundraising activity. But he will first have to get past Republican primary challenger Russ Fulcher, a Tea Party-aligned state senator who chairs the Republican caucus. Fulcher has made hay of Otter's push last year for a state health insurance exchange under President Obama’s health-care law. The exchange won approval last year, over the objections of Fulcher and a number of other Republicans. Whether Fulcher can harness enough anti-Obamacare sentiment to topple a longtime Idaho political figure like Otter is a salient question. If he can, the general election contest against Democrat A.J. Balukoff, a Boise businessman and school board member, could become surprisingly competitive.

Likely Republican

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R)

There’s no shortage of Democratic challengers to Martinez, a leading Latino Republican: Attorney General Gary King, state sens. Linda Lopez and Howie Morales, former Albuquerque city official Lawrence Rael and Alan Webber, the deep-pocketed founder of Fast Company magazine. But is Martinez, a rising national star in her party, vulnerable? There’s anecdotal evidence that Martinez’ support among voters has been softening, perhaps due to persistent economic woes in the state. The race could easily tighten as the Democratic field sorts itself out, but Martinez -- for now, anyway -- remains favored to win a second term.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) (Shift from Safe Republican)

Deal made national headlines recently as his administration struggled to cope with a rare winter storm that ended up paralyzing metro Atlanta and other swaths of the state. He quickly and publicly took the blame for the mess and has appointed a task force to make sure it doesn't happen again. But after the chaos eased, the political impact for Deal remained unclear. He is expected to prevail in the GOP primary, but he will face a competitive -- albeit still uphill -- challenge from Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. Recent polls have shown some erosion in support for the incumbent -- Deal had a nine-point lead over Carter in a January Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, compared to just three points in a February Public Policy Polling poll -- but whether this is a blip or a trend isn't clear. While the race sorts itself out, we're shifting it from safe Republican to likely Republican.

Lean Republican

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) (Shift from Likely Republican)

Despite being a solidly red state, Brownback’s staunchly conservative agenda -- and that of Kansas’ even more conservative Republican legislators -- hasn’t been universally loved. Brownback’s approval ratings have been in the cellar for a while now, but a new development that cheers Democrats is the emergence of a plausible contender: state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, who’s raising money at a credible clip and impressing some observers with his campaign skills. In February, Pubilc Policy Polling actually found Davis narrowly leading Brownback, 42 percent to 40 percent. There is no certainty the challenger will remain ahead, but this contest is now looking a lot more competitive. We’re shifting it from likely Republican to lean Republican.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R)

Haley looks somewhat stronger than she did six months ago, in part because she has managed to avoid top-tier Republican primary opposition. But she’s still in a more precarious position than one would expect for a South Carolina Republican; Haley is facing a strong Democratic opponent in state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who came close to defeating her in a 2010 open-seat contest. Sheheen has backed a popular issue -- preschool programs for four-year-olds -- and Haley’s refusal to support expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare could mobilize the Democratic base. This continues to be a lean Republican race.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) (Shift from Likely Republican)

It’s too soon to know the impact of recent revelations about questionable emails sent by Walker’s campaign staffers during his first campaign for governor in 2010. But their emergence has interrupted what had been a good run for Walker following his recall-election victory, including increasing talk that he could be a presidential contender in 2016. In this swing state, he’s still a polarizing figure, and he now faces a credible Democratic candidate -- Mary Burke, a school board member in Madison and a former commerce secretary under then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Still, Walker has maintained a lead in the race -- six points in a January Marquette University poll -- and he remains the favorite, though perhaps less of one than he’s been in recent months.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R)

Kasich has continued to solidify his position after a rocky start to his first term as governor, although in swing-state Ohio, he’ll certainly have a race in 2014. Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald is energetic, but he’s had a rocky rollout to his campaign; he initially tapped, then withdrew, a scandal-ridden running mate. Despite this, and despite a fundraising gap, he remains within striking distance of Kasich. A February Quinnipiac poll had Kasich leading FitzGerald, 43 percent to38 percent. Kasich is benefiting from an improving economy and has won some crosspartisan plaudits for implementing a Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. The race stays at lean Republican.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R)

Snyder, who during his 2010 victory called himself “One Tough Nerd,” is now branding himself, "The Comeback Kid." (He even bought a pricey Super Bowl ad to tout his new label.) Snyder seems to have recovered from a low point more than a year ago when he signed a right-to-work bill during a lame-duck legislative session. By now, the backlash to that measure, once substantial, seems to have dissipated. Snyder has a huge fundraising advantage, raising $5 million in 2013 with $4 million in the bank. His Democratic opponent, former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, has raised much less -- $1.6 million, with $1 million in the bank. A February EPIC-MRA poll found Snyder leading, 47 percent to 39 percent. For now, the incumbent has the edge.

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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