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Half of 2016 Races for Governor Too Close to Call

Democrats are looking to narrow the GOP’s historically large hold on gubernatorial seats. Here's our state-by-state analysis of each election.

As the 2016 election nears its conclusion, lots of gubernatorial races remain up for grabs.

Since our last handicapping in July, there have been fairly modest changes. Montana's race has shifted in the GOP’s direction and races in Washington state and Oregon have shifted in the Democrats’ direction.

That leaves half of the 12 races in our tossup category -- Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia (all currently held by Democrats), and Indiana and North Carolina (both held by Republicans).

Only one other gubernatorial race this year is considered genuinely competitive -- the Democratic-held open seat in Missouri. Beyond that, the governorships in North Dakota and Utah are almost certain to remain in GOP hands, while Delaware, Oregon and Washington are heavily favored to remain Democratic.

In all, the Democrats hold eight of the 12 seats being contested this year, putting their already weak national numbers under added strain. Currently, Republicans hold a historically large 31-18 lead in governorships. There's one independent, Alaska's Bill Walker.

Democratic victories in each of the competitive contests would produce a two-seat gain, resulting in a reduced GOP edge of 29-20. 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.

As usual, the most likely outcome is somewhere in the middle. But regardless of how 2016 shakes out, the GOP will end the year with a continued big lead in governorships.

The list below gives each race a rating -- safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic -- and also rank-orders the contests within each category so that they go from most likely to vote Republican to most likely to vote Democratic. (For an interactive version of the map above and the latest news in each race, click here.)

Here’s the state-by-state rundown:

Safe Republican

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R)

Utah may be up for grabs in the presidential race, but Herbert, a pragmatic Republican in what's normally a solidly red state, is poised to win the general election easily against little-known Democrat Michael Weinholtz.

North Dakota: Open seat; held by Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R)

Political novice Doug Burgum -- the former CEO of Great Plains Software, which was sold to Microsoft for $1.1 billion in 2001 -- has successfully leveraged his outsider persona in a year in which nontraditional candidate backgrounds are valued. He's well on his way to defeating Democratic Rep. Marvin Nelson, a crop consultant, and Libertarian Marty Riske, a businessman.


Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) (shift from lean Democratic)

Bullock, who’s successfully navigated difficult currents for a Democrat in Montana, faces self-funding Republican software firm cofounder Greg Gianforte and Libertarian Ted Dunlap. Bullock is well-liked and has some legislative successes to run on, but Gianforte has spent aggressively on the airwaves, hitting the incumbent on immigration, coal and other issues that could play well in a state that presidential candidate Donald Trump is poised to win. Recent polls have ranged from a narrow Bullock lead to a double-digit Bullock lead. But in a red state, we’ll be cautious and move this to the tossup category.

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

Contrary to Vermont’s blue-state reputation, Republican Phil Scott, the state's popular and moderate lieutenant governor, is locked in a tight battle against Democrat Sue Minter, a former legislator and state secretary of transportation. Minter benefits from having won a wide-open Democratic primary convincingly. In addition, she’s managed to unify the Democratic party after the contentious primary and has won the coveted endorsement of Bernie Sanders, the state’s most popular political figure. On the other hand, Scott should benefit from not only voter fatigue with Gov. Shumlin but also the state's historical openness to moderate Republican governors and his longstanding opposition to Trump, who is massively unpopular in Vermont. The one public poll in the race shows Scott ahead by a mere point, so we’re keeping this in the tossup category.

Indiana: Open seat, held by Gov. Mike Pence (R)

When Pence was named Trump's running mate, the Indiana GOP had to scramble to find a replacement as the gubernatorial nominee. They found Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, but his late start -- combined with Pence’s own uncertain re-election prospects before he exited the race -- have given John Gregg, a Democratic former state House Speaker who lost narrowly to Pence in 2012, a surprisingly robust path to the governorship in this otherwise Republican-leaning state. The Clinton campaign has announced an investment in get-out-the-vote resources there. While Hillary Clinton herself has only a modest chance of winning the state, she desperately wants to boost the prospects of Democratic Senate candidate Evan Bayh, and Gregg could benefit as well. Three October polls showed Gregg up by between four and 12 points. Still, the state’s historical leanings lead us to keep this in the tossup category.

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

To keep the governorship in Democratic hands, billionaire Jim Justice will have to benefit from a lot of ticket-splitting by supporters of Trump, who is poised to win the state. But Justice, whose blunt persona and occasional business controversies overlaps somewhat with Trump, might be able to pull it off. He faces Republican state Senate President Bill Cole, a matchup that may also help Justice because it pits an outsider against an elected politician. A recent MetroNews West Virginia Poll found Justice ahead by 11 points. Still, the dynamics of Trump and 2016 lead us to keep this in the tossup category.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R)

In one of the key presidential battlegrounds of 2016, a big gubernatorial race has gotten even bigger. McCrory was always facing a tough re-election given his acquiescence to a strongly conservative agenda passed by the GOP-controlled legislature, most notably the H.B. 2 “bathroom bill.” His opponent, four-term Attorney General Roy Cooper, came into the race well-known in the state and has run an aggressive campaign against McCrory. During September, Cooper opened up a lead of five to six points. But in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, when McCrory dominated the airwaves, the incumbent has narrowed the gap to a point or two. This contest leans ever so slightly in Cooper’s direction, but we’re keeping it in the tossup category.

New Hampshire: Open seat; held by Gov. Maggie Hassan (D)

Republican Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, the heir to a storied name in New Hampshire politics, led for months in head-to-head polling against Democratic Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern. But after the primary, Van Ostern has become better known to voters and perhaps benefited from Trump’s troubles at the top of the ballot. He's now overtaken Sununu and has a lead in the low single digits. New Hampshire has a reputation in recent cycles of being one of the nation’s swingiest states, so we’ll be cautious and keep this in the tossup category.

Lean Democratic

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

Statewide Democratic candidates in Missouri are continuing to swim successfully against the state’s Republican tide, as Democrat Chris Koster, a proven vote-getter as attorney general, continues to lead former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, the GOP nominee, by about six points. Koster even boasts endorsements from the National Rifle Association and the Farm Bureau. Both candidates are spending big on commercials, but at this point, it’s Koster’s race to lose.

Likely Democratic

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) (shift from lean Democratic)

Inslee, a Democrat seeking another term in his solidly blue state, benefits from running in a presidential cycle. He’s up by double digits against Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant, who has run a credible campaign but has failed to break through.

Safe Democratic

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) (shift from likely Democratic)

Brown, who is running in a special election to fill the final two years of former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s term, has a double-digit lead against William "Bud" Pierce, a moderate former president of the Oregon Medical Association. Despite tepid support from the influential left wing of her party, Brown will benefit from the state’s clear Democratic leanings in a presidential year. Pierce’s weak fundraising has forced him to kick in more personal money, and the Republican nominee didn’t help himself when, during a major Portland debate, he declared that well-educated and accomplished women are less susceptible to sexual harassment -- a comment he later apologized for.

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

Nothing has knocked U.S. Rep. John Carney off course in his quest to keep the Delaware governorship in Democratic hands. He should win easily over Republican state Sen. Colin Bonini.

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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