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Democratic Governors Now Have a Chance to Become the Majority

The party's outlook has improved since last month. It's likely to gain between three and 10 seats in November.

The polls for congressional races are inducing uncertainty about how much of a blue wave there will be on Election Day. But in the gubernatorial races, the Democrats’ midterm outlook has improved significantly.

Since our last handicapping in mid-September, one incumbent governor has ended his reelection campaign and nine of the nation’s 36 races for governor have shifted -- all of them in the Democrats' direction.

The nine seats moving in Democrats' favor are in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and South Dakota.

Overall, the GOP currently holds a 33-16 edge in gubernatorial offices and therefore has more seats to defend this year -- 26 to the Democrats' nine.

In a neutral political environment, Democrats should be able to flip perhaps three governorships. But for the first time since 2006, the GOP will control the White House and Congress during a midterm election -- a balance of power that historically helps the party without the presidency.

If the political winds continue to blow in the Democrats' favor, the party’s net gain could range from seven to 10 seats. The higher end of that prediction represents an increase of a couple seats since our estimate in September and would give Democrats a slim majority among governors.

Our ratings, which are based on polls and conversations with political experts in the states as well as national party strategists, are broken into seven categories: safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic.

Currently, we rate 20 of the 36 races in November -- more than half -- as being competitive, meaning that they are either tossups or leaning to one party or the other. 

The biggest change this month is that there are no longer any Democratic-held seats in the tossup category (or, for that matter, any Democratic-held seats leaning toward the Republicans). 

By contrast, the Republicans hold 10 seats that are now either in the tossup category or leaning in the Democrats’ direction. 

And the Democratic tilt could grow even stronger by the eve of the election. It’s conceivable that as many as a half-dozen seats currently rated as lean Democratic could shift to likely Democratic in the coming weeks.

As has been the case for the entire election cycle, Republicans have more seats at risk. The GOP currently holds 15 of the 20 competitive seats, compared to just five for the Democrats. In Alaska, the nation’s only independent governor, Bill Walker, abruptly announced last week that he is ending his reelection bid. He threw his support behind his Democratic opponent, but the race still leans Republican.

Those 20 competitive seats include eight tossups -- all in states that currently have Republican governors: Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Two GOP-held seats currently lean Democratic (Michigan and New Mexico) while one rates likely Democratic (Illinois). 

Here's the current breakdown of competitive races:

Lean Republican 0 4 1 5
Tossup 0 8 0 8
Lean Democratic 5 2 0 7
Total 5 14 1 20
For an interactive version of our ratings map, click here. Below the map is the latest analysis of the most competitive races this cycle.



Shifts Toward Democrats

We’re shifting two seats from likely Republican to lean Republican: New Hampshire and South Dakota.

For much of the cycle, New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu seemed destined for an easy reelection. But in a late September poll by the American Research Group, Sununu was up by just five points over Democratic former state Sen. Molly Kelly. Combine that with New Hampshire’s reputation as a swing state, and the Democratic political environment, and you have a newly lean Republican race.

South Dakota’s gubernatorial race remains the shocker of the cycle: In this solidly red state, Democratic state Sen. Billie Sutton is neck and neck with Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, even leading in one late September poll by a Democratic firm. We still think the GOP will pull this out -- the state hasn't elected a Democratic governor since 1974 -- but the race has been a whole lot tighter than expected.

Meanwhile, two seats shift from lean Republican to tossup: Georgia and Kansas.

In Georgia's open-seat contest, Democrat Stacey Abrams, the state’s former house minority leader, faces Republican Brian Kemp, the secretary of state. The race presents voters with a sharp ideological contrast. While history suggests that Republicans should have the edge, Abrams' history-making nomination as an African-American woman has attracted national attention and could energize minority voters in greater numbers than before. However, the state’s controversial “exact match” law has put more than 53,000 voter registrations on hold -- most of them filed by minorities. Five recent polls have had the candidates either even or with leads of no more than two points.

In Kansas, the controversial tenure of former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback gave Democrats hope of winning usually Republican Kansas. Adding to their optimism is the fact that GOP nominee Kris Kobach, the secretary of state, is too conservative even for many Kansas Republicans. But surveys show independent candidate Greg Orman pulling a steady 9 percent to 10 percent of the vote, leaving Kobach and his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Laura Kelly, neck and neck. Unless Orman fades down the stretch, Kobach and Kelly will battle it out in one of the nation’s closest gubernatorial contests.

Three states move from tossup to lean Democratic: Colorado, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

In Colorado’s open-seat race, deep-pocketed Democrat U.S. Rep. Jared Polis has opened up October leads in the high single digits against Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton. 

In Connecticut, Democrat Ned Lamont is leading Republican Bob Stefanowski by margins in the high single digits, easing Democratic concerns that outgoing Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy poisoned their chances after persistent economic and fiscal challenges for the traditionally blue state.

And in Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo has solidified support since the primary. Raimondo faces a rematch against Republican Mayor Allan Fung, her 2014 opponent, but an independent candidate is in the race, and he’s more of a danger to Fung. The independent candidate is Joe Trillo, who ran President Donald Trump's campaign in the state in 2016. Recent polls have had Raimondo up in the high single digits to low double digits.

One state moves from a competitive rating to a non-competitive rating -- Illinois, which shifts from lean Democratic to likely Democratic. 

Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is the most endangered incumbent in either party as he faces billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker. October polls have showed Pritzker ahead by between 16 and 22 points.

And New York moves from likely Democratic to safe Democratic. 

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has faced restiveness within his party’s left flank, but by now he has all but sealed up a third term over Republican nominee Marc Molinaro, a county executive. October polls have had Cuomo leading by between 18 and 23 points.


Competitive Republican-Held Seats

Arizona and Oklahoma remain in the lean Republican category.

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has performed strongly in what was initially pegged as a tough reelection contest. Ducey has generally outpaced his Democratic rival, David Garcia, by double-digit margins. However, two recent polls suggest a modest improvement for Garcia. Ducey remains a clear favorite, but the narrower margins in the late polls suggest this race is not yet destined for the likely Republican category yet.

In Oklahoma, the Democrats are still in the hunt, despite the state’s bright red tinge, partly because of voter dissatisfaction with Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, whose approval rating has fallen as low as 19 percent this year. Republican businessman Kevin Stitt faces former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, a Democrat. Recent polls have Stitt with a four- to six-point edge.

Meanwhile, six Republican-held governorships remain in the tossup category: Florida, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin.

In Florida, Trump-aligned Republican Ron DeSantis has trailed Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum consistently -- albeit narrowly -- since the August primaries. Hurricane Michael is a wild card. It hit blue Tallahassee hard, but parts of the red Panhandle even harder, possibly scrambling turnout. Most recent marquee contests in Florida have been narrowly decided. This one should be no different.

Iowa, like other midwestern states, has swung back toward the Democrats this year after turning strongly Republican in 2016. A pair of September polls had Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds trailing Democratic businessman Fred Hubbell by two and five points. The race could go either way.

In Maine, where polarizing Republican Gov. Paul LePage is leaving office, Republican Shawn Moody faces Democrat Attorney General Janet Mills. However, two center-left candidates are running as independents, potentially draining votes from Mills. The head-to-head matchup between Moody and Mills has been close for much of the campaign, but two mid-October polls found Mills up by eight points. Until there’s additional evidence that Mills has pulled away, we’re keeping this in tossup.

Nevada -- one of the nation’s closest and trickiest-to-poll states -- has a close tight race between Republican Adam Laxalt, the attorney general, and Democrat Steve Sisolak, a county commissioner. Four polls in October have shown the race anywhere between Sisolak by four to Laxalt by four. The results will depend heavily on whether Democrats can energize their vaunted turnout machine, particularly Hispanic voters in the state. 

In Ohio, Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine has had small but consistent leads in most polls, but Democrat Richard Cordray, the former head of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has sometimes broken through with a small lead of his own. Observers in the state call the race dead even.

And in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker is finding his quest for a third term his hardest race yet. Democrat Tony Evers, the state’s superintendent of schools, has led in most, though not all, polls since the summer.

Finally, two Republican-held seats remain in the lean Democratic category: Michigan and New Mexico.

In Michigan, Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer has consistently led Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette in polls by between eight and 12 points. The winner would succeed retiring Republican Rick Snyder, who became closely associated with the Flint water crisis.

And in New Mexico, Democrat U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham has been outpolling her Republican colleague in Congress, Steve Pearce, by margins in the mid-single digits. The winner would succeed Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.


Other Competitive Democratic-Held Seats

Two Democratic-held seats remain in the lean Democratic category: Minnesota and Oregon. 

In Minnesota, Democrat U.S. Rep. Tim Walz has consistently led Republican Jeff Johnson, a county commissioner, by margins in the high single digits. A mid-October Marist poll found an even bigger edge for Walz. The winner would succeed outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Finally, in a surprise, Oregon’s contest remains competitive this late in the cycle. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Kate Brown faces a spirited challenge by Republican state Rep. Knute Buehler. We still think the Democrats will pull out a victory in this solidly blue state, but the contest is close enough to keep it in the competitive category.


Competitive Independent-Held Seats

Alaska has played host to one of the wildest races of the cycle. 

Walker, an independent, won office in 2014 after he joined forces with a Democratic running mate and defeated then-Republican Gov. Sean Parnell. But his long odds of reelection lengthened when former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich entered the race as a Democrat, splitting the center-left vote. 

Republican Mike Dunleavy, a well-funded education administrator and former state legislator, outpaced Walker and Begich by 15 to 20 points in recent polls.

Then two and a half weeks before Election Day, Walker quit the race and endorsed Begich. This is still a red state, and there isn’t much time for Begich to consolidate Walker’s support, so we’re leaving this race at lean Republican. 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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