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With Primary Season Over, Democrats Poised to Gain 3 to 7 Governors’ Seats

Just over half of the 36 gubernatorial races are competitive.

As the primary season came to a close, more gubernatorial races became competitive, and the Democrats remain in a better position than Republicans to gain ground this fall.

In our latest handicapping of the nation's 36 races for governor, we're shifting the ratings for 10 of them: six in the Democrats' direction and four in the Republicans'.

The six seats moving in Democrats' favor are in Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. And the four seats shift toward the GOP are in Alaska, Maine, Oregon and Rhode Island.

Currently, we rate 19 races -- more than half -- as being competitive, meaning that they are either tossups or leaning to one party or the other. That's up from 16 competitive races in our July analysis. Our rating categories are safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic.

The Republicans have more seats at risk. The GOP currently holds 13 of these 19 competitive seats, compared to just five for the Democrats and one by independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker.

Of those 19 competitive seats, nine are tossups, which is one more than in July. The tossup category is dominated by states with Republican governors; they hold six of those seats (Florida, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin) compared to just three by the Democrats (Colorado, Connecticut and Rhode Island).

Three GOP-held seats currently lean Democratic -- Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico. By contrast, no Democratic-held seat leans Republican.

Here's the current breakdown of competitive races:

Lean Republican 0 4 1 5
Tossup 3 6 0 9
Lean Democratic 2 3 0 5
Total 5 13 1 19
Overall, the GOP today holds a 33-16 edge in gubernatorial offices and has more seats to defend this year -- 26 to the Democrats' nine.

In a neutral political environment, Democrats should be able to gain perhaps three governorships. But if the political winds prove to be in the Democrats' favor, their net gain could be as high as five to seven seats. 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 not in office.

For an interactive version of our ratings map, and the latest news in each race, click here.



Shifts Toward Republicans

We are shifting two states from lean Democratic to tossup: Maine and Rhode Island.

In Maine, where Republican Gov. Paul LePage is leaving office, the general election field includes a Democrat, Attorney General Janet Mills; a Republican, businessman Shawn Moody; and two significant independents, policy researcher Alan Caron and state Treasurer Terry Hayes. This complicates the math for Mills, who might otherwise benefit from pro-Democratic momentum after eight years of LePage's outspoken approach to governance. Both independent candidates are considered somewhat to the left of center and therefore are expected to take votes from her.

An August poll by Suffolk University had Mills and Moody each taking 39 percent, Caron and Hayes combining for 7 percent and about 15 percent undecided. (While Maine has adopted ranked-choice voting for federal races this fall, it will not be offered in the gubernatorial race.)

Meanwhile, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, prevailed against a primary challenge from the left by former Secretary of State Matt Brown. She now faces a rematch against Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, with several third-party candidates also in the race, including former Trump campaign state chair Joe Trillo. Polling has shown that the Raimondo-Fung matchup is close.

We've also moved Alaska from tossup to lean Republican. Here, too, a three-way race poses complications for the incumbent.

Walker, an independent, won office in 2014 after he joined forces with a Democratic running mate and defeated then-Republican Gov. Sean Parnell. Now, though, Walker's approval ratings have sunk, and a credible Democrat -- former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich -- is in the race.

In the GOP primary, voters selected Mike Dunleavy, a well-funded education administrator and former state legislator who is considered conservative enough to energize Republican voters. With Alaska's non-conservative vote poised to be divided between Walker and Begich, Dunleavy has an easier path to victory.

And finally, in Oregon, we've moved Democratic Gov. Kate Brown's reelection bid from likely Democratic to lean Democratic, based on a recent poll showing the race close between Brown and Republican Knute Buehler, who's considered a stronger-than-usual Oregon Republican candidate.

That said, we're not convinced this will remain a competitive seat, considering the edge Democrats have in this solidly blue state and the pro-Democrat environment nationally.


Shifts Toward Democrats

Probably the most significant shift in the Democrats' favor is happening in Michigan and Wisconsin, which, respectively, we're moving from tossup to lean Democratic and from lean Republican to tossup.

For Democrats, few things would be sweeter than defeating Republican Scott Walker. In the primary, Democrats gave state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers a convincing victory, allowing him to turn his attention to Walker, who's seeking a third term in a more difficult national environment than he's faced previously. Every poll in July and August has Evers either even or ahead.

In Michigan, Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer has consistently led Republican Bill Schuette in recent polls by a high single digits or more. The winner would succeed retiring Republican Rick Snyder, who became closely associated with the Flint water crisis.

We're also shifting two states from likely Republican to lean Republican -- Georgia and Oklahoma. While these races are looking competitive, each of them remains a difficult lift for Democrats, given the historically red hue of those states.

In Georgia's open-seat contest, primary voters tapped Democrat Stacey Abrams to face off against Republican Brian Kemp, rejecting more moderate rivals and producing a general election matchup with a sharp ideological contrast. While history suggests that Republicans will remain the favorite, Abrams' history-making nomination as an African-American woman has attracted national attention and could energize minority voters in greater numbers than before.

And in Oklahoma, businessman Kevin Stitt won the Republican runoff and will face former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, the Democrat. Stitt is a relative unknown and is polling about even with Edmondson, who is a more familiar name. But with lots of undecided voters, Stitt has room to grow.

The election could hinge on whether dissatisfaction with outgoing Republican Gov. Mary Fallin -- who recently polled at an anemic 19 percent approval -- convinces enough Republicans and independents to take a chance with a Democrat. We'd be surprised if Stitt doesn't win, but it's not off the table.

We're also moving the Minnesota open-seat race from tossup to lean Democratic. After competitive primary contests on both sides, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz is leading his Republican opponent, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, by single-digit margins in recent polls.

And last, in South Dakota's open-seat race, we're shifting it from safe Republican to likely Republican. One poll by a Democratic firm had Democratic state Sen. Billie Sutton trailing Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem by just four points. But the state hasn't elected a Democratic governor since 1974, so don't hold your breath.

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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