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A Guide to the 36 Governors’ Races

Which incumbent governors face a tough road ahead and which are expected to win re-election easily?

Maine Governor
Maine Gov. Paul LePage
Associated Press/ Robert F. Bukaty
There’s no presidential election this year. But for the states, this fall’s midterm elections are just as pivotal. There will be 36 governorships up for grabs, not to mention a similar number of attorneys general offices and dozens of state legislatures. For those just tuning in to Election 2014 in the states, now is as good a time as any to take stock and prepare for what’s at stake on the midterm ballot.

The state of play for November was set in motion in 2010. Loads of governorships came open that year because the large gubernatorial class of 2002 was finishing out their eighth year in office. On Election Night, both Democrats and Republicans ended up seizing a number of offices that were rightfully “theirs” based on their state’s voting tendencies in presidential elections. California, for instance, traded Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger for Democrat Jerry Brown. Overall, the Democrats won back GOP-held governorships in the blue states of Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota and Vermont.

Republicans, for their part, took back previously Democratic governorships in the solidly red states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming.

The most significant 2010 victories, however, came in swing states -- thanks in part to a large boost from the cycle’s strong Republican wave. The GOP managed to flip the governorships of several “purple” states like Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin. Not only did such victories help the GOP reverse the party’s overall national deficit in gubernatorial seats, but they also enabled Republican governors to enact conservative-oriented legislation.

The 2014 cycle isn’t expected to be quite as turbulent, mainly because many governors will be running as incumbents with at least a modest economic recovery under way. Several GOP governors serving in purple states, for example, are likely to win easy re-election, such as Iowa’s Terry Branstad, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez. Other first-term GOP governors are favored to hold their seats but are facing competitive races, such as Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich. The three most imperiled GOP governors are Florida’s Rick Scott, Maine’s Paul LePage and Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett. Meanwhile, the Democrats are playing defense in Arkansas, Connecticut and Illinois.

The Republicans currently hold 29 governorships, compared to 21 for the Democrats. All told, the overall balance of control will likely shift only modestly. A best-case scenario for the Democrats would be to net four gubernatorial seats, while a best-case scenario for the Republicans would be to net three.

The big question is whether the Republicans’ growing momentum in congressional races, particularly in the Senate, starts to put a lot more Democratic-held gubernatorial offices into play. While voters don’t necessarily pull the lever for the same party in competitive congressional and gubernatorial contests -- even in a year with a strong partisan wave -- the GOP could benefit from a national surge on the margins, securing their 2010 gains and then some.

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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