Previewing the 2012 Governors' Races

Just two months after the 2011 gubernatorial contests, things are starting to shape up for 2012's candidates.

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Since we last handicapped the 2011-2012 gubernatorial races six months ago, the roster of contests has shifted somewhat -- not dramatically, but not trivially either.

For starters, the 2011 election played out as expected, with the GOP easily retaining the governorships of Mississippi and Louisiana (we'd rated them both safe Republican), while the Democrats held the governorships of Kentucky and West Virginia (both rated lean Democratic).

In our first ratings since the November election, several of the remaining contests for 2012 have moved a notch or two. Two states shifted in the Republican direction -- New Hampshire, from lean Democratic to lean Republican, and Washington state, from tossup to lean Republican.

Meanwhile, two states moved toward the Democrats -- Missouri from lean Democratic to likely Democratic, and Delaware from likely Democratic to safe Democratic.

Finally, a new race looms on the horizon -- an effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who led a controversial but ultimately successful effort to roll back labor laws shortly after entering office in 2011. Supporters of the recall effort claim they've collected the required 540,208 signatures, which now must be validated.

The changes on our list represent incremental gains by the GOP, but they do not point to a sea change in the gubernatorial landscape. Last July, our handicapping suggested that the GOP could gain between zero and three seats. That range is now probably more like two to four seats, with a gain of three seats the most plausible outcome at this time.

If the Republicans did manage to post net gains of three gubernatorial seats in 2012, it would push GOP control from 29 Republican governors, 20 Democratic governors and one Independent to 32 Republicans, 17 Democrats and one Independent. Any Democratic gains large enough to significantly tip the balance of power in the governorships would have to wait until the midterm elections of 2014, when the GOP needs to defend seats held by a large class of governors first elected in 2010, including such embattled chief executives as Florida's Rick Scott, Ohio's John Kasich, Wisconsin's Walker (if he's not recalled) and South Carolina's Nikki Haley.

As always, our handicapping of the gubernatorial races -- based on interviews with a range of state and national analysts -- works in two ways. First, it categorizes every seat as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic.

Second, it ranks each seat in order of the likelihood of being won by a Republican or Democrat, with No. 1 being most likely to be won by a Republican and No. 12 being most likely to be won by a Democrat. For now, we've included the speculative Wisconsin recall on our list and placed it in the tossup category.

If our prognostication is sound, then after Election Day we should be able to draw a line somewhere in the tossup category and find all the seats above that line won by a Republican and all the seats below that line won by a Democrat. (In our 2010 gubernatorial handicapping of 37 states, only one, Illinois, ended up on the wrong side of that divide.)

Here are the current rankings, with capsule summaries of the state of play.

Safe Republican

1. Utah (R-held; no rating change). GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, fresh off a 2010 victory to fill the remaining two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman's term, will face the voters again in 2012 for a full four-year term. His main challenge is unlikely to come from a Democrat but rather from GOP primary opponents. Several figures are lining up to challenge Herbert from the right: former state Rep. and congressional candidate Morgan Philpot, tea party activist and motorsports entrepreneur David Kirkham, and state Rep. Ken Sumsion. They see an opening since Herbert signed a law that allowed undocumented immigrants to get a work permit, and another that overhauled Utah's public records statutes. Given the weakness of the state Democratic Party, whoever wins the coming GOP primary battle is almost certain to secure the governorship.

Likely Republican

2. North Dakota (R-held; no rating change). After Republican Gov. John Hoeven's election to the Senate in 2010, Jack Dalrymple filled his seat and, to no one's surprise, announced in late 2011 that he would run for a full term. He's considered popular, thanks to a strong response to major state flooding in 2011 and Legislature-backed efforts to provide aid to areas affected by an oil boom (an economic success that has kept unemployment in North Dakota at a national low of 3.4 percent). However, Dalrymple is poised to face a challenge in the primary by Paul Sorum, a Fargo architect with tea party support. As for the Democrats, former state attorney general and tax commissioner Heidi Heitkamp is seeking a Senate seat rather than the governorship, leaving Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor the Democrats' leading candidate. A likable rancher, Taylor is a player to watch, but at 41, he's making his first statewide run and is unlikely to unseat a popular and seasoned incumbent like Dalrymple. Taylor's time may come in 2016 instead.

3. Indiana (R-held; no rating change). In the contest to succeed term-limited GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence remains the heavy favorite, owing to his national profile, fundraising network and an absence of any disqualifying developments. Pence will first have to get past businessman Jim Wallace, a heavy underdog in the GOP primary who has already begun a small, introductory ad buy. The likeliest Democratic nominee remains folksy, relatively conservative former state House Speaker John Gregg. However, internecine struggles within the state Democratic Party -- including ideological, geographic and personal divides -- suggest that the Hoosier State, already friendly to Republicans, will be an even tougher fight for Democrats in 2012.

Lean Republican

4. North Carolina (D-held; no rating change). Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue is doing a whole lot better than she was a year ago. Still, she'll face an uphill battle to win a second term. Her opponent is former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who she narrowly beat in 2008. Helping Perdue's chances will be the presidential election (Obama won North Carolina in 2008 and is putting on a big push in the state for 2012, and Charlotte will host the Democratic National Convention) and the unpopularity of the Republican Legislature (which sunk to a 16 percent approval rating in a recent Public Policy Polling survey). For his part, McCrory stands to benefit from the state's general Republican drift and lingering effects from the indictments of several people who helped elect Perdue in 2008. A wild card is whether Democratic state Rep. Bill Faison decides to challenge Perdue in a primary, which isn't likely but can't be ruled out. Observers expect a fluid race that will experience additional twists and turns as Election Day nears.

5. New Hampshire (D-held; shift from lean Democratic). The Granite State made the biggest shift on our list, from lean Democratic to lean Republican. That change stems solely from the decision last fall by Gov. John Lynch not to seek a fifth two-year term in 2012. For now, we believe Republicans have the upper hand, given the GOP's resurgence in the state, President Obama's difficulties with voters there and the likelihood that Mitt Romney (who owns a home in the state) will be the GOP presidential nominee, potentially offering coattails to GOP candidates down the ballot. On the other hand, voters may appreciate the idea of a Democratic brake on a GOP-dominated Legislature that has been staunchly conservative. Of course, the candidates will matter as well. Two-time statewide conservative candidate Ovide Lamontagne is running and has the biggest footprint. Also running on the GOP side is Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Action, a conservative group that attacked Lynch and the then-Democratic-led Legislature throughout the 2010 cycle. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan is in the race, and could be joined in a primary by former state Sen. Jackie Cilley, former Ambassador to Trinidad Terry Shumaker, former state Attorney General Phil McLaughlin and former State Securities Bureau Chief Mark Connolly.

6. Washington state (D-held; shift from tossup). Republican confidence about the race to succeed Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire only continues to grow. Washington state hasn't elected a Republican governor since John Spellman in 1980, but there's a feeling in the state that Democrats have been in charge for too long. GOP state Attorney General Rob McKenna -- who's moderate enough to be a plausible candidate for this generally blue state -- offers the right vehicle to ride that sentiment to victory. Democratic U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee will benefit from the state's Democratic leanings, which should be on display in what promises to be a high-turnout presidential election. But McKenna has chalked up a lead in fundraising and in several polls, and there's a growing sense even among Democrats that this is likely to be his year.


7. Montana (D-held; no rating change). No Democrat these days has an easy time winning statewide in Montana, but the Democrats' hold on the seat of outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer looks better than one might expect. Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock is now in the race, outraising the competition and on schedule to win the nomination in June. He's considered likable, with an attractive young family and a background as a prosecutor. Bullock is also 20 years younger than the GOP frontrunner, former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill. Equally important, Hill has to survive what promises to be a messy primary against a half-dozen or more opponents, mostly to his right. While Hill remains the favorite in the primary, he'll have to spend some money to do it, leaving Bullock to hoard his dollars for what promises to be a close general election.

8. Wisconsin (R-held; not previously rated). An election isn't assured yet, but recall supporters turned in more than 1 million signatures -- "nearly as many as the total votes cast for the governor in November 2010 and almost twice as many as those needed to trigger a recall election," according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. If recall supporters' signatures are validated, the recall will be a titanic, money-attracting, headline-grabbing contest. Conservative icon Scott Walker will likely go up against former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010, or former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, a favorite of unions. It's too early to make a precise handicapping, but the energy on both sides of the ideological and partisan divide -- combined with Wisconsin's swing-state tradition and an expected key role in the 2012 presidential election -- suggest that the race will start out as a tossup.

Lean Democratic

9. West Virginia (D-held; no rating change). Earl Ray Tomblin, already serving as acting governor, won the voters' endorsement in a 2011 special election. He'll have to do it all over again in 2012 to secure a full, four-year term. Republican businessman Bill Maloney, who lost to Tomblin in 2011, is a good bet to run again. It's not clear that he'd do much better a year later though. Instead, some Republicans hope to see a bid by former Secretary of State Betty Ireland, who lost to Maloney in the 2011 GOP primary. Whoever the Republican is, Tomblin won't be an easy target. A veteran legislator before being elevated to governor, Tomblin will be able to take credit for a series of tax cuts and the Marcellus Shale horizontal drilling regulations, among other things. With more obvious Republican targets in the 2012 gubernatorial cycle, it's not clear that national Republicans will focus as heavily on West Virginia as they did during the slower 2011 cycle.

Likely Democratic

10. Missouri (D-held; shift from lean Democratic). Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has even smoother sailing than he did before, now that Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder has stepped aside following a gaffe- and scandal-plagued campaign. The GOP's replacement may be businessman David Spence, but he has minimal political experience and has gained some media attention for some embarrassing mistakes on his resume. Meanwhile, Nixon has solidified his already strong position, governing as a centrist who's almost as likely to get votes from Republicans as Democrats. It's the kind of scenario that convinces us to move this race from lean Democratic to likely Democratic.

11. Vermont (D-held; no rating change). Democrat Peter Shumlin -- a narrow victor in 2010 -- enhanced his position with his handling of the recovery after Hurricane Irene in August, the state's worst natural disaster in memory. While the GOP now has a candidate, former state auditor and state Sen. Randy Brock, Shumlin starts out as the favorite not just because of the state's partisan lean but also because both Obama and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders will be on the ballot in 2012.

Safe Democratic

12. Delaware (D-held; shift from likely Democratic). Democratic Gov. Jack Markell has taken a collaborative approach in a state that generally rewards it, tackling such thorny issues as pension reform while ruffling a minimum of feathers. He's also chaired the Democratic Governors Association and is poised to chair the National Governors Association, providing him with experience and contacts in both the political and policy realms. The Delaware GOP is going to have a hard time finding a candidate with a credible chance of ousting him.

Correction appended January 18, 2012 to reflect 29 Republican governors and 20 Democratic governors currently in office.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.