A Final Recap of This Year's Races for Lieutenant Governor

Unlike the gubernatorial races, Republicans are the ones playing defense.

Democrat Cyrus Habib, the country’s first Iranian-American state legislator, is running in Washington state.
(FlickrCC/Al Garman)
As we recently noted, half of this year’s 12 races for governor are too close to call. By contrast, the slate of lieutenant governor races isn’t quite as exciting. But it has its share of interesting matchups.

That includes nip-and-tuck contests in Missouri and North Carolina, the possibility of a party switch in Vermont and a pair of polarizing candidates facing off in Washington state.

Just over half the states elect their lieutenant governors in tandem with governors, leaving five states this year with separate races. 

Unlike this year’s crop of gubernatorial races, in which Democrats have more seats to defend, Republicans are playing the most defense when it comes to LGs. Of the five races, the GOP has to defend open lieutenant governor seats in Missouri and Vermont, and they have a vulnerable incumbent in North Carolina.

The fact that the Democratic gubernatorial candidates are modestly ahead in both Missouri and North Carolina suggests that Democrats could end up sweeping all five of this year's independently elected lieutenant governor races.

Below is an overview of each of those races, listed from most likely to vote Republican to most likely to vote Democratic.

Here’s the rundown:

Missouri: Open seat (Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, R, lost bid for higher office)

The race for lieutenant governor in Missouri is wide open following the decision by Republican Peter Kinder to run -- unsuccessfully -- for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Democrat Russ Carnahan, who lost his U.S. House seat in 2012 after an unfavorable redistricting, comes from a fabled Democratic clan in the state that has included another U.S. House member (his grandfather A.S.J.) a governor (his father Mel), a U.S. senator (his mother Jean) and a Missouri secretary of state (his sister Robin). Despite that, and despite a narrow lead for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Koster, Carnahan is in a tight race against Republican Mike Parson, a relatively unknown state representative. With a lot of hot races in the state in 2016, this contest will probably be decided by what happens elsewhere on the ballot. The biggest question is whether Koster’s coattails are long enough to edge out Donald Trump's popularity at the top of the ticket.

North Carolina: Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, R

This is a rematch of the 2012 lieutenant governor race when Forest edged out Democrat Linda Coleman by a few thousand votes in an open-seat contest. Neither candidate is considered especially well-known, but this year, Forest is running as an incumbent, and he’s had some help from outside groups running TV ads. On the downside, Forest can be tied to the state’s unpopular H.B. 2 “bathroom” bill. Coleman started advertising only recently, at a time when the airwaves are already saturated with presidential, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate ads. The race is thought to be close, and like Missouri, this contest could well be decided by who prevails in the all-important presidential and gubernatorial races. 

Vermont: Open seat (Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, R, is running for governor)

This race is attracting a lot less attention than the state's tossup gubernatorial contest. Democratic state Sen. David Zuckerman, who prevailed in a three-way Democratic primary, started as a third-party Progressive and is now running jointly as a Democrat and Progressive. He's earned the endorsement of Bernie Sanders, a major force in Vermont politics. Zuckerman faces Republican Randy Brock, a former state auditor, state senator and unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2012. Two polls -- one for Vermont Public Radio, one for WCAX-TV -- show Zuckerman ahead by margins in the low to middle teens. Paired victories by Scott, a Republican, and Zuckerman, a Democrat, would hardly be unprecedented in the state; in fact, the reverse split, with a Democratic governor and Republican lieutenant governor, is currently the reality.

Washington state: Open seat (Brad Owen, D, is retiring)

Owen, a statesmanlike figure who’s retiring after 20 years in the office, leaves big shoes to fill. The state Senate, over which the lieutenant governor presides, is narrowly divided. Democrat Cyrus Habib, who was one of the top two finishers in an 11-candidate primary, has been pegged for stardom by Governing and others due to his striking background: He is believed to be the country’s first Iranian-American state legislator; he lost his sight when he was 8 due to a rare form of cancer yet managed to become a black belt in karate; he's a jazz pianist; and he became a Rhodes scholar before earning a law degree at Yale and practicing for a prominent Seattle law firm. He faces Republican Marty McClendon, a conservative pastor and radio host, who’s attracted more than his share of controversy  -- but so has Habib for his liberal views and aggressive approach. The Seattle Times, in explaining why it was offering no endorsement in the contest, criticized Habib for campaigning in the primary “in a disturbingly, highly partisan way, making promises he cannot keep. ... He should rebuild trust by toning down the partisanship and managing the Senate in a thoughtful, fair manner.” Given Washington state’s strong shade of blue, however, Habib is heavily favored to win.

Delaware: Office vacant (last occupied by Matt Denn, D)

Delaware’s race for lieutenant governor is just about as sleepy as its race for governor, in which the Democrat, U.S. Rep. John Carney, is gliding to victory. The lieutenant governorship has been vacant since 2014 when Denn ran successfully for attorney general. This year, Democratic state Sen. Bethany Hall-Long faces Republican investment banker La Mar Gunn. Hall-Long, who has massively outspent Gunn in this heavily blue state, is the heavy favorite.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.