When the year began, both Republicans and Democrats expected North Carolina to host the year’s marquee race for governor. Roy Cooper, the incumbent Democrat, won the seat four years ago by a margin of 0.2 percentage points and looked like he might be vulnerable in a purple state in a presidential election year.

Instead, his GOP opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, has never been able to gain traction. Cooper has led all year, enjoying a double-digit lead in multiple polls over the past month.

Incumbent governors always start with an advantage, but this year the power of their office has given most of them an almost insurmountable head start. The reason is COVID-19. “It feels like for the most part North Carolinians are comfortable with the approach Roy Cooper has taken regarding COVID,” says Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. “If you look at the presidential and Senate races in the state, the margins are much closer.”

There are still a couple of tight races around the country, with both parties having a chance to pick up a governorship. For the most part, though, challengers have struggled to make themselves known with retail politics largely curtailed. By contrast, governors have taken on greater prominence. For a time in the spring, many held daily news conferences that became appointment TV.

“Voters were just more aware of governors in an election year than at any time in recent history and looked to them for leadership,” says Amelia Chassé Alcivar, communications director for the Republican Governors Association. “COVID-19 gave incumbents an opportunity to lead in a crisis and focused a very strong spotlight on them.”

Two years ago, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire won with 53 percent of the vote and looked like he might be more vulnerable during a presidential election year, with Democrat Joe Biden favored to carry his state. Instead, Sununu is winning in a walk. One poll released last week showed him up by 23 points — not out of line with some other recent results in his race against Democrat Dan Feltes, a relatively little-known state senator who had to survive a late primary.

Sununu’s job approval rating at the start of the year was already high, notes Andrew Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, but it has only increased during the pandemic. “His handling of COVID, it’s 80 percent approve to 19 percent disapprove, with 67 percent approval among Democrats,” Smith says. “It’s just going to be very hard for an unknown candidate to crack into this sort of lead.”

The Trump administration’s decision to leave much of the coronavirus response in the hands of governors has given them a political advantage, Smith says. Both parties might have recruited stronger challengers against some of the incumbents who are running, such as Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Democrat Jay Inslee of Washington.

Instead, nearly every incumbent is coasting. There are only 11 races for governor around the country this year.

“Tragically, given the loss of life, with more than 210,000 souls gone, COVID has shined a light on what we’ve been saying, that governors have never mattered more,” says New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association.

There are only 11 gubernatorial races up for a vote this year. (Governing)

GOP Looking to Break Streak in Montana

There are two states where the respective parties have their best remaining opportunities to flip a governor’s office — Missouri and Montana. Both happen to be states that Republican Donald Trump carried by roughly 20 points in 2016.

Despite Montana’s Republican voting habits at the federal level, Democrats have held the governorship for 16 straight years. Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte is making his second bid for the office, having lost by 4 percentage points to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in 2016. Bullock, who is term-limited, is running for the U.S. Senate. Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney is the Democratic nominee.

This marks the fourth time in four years that Gianforte is on a statewide ballot, having won a special election for the state’s at-large House seat in 2017 and re-election the following year. His constant campaign presence means Gianforte began the year with nearly universal name recognition.

Gianforte, who started a software company, has been touting his credentials as a jobs creator. Montana had a low coronavirus caseload until recently, which allowed Gianforte to concentrate on a message of creating high-paying jobs at a time when tourism in the state has taken a serious hit. “Gianforte clearly has a money advantage and the ability to get his message out,” says Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena, Mont. “Which is, after 16 years of Democratic control, it’s time for a change.”

Democrats openly rooted for Gianforte to emerge from this year’s GOP primary, believing he carries baggage that makes him a weak opponent. Gianforte was involved in a lawsuit with the state regarding access to a river from property that he owned — public lands are a big issue in Montana — and drew national attention for assaulting a reporter on the eve of his first House election. “The famous body slammer,” Murphy called him during a Zoom call with reporters.

These issues have been around throughout Gianforte’s prior runs, however. Democrats have also sought to make hay with a clip from 2016 in which Gianforte says with a smile, “the fairest tax is one you pay and I don’t.” Cooney supports a permanent ban on sales taxes in the state.

But Republicans charge that Cooney has repeatedly voted to increase taxes during his long career in government. A recent assessment by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle suggested that, while Gianforte looks to cut regulations, Cooney “aims to improve the environment for businesses not by reducing regulation but by creating new regulations and government offices to assist businesses.”

Although Bullock has gotten good marks in polls for his handling of the coronavirus, that hasn’t translated into a lead for him in the Senate race or for Cooney’s bid to succeed him. Although the size of Gianforte’s polling advantage has bounced around a bit, he’s consistently been ahead.

Missouri: The Best Shot for Democrats

Missouri was the nation’s great bellwether during 20th-century presidential elections, voting for the winner in all but two elections. The state has turned more red during the 21st century. Auditor Nicole Galloway is the only Democrat left in statewide office. She’s aiming for a promotion, challenging incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Parson. Officials in both parties credit her with being an appealing, disciplined candidate.

Parson ascended to the office in mid-2018, after fellow Republican Eric Greitens resigned amid sex and campaign finance scandals. Despite Trump’s big margin in 2016, Greitens won with just a bare majority — 51 percent — while that year’s U.S. Senate race was even closer. Parson won election as lieutenant governor independently four years ago.

“Missouri is less red than it is culturally right of center,” says John Hancock, a former state GOP chair who is running Uniting Missouri, a political action committee that supports Parson. “People just assume it’s Republican, but, really, historically it’s just not.”

Galloway has made health care her top issue. Voters approved a Medicaid expansion in August and Galloway notes that the next governor will implement it. She has also faulted Parson for his handling of the coronavirus, which Parson himself contracted last month, along with 1,800 state employees and several Parson aides.

In one of the few competitive gubernatorial races this year, Democrat Nicole Galloway has a shot at winning in Missouri. (Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader)

Parson had made numerous maskless appearances around the state and has taken one of the more laissez-faire approaches to the pandemic among governors. In March, Parson suggested that “it’s not going to come down to government to fix this … it’s a virus like anything else.” This summer, he said children should attend school in person, where he predicted they “will” contract the virus. “They’re going to go home, and they’re going to get over it,” he said.

“Parson has played down the dangers of the virus like Trump and some other Republican governors have,” says Kenneth Warren, a pollster at St. Louis University. “Galloway’s attacks on Parson for his mishandling of the virus is likely scoring points with voters as this virus has only gotten worse in Missouri.”

Republicans accept that Parson’s stance regarding the coronavirus will hurt his cause in populous cities and counties, but express doubt it will cut into his margins across most of the state. The Medicaid expansion passed in only seven of the state’s 114 counties, reflecting Missouri’s recent divide in urban and rural voting.

Parson has made violent crime in St. Louis and Kansas City central to his campaign. He called a special session this summer to address the issue, signing a couple of bills but finding some of his proposals rejected by the Legislature.

In a Saint Louis University poll released Tuesday, crime topped the pandemic as a pressing issue to voters, 20 to 17 percent. The most important issue overall was the economy, named by 24 percent of respondents. Voters focused on the pandemic preferred Galloway by nearly 13 to 1, compared with a 20 to 1 advantage for Parson among those most concerned with law and order.

Galloway has managed to out-raise Parson in recent months, a reflection of Democrats’ superior online fundraising machine and the fact that she represents the party’s best shot nationwide for grabbing a GOP seat. “It’s a race there’s a lot of hype about,” says Alcivar, the RGA spokeswoman. “With the shrinking map, it’s the only game in town for Democrats.”

Republicans are seeking to turn Galloway’s out-of-state donors into an issue themselves, noting she’s aligned herself with groups on the left such as EMILY’s List and Indivisible. Democrats have done well in the state when they are “Missouri Democrats,” Alcivar says, not identified with national progressives. During a debate last week, Parson said “her liberal agenda” has been “the cause of this (crime) problem for decades.”

“Nicole Galloway, her campaign has been funded by left wing extremists who want to defund our police,” claims a Uniting Missouri ad. “These radicals are emboldening criminals and Galloway has been silent while they are doing it.” Galloway says she does not support defunding the police and has condemned violence.

Parson has consistently led in the polls, generally enjoying a margin in the high single digits. A poll released on Oct. 7 showed a dead heat, with Parson up by only two percentage points. In the new Saint Louis University poll, Parson leads by 50 to 44 percent.