It's been six months since we last looked at the 36 gubernatorial races in the 2014 midterms. Since then, the Democrats have continued to gain a bit of ground on the GOP, though the overall balance of power in gubernatorial seats looks unlikely to change dramatically on Election Day.
Overall, this campaign season features quite a few competitive seats -- 16 in all, which is a bit less than half of all the gubernatorial seats being contested this year. That’s a pretty large percentage; it’s not much less than the 18 seats we rated competitive on the eve of the election four years ago, an election when there were many more open gubernatorial seats.
What this means is that a substantial number of the competitive seats are currently held by incumbents. These include seats held by Democrats Pat Quinn of Illinois, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, and by Republicans Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Paul LePage of Maine, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rick Scott of Florida and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
As we noted in our last handicapping in March, the fact that the GOP finds itself with more seats in jeopardy is not surprising since the party's big gains in 2010 -- many of them in blue or purple states -- have left the Republicans with more seats to defend overall.
The Democrats benefited slightly from the rating shifts we’ve made in this updated handicapping. The Democrats gained ground in four crucial states -- Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas -- while making Nebraska and Alaska slightly more competitive and padding their existing lead in Pennsylvania. The GOP gained ground in Illinois and Colorado and put away the race in Ohio.
The updated handicapping moves the needle slightly in the Democratic direction, but not by much. If the tossup seats were to split evenly, it would produce a one-seat Democratic gain nationally. A bit of momentum for the Democrats would produce a two-seat gain for the party, while some momentum for the GOP would produce a one-seat Republican gain.
As always, ratings are based on interviews with dozens of political observers in the states, as well as a review of recent polling data. In addition to rating each race as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic, we have sought to rank-order the seats most likely to be won by either party. The further it is down the list, the more likely a gubernatorial seat is to be won by the Democrats.
For ease of reading, we've broken up our handicapping into three separate pieces. One piece includes every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Republican; another article features the tossup races; and this article includes every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Democratic. We've also compiled a full listing of the candidates and map of ratings in the 36 gubernatorial races here.
Here's the full rundown for the Democratic-leaning contests:
Massachusetts: Open seat; held by Gov. Deval Patrick (D)
The general election can finally proceed now that the Sept. 9 Democratic primary is decided. Attorney General Martha Coakley defeated state Treasurer Steve Grossman and Donald Berwick, the former head of the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services under Obama. The hotly contested primary on the Democratic side has allowed Charlie Baker, the pragmatic 2010 GOP gubernatorial nominee, to stay within striking distance. Baker had a one-point lead in a recent Boston Globe poll, though other polls continue to have Coakley ahead by a mid-single-digit margin. Adding to the uncertainty is the presence of two independent candidates, Jeff McCormick and Evan Falchuk, who could plausibly draw from either of the major-party nominees, and Scott Lively, who could draw at least a few votes from the conservative wing of the GOP. The race today looks closer than it did a few months ago, but we’re keeping it at lean Democratic for now.
Rhode Island: Open seat, held by Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D)
The Sept. 9 finally offered some clarity following a tough Democratic primary. With 42 percent of the vote, state Treasurer Gina Raimondo defeated Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Clay Pell, the grandson of the Rhode Island's late, long-serving U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell. Raimondo begins as the favorite against Cranston Mayor Alan Fung, but the general election should be competitive, in part because Raimondo is no favorite of a key Democratic constituency -- labor unions. We’re keeping this at lean Democratic.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D)
Dayton looks a little more secure than he did a few months ago, thanks in part to improvements in the state’s economic and budget picture. Dayton has put together leads of nine to 11 points over Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson in recent polls. Johnson is a credible but underfunded candidate; we’re keeping this at lean Democratic for now, but it could end up at likely Democratic before Election Day.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D)
The state's deeply troubled health insurance marketplace build-out continues to hurt Kitzhaber, who’s seeking a fourth nonconsecutive term. But the state’s Democratic lean will make it hard for his GOP challenger, state Rep. Dennis Richardson, to topple him, even though the Republican has been steering clear of socially conservative stances that could have proven problematic for many of the state’s voters. Richardson could get a boost from a proposed series of debates against the incumbent, but making up a double-digit deficit won’t be easy.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) (Shift from lean Democratic)
This race only continues to slip away from Corbett -- not least because businessman and former state revenue commissioner Tom Wolf easily won the Democratic primary and has kept building his lead over Corbett. An August poll by Robert Morris University had Wolf up by a stunning 30 points over the incumbent. Subsequent polls showed a narrower gap, but it will be hard for Corbett to fundamentally reinvent himself at this late date; he and his record are simply too well known. It didn’t help that the GOP-controlled Legislature didn’t go out of its way to push along his agenda.
While Democrats face a challenge keeping turnout high in a midterm election, it would take a near-miracle at this point for Corbett to win.
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D)
Hassan, seeking her second two-year term, has chalked up consistent leads of between 10 and 30 points against former BAE Systems President Walt Havenstein. In a state chock full of competitive races this fall -- particularly a U.S. Senate seat and two U.S. House races -- the gubernatorial contest isn’t inspiring much attention.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)
Cuomo’s had a turbulent couple of months, but has it been enough to take down a major figure in a solidly Democratic state? Cuomo has taken hits for his early dissolution of a commission he’d appointed to independently investigate corruption, and faced an unexpected and aggressive primary challenge from Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout after failing to block her from the ballot on a controversial residency challenge. He won the Democratic primary with 62 percent of the vote; now Cuomo faces Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, in the general election. Polls show that Cuomo has a nearly 30-point advantage; a few weeks of bad news could shave that margin a bit, but probably not by a large amount. Astorino's track record of winning in moderate suburban territory is a plus in a statewide bid, and he may have a future in statewide politics, but he is having difficulty raising serious campaign cash at a time when Cuomo has assembled a warchest of more than $30 million. Unless new, serious issues arise, Cuomo should win a second term. Read more about this race here.
Maryland: Open seat; held by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D)
In public polls, Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown leads Republican Larry Hogan, a former member of then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich's cabinet, by about a dozen points, although some internal polling has the race closer. While Brown’s leadership of a poorly designed health insurance website has damaged his record, Maryland is solidly Democratic. For now, at least, we don’t see justification for moving this race from safe Democratic.
California Gov. Jerry Brown (D)
Brown, whose socially liberal and fiscally moderate approach is broadly popular in the Golden State, leads Republican former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari by 20 to 25 points in recent polls. He should have no problem winning another term.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D)
Shumlin, who heads the Democratic Governors Association, won’t have either a top-tier Republican opponent or a Progressive opponent in November. Meanwhile, a Libertarian candidate could drain votes from Republican businessman Scott Milne, dividing the anti-Shumlin vote. If Milne starts to close the current 12-point gap, we’ll reconsider, but for now, this contest remains safe Democratic.