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, 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. Meanwhile, since the last handicapping, the GOP has benefited from Democratic disarray in Hawaii.
In all, eight seats held by each party are competitive (plus one GOP-held seat in Pennsylvania that is now rated likely Democratic, meaning it’s not “competitive”). Currently, the Republicans hold the lead in governorships: 29 seats to the Democrats’ 21. So, as before, the GOP’s substantial lead in governorships seems relatively secure, though it could certainly shrink a bit.
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 higher it is on the list, the more likely a gubernatorial seat is to be won by the Republicans.
For ease of reading, we've broken up our handicapping into three separate pieces. This piece includes every seat that is currently leaning, likely or safe Republican; another article features the tossup races; and the last 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 GOP-leaning contests:
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R)
Sandoval, one of the GOP's fresh Latino faces, faces Bob Goodman, a retired state economic development commissioner. But Sandoval has found success governing as a moderate; even though Obama won the state twice, Sandoval is up by more than 20 points in the polls. Observers agree the race is over.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R)
Haslam is safer than ever, with only Democratic retiree Charlie Brown standing between him and a second term. The incumbent leads by well over 20 points. In fact, Haslam is so secure that he’s considering a bid to expand the state’s Medicaid program under Obamacare – a step unusual for a solidly Republican state.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R)
The Democrats are weak in Wyoming, but at least they have a candidate -- Pete Gosar, a state education board member and former party chair. It won’t matter much -- polling has Mead up by at least 20 points, leaving the incumbent a lock for reelection.
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R)
Daugaard faces Democratic state Rep. Susan Wismer, but she hasn’t cracked 40 percent in polls. Daugaard should cruise to an easy reelection.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R)
Bentley remains a virtual lock to win a second term against former U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith, who was elected to Congress as a Democrat, later switched to the GOP, and then switched back to the Democratic Party before his gubernatorial run this year. Any Democrat would have difficulty running in a state as red as Alabama, and Griffith’s double party-switch only complicates that task.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R)
In her quest for a second term, Fallin faces term-limited Democratic state Rep. Joe Dorman. It’s hard to imagine her losing, but some polls have had Dorman closer than other Democratic gubernatorial challengers in highly Republican states.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R)
The race still heavily favors Branstad, now serving his fifth nonconsecutive term as Iowa governor. The incumbent’s approval numbers are solid, and the challenger -- Democratic state Sen. Jack Hatch -- is not well-known and is hobbled by a financial disadvantage. Polls have Branstad up by between 12 and 17 points.
Texas: Open seat; held by Gov. Rick Perry (R)
Democratic hopes that onetime filibuster phenom Wendy Davis could succeed Perry have flagged – a combination of her weaker-than-expected candidacy and the simple realization that Texas, in 2014, is not about to elect a Democratic governor. Any credible Democrat today should win 40 percent to 42 of the vote, but getting to 45 percent -- let alone to 50 percent – is not in the cards. The campaign by longtime Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott is well-funded and has run a largely error-free campaign. Polls have margins between Abbott and Davis in the high single digits.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R)
Otter is seeking a third term and facing Democrat A.J. Balukoff, a Boise businessman and school board member. While there’s speculation that Otter’s support in this solidly Republican state could be soft, most expect GOP voters to come home and support the incumbent. Otter has assembled double-digit margins in polls.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) (Shift from lean Republican)
Once considered vulnerable, Kasich has had a charmed two years of improving economic fortunes. Then, in August, his once-credible Democratic challenger, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, saw his campaign unravel amid reports that police found him in a car at 4:30 a.m. with a woman who was not his wife, and the revelation that he spent years without a valid driver's license. FitzGerald has reportedly shifted focus toward generic voter-activation efforts to protect downballot races where the Democratic candidates may still have a chance. As for the gubernatorial seat, though, it’s now safe Republican.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R) (Shift from safe Republican)
Parnell, who served half the term won by Sarah Palin before securing a full four years in 2010, remains the favorite for re-election in solidly Republican Alaska, despite the late emergence of an unusual fusion ticket. Republican-turned-Independent Bill Walker, the former mayor of Valdez, and Democrat Byron Mallott, the former mayor of Juneau, had been running separately, but they decided to team up under the logic that a Parnell would win a three-way race. A two-way race – with Walker running for governor and Mallott running for lieutenant governor – gives them a fighting chance of uniting the anti-Parnell vote, but it will still be an uphill climb. The challengers will be hard-pressed to break through a crowded campaign season, headlined by a tight U.S. Senate race and ballot measures on the minimum wage, mine oversight and marijuana.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R)
State Attorney General Gary King won the competitive Democratic primary, but Martinez, a national Republican star, has a big fundraising lead and is ahead by margins in the high single digits. King is seen as an uninspiring challenger; despite running in a generally Democratic state, he is expected to face difficulty getting beyond about 45 percent. A wild card is whether Alan Weh, a wealthy GOP challenger to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, starts getting traction; this could energize Democratic turnout in Udall’s defense.
Nebraska: Open seat; held by Gov. Dave Heineman (R) (Shift from safe Republican)
Pete Ricketts, a former U.S. Senate candidate whose father founded TD Ameritrade and whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, won a hard-fought GOP primary for this open seat. He still has an edge in this solidly Republican state, but we’re moving the race from safe Republican to likely Republican, due to the contrast between the deep-pocketed Ricketts and former University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook, who has a longstanding agricultural background. Republicans are running ads attacking Hassebrook, something they wouldn’t do unless they were at least a little worried. The Democrat may also benefit from a minimum-wage initiative on the ballot. The race is still Ricketts’ to lose -- he’s up by margins in the high single digits – but he won’t be able to coast.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R)
Haley still remains more vulnerable than any Republican ought to be in a state as red as South Carolina. Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who came close to defeating Haley in a 2010 open-seat contest, was already a strong candidate, but now he has a spoiler -- deep-pocketed Independent Tom Ervin. This race remains fluid, so we’ll keep it at lean Republican.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) (shift from tossup)
Deep-pocketed Republican challenger Bruce Rauner has established a consistent lead in summer polling over incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn, reaching 13 points in an August Sun-Times poll. Since winning a narrow victory in the primary, Rauner has portrayed himself as an outsider battling corrupt political insiders and has limited his exposure to the press. In addition to the state’s severe budget problems, Quinn has been hurt by questions about political hiring in a state agency and inquiries into a state funded anti-violence program in Chicago that received criticism in a state Auditor General report. Quinn’s campaign has focused on portraying their opponent as an out of touch multi-millionaire (an acknowledgement by Rauner that he’s a member of a $100,000 wine club was a gift to Democrats) and has drawn attention to his record of business dealings.
Meanwhile, labor unions, a key Quinn alley, have highlighted Rauner’s anti-union positions. Quinn will have sufficient money to run an effective campaign, but in all likelihood he will still be outspent by Rauner. Illinois is a solid blue state, and the combined Democratic-labor ground game, energized by Rauner’s primary rhetoric, should be strong. Still, the argument for change will be powerful. While this contest is far from over, we’re shifting this race from tossup to lean Republican.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) (Shift from likely Republican)
Deal, a Republican in a strongly Republican state, holds an edge, but it’s narrow. Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, has made inroads, and Deal’s path to victory is hampered by the candidacy of Andrew Hunt, a Libertarian who’s been drawing about 7 percent of the vote in three-candidate polls. Both Deal and Carter have led polls in recent months. If Democrat Michelle Nunn keeps it close in the race for an open U.S. Senate seat, Carter could benefit. We’re shifting the race shifts from likely Republican to lean Republican.