Even in today’s supervolatile, Trumpified environment, defeating an incumbent governor remains one of the hardest things to do in politics. And that’s bad news for Democrats in 2016.
Sitting governors have won reelection in 50 of their past 53 attempts. And while both parties have opportunities to elect new state leaders in 2016, Democrats’ best shots run through GOP governors seeking reelection in North Carolina and Indiana. Republicans, meanwhile, are chasing a pair of Democratic-held open seats in West Virginia and Missouri, which have both grown more GOP-leaning in recent years. Open, Democratic-held governor’s mansions in New Hampshire and Vermont also beckon.
Still, it’s not quite that simple for the GOP: Govs. Pat McCrory in North Carolina and Mike Pence in Indiana have had uneven first terms marked by conflict with fellow Republicans as well as Democrats over state policy, social issues and ethics — which is why they are so close to the top of this list.
Campaign Pro combined those micro and macro factors to rank the most competitive gubernatorial races of 2016 by the likelihood that a state will switch partisan control. Here are the Top 10 gubernatorial elections to watch next year:
1. West Virginia (Open, Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin retiring)
Even as President Barack Obama lost the state by double digits in 2008 and 2012, Democrats Joe Manchin and Earl Ray Tomblin, respectively, held onto the Mountain State governorship, thanks to personal popularity and a distinctly West Virginia Democratic brand. But Tomblin scraped by with only the barest of majorities in 2012, and West Virginians kicked out all but one Democratic member of Congress in that period. And next door in Kentucky, another state where the local Democratic brand is far stronger than the national one, voters still elected a Republican governor in 2015.
Auto dealer and GOP state Senate President Bill Cole, who led Republicans to capture the upper chamber of the West Virginia Legislature in 2014, will try and take that political conquest a step further in next year’s governor’s race. It may fall to Jim Justice — a coal, timber and resort magnate, and West Virginia’s richest man — to try to preserve Democrats’ foothold in Appalachia next year. Using his fortune, Justice has already started airing positive TV ads, and his campaign has released polls showing him with a healthy lead. But Justice also faces a primary challenge from the more liberal state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, who also has a longer history in the party. (Justice joined only days before announcing his run.)
2. North Carolina (Republican Gov. Pat McCrory running for reelection)
After years of cajoling by state Democrats, Attorney General Roy Cooper will finally run for governor in 2016, challenging GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s bid for a second term. Democrats believe that the Republican-controlled state government has drifted so far right that voters are ready to reject it. That record almost brought down former state House Speaker Thom Tillis’ Senate candidacy in 2014 — but, of course, he beat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, anyway. Democrats hope the story will be different in a presidential year.
Early polling has McCrory, saddled with mediocre job approval ratings, locked in a margin-of-error race with Cooper. McCrory also lost the first round of the cash race this summer, and Cooper has $3 million in his campaign account to McCrory’s $2.4 million. As we mentioned above, it’s very difficult to knock out an incumbent governor. But McCrory also faces a brewing scandal over prison contracts he helped secure for a campaign donor. If that scandal develops further, it could turn into a rare fireable offense for voters.
3. Missouri (Open, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon retiring)
With Nixon leaving office, Democrats have turned to Attorney General Chris Koster to keep the governorship. Koster, a former Republican who broke with the party over issues including stem cell research, has raised impressive sums, and strategists think his background as a prosecutor plays well in a state rattled by racial tensions.
Republicans are generally in ascendance in Missouri, but their primary picture is muddled. State Auditor Tom Schweich started a campaign last year before committing suicide, and there are now four candidates — businessman John Brunner, former Navy SEAL and nonprofit executive Eric Greitens, former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder — with legitimate chances at the nomination. Kinder is the best-known, while Hanaway has the backing of billionaire conservative donor Rex Sinquefield — no small thing in a state with no limits on political contributions — and Brunner can self-fund, after giving his losing 2012 Senate campaign $8 million. Greitens, a Rhodes Scholar, has a dream résumé, but he’s already facing attacks from fellow Republicans about his conversations with Washington Democrats about running for Congress under their banner in 2010.
Koster has the résumé and cash necessary to continue Democratic control of the governor’s mansion, and Republicans’ late, crowded primary won’t help them. But the GOP has found sweeping success in Missouri in the Obama era.
4. Indiana (Republican Gov. Mike Pence running for reelection)
Pence and Democrat John Gregg are set for a rematch of 2012, when Pence triumphed with just under 50 percent of the vote. Pence appeared to be a safe bet for reelection until earlier this year, when a new religious freedom law he signed set off a massive dispute with both gay rights-supporting liberals and moderate, business-oriented Republicans, some of whom began to talk openly about unseating Pence in 2016. The governor’s approval ratings slipped dramatically in the aftermath.
The key question: Is the 2016 election a year too late for Pence’s political opponents to take advantage? The governor has signaled he won’t go easily: He has already indicated he will air negative ads for the first time in his career in order to defeat Gregg. And while the Republican is wounded, rematches are a tough slog.
5. New Hampshire (Open, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan running for Senate)
Republicans are extremely confident about their most likely nominee, Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, the latest scion of New Hampshire’s pre-eminent Republican political family. If he were running against the popular Hassan, he would have an uphill climb. But she decided to seek the Senate, and Democrats are already facing a primary: Executive Councilor Chris Van Ostern has locked up progressive groups’ support, and former state regulator Mark Connolly is also in the contest. Stefany Shaheen, a Portsmouth City Council member and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s daughter, could also jump in.
New Hampshire is a tough climb for Republicans in a presidential year, and they’ve won just one governor’s race in the past 20 years. But the Sununu family track record is too strong to ignore, though GOP primaries in the state can be tricky.
6. Montana (Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock running for reelection)
Though Montana might look like a conventional red state from the vantage point of a presidential election year, Bullock has strong approval ratings and his party has had remarkable success in recent statewide elections. But Bullock just lost his second lieutenant governor of his first term, who resigned after clashing with other members of the administration. And GOP strategists are confident tech billionaire Greg Gianforte can break Democrats’ hold on Helena. Democrats, meanwhile, think Gianforte’s outspoken social-conservative views could make him unelectable, even in a red state like Montana.
7. Vermont (Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin retiring)
Again, from a conventional perspective, Vermont is among the states least expected to end up on a list like this. But last year, Shumlin needed the state Legislature to push him into office in 2014 after failing to win a majority of the vote, and GOP Lt. Gov. Phil Scott was the most popular candidate or potential candidate in the most recent Castleton poll. Scott, who has been elected in his own right, is Republicans’ preferred candidate, but he will need to defeat businessman Bruce Lisman in a primary. Democrats will likely see a primary of their own between former state Sen. Matt Dunne and former state Transportation Secretary Sue Minter.
8. Washington (Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee running for reelection)
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s approval numbers are far from strong, but Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant has struggled to raise money and it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to mount a true challenge in a blue state in a presidential year. The GOP has been locked out of Washington’s governorship since 1980; only South Dakota Democrats have gone longer without electing a governor.
9. Oregon (Democratic Gov. Kate Brown running in a special election)
Democratic Gov. Kate Brown took over in early 2015 after newly reelected Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned under an ethical cloud, and Brown has since consolidated support within the Democratic Party, either scaring off or co-opting potential primary challengers. Republicans would welcome a candidate beyond self-funding doctor Bud Pierce, who has already begun airing ads.
10. North Dakota (Open, Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple retiring)
Incumbent GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple isn’t running for reelection, but Democrats’ chances of winning this race likely disappeared the moment Sen. Heidi Heitkamp decided not to run. Her brother, Joel, a former state senator and radio host, is still considering a bid. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is the likely Republican nominee, but he will need to top state Rep. Rick Becker in a primary first.
Not ranked: Delaware, Utah
There are interesting story lines in both states, where, respectively, Beau Biden’s death shook Delaware Democrats and Utah’s two-term GOP governor faces a primary challenge. But neither race is expected to be competitive next November.
Visit the Campaign Pro Race Dashboard to track the candidates and consulting firms engaged in the top House, Senate, and gubernatorial races of 2016.
Powered by WPeMatico