Between the presidential contest and the battle for control of the U.S. Senate, the 12 gubernatorial races are getting very little attention, despite the fact that six of them sit in the Toss Up column today.
Strategists from both parties feel a sense of uncertainty about the outcome of these gubernatorial contests, with one saying that he feels it is equally likely that his party could sweep the close races, or lose them all. This is where the agreement ends. When it comes to the overall political environment and the direction of some of the races, the parties seem to be looking at very different races.
Republicans tend to be more pessimistic about the overall political environment at the state level, with one saying that nearly all GOP candidates experienced a dip in support after the first presidential debate and hadn’t completely recovered. In truth, these candidates haven’t had the space to recover given two more debates and the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump described sexually assaulting women. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the overall trajectory changed, only that Republican candidates have been feeling some of the turbulence generated by the presidential campaign. Democrats, on the other hand, contend they haven’t seen much change in the overall political landscape, at least when it comes to gubernatorial races.
It is entirely possible that both sides are correct in their assessment since gubernatorial contests don’t behave like Senate and House races that tend to be more susceptible to changing political currents. While most Governors represent the red and blue hues of their states, voters are also likely to elect a Governor of the other party. Republicans hold the governorships in solidly blue Illinois and Massachusetts while Democrats hold the highest office in Louisiana and West Virginia, both of which are considered very red states.
Of the 12 gubernatorial seats up, Democrats have to defend eight of them. Of this eight, four are in Toss Up: the open seats in Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia. Democratic U.S. Rep. John Carney will easily win the open seat in Delaware and incumbent Gov. Jay Inslee will win a second term in Washington State. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown is running to fulfill the remainder of former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s term. While Republican Bud Pierce has run a respectable race, Oregon is difficult for any Republican and perhaps more so in a presidential year.
Republicans had high hopes that wealthy tech businessman Greg Gianforte could make incumbent Steve Bullock a one-term Governor, but Democrats have effectively portrayed Gianforte as out of step with Montanans on issues that range from taxes to public access to rivers. Despite a recent public poll that showed a close race, Republicans seem down on their chances here and there aren’t signs that they plan to invest more resources.
Republicans are defending four seats, two of which – the open seat in Indiana and Gov. Pat McCrory in North Carolina – are in the Toss Up column. The open seat in North Dakota that businessman Doug Burgum will win easily, and Utah where Gov. Gary Herbert will cruise to another term, are in the Solid Republican column.
It is entirely possible that Republicans could lose both Indiana and North Carolina, yet win the open seat in very Democratic Vermont. Overall, though, expect minimum change in the overall partisan make up of the nation’s Governors. Republicans currently hold 31, while Democrats have 18, and there is one independent. At the end of the day the outcome ranges from a Democratic pick up of two seats to a Republican pick up of two seats.
INDIANA: This is one race that the parties see very differently. GOP Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb didn’t become the nominee until late July after Gov. Mike Pence joined the presidential ticket, and Holcomb had only been in the Lieutenant Governor’s office since March. He is not well known even among Republicans. His task over the past two and a half months has been to raise his name identification and raise money.
Former House Speaker John Gregg is the Democratic nominee. He was the party’s nominee in 2012, losing to Pence. Gregg had counted on making the race about Pence. Given that Holcomb hasn’t ever held office, Democrats have been left to attempt to tie Holcomb to Pence and decisions Pence made before Holcomb become Lieutenant Governor.
In light of Holcomb’s need to become better known, Republicans have only recently started attacking Gregg on television.
Over the past week or so, this contest has become the battle of the polls. According to a Monmouth University survey (October 11.13 of 402 likely voters), Gregg was ahead of Holcomb, 50 percent to 38 percent. Republicans dispute these results, and released their own poll by BK Strategies (October 11-13 of 800 registered voters) that had the race tied at 42 percent. Finally, a Ball State University poll (October 10-16 of 544 likely voters) gave Gregg a five-point advantage, 48 percent to 43 percent.
What makes these polls difficult to assess is that we know of Democratic polling that is somewhere between the Monmouth and Ball State surveys and Republican polling taken in another race that is more in line with the BK Strategies results. In short, one side is way off.
Even Democrats acknowledge that Republicans have more upside in the finals days, given that Holcomb still has a lot of growing room and that Trump will still carry the state. At the same time, they feel very good about their chances, noting that Trump is not likely to win by the 10 points that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the state in 2012.
MISSOURI: This race is a little unusual in that the candidate touting endorsements from the National Rifle Association and the Farm Bureau is the Democrat, Attorney General Chris Koster. Such endorsements typically go to Republicans. In this case, the Republican is former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens. Greitens views on guns are similar to Koster’s, but as a newcomer to politics, the Republican doesn’t have a record on the issue.
These endorsements are helping Koster make inroads into the more rural areas of the state where GOP candidates tend to run up the score. Democrats have also been outspending Republicans, something that has started to change recently as the RGA has made a multi-million dollar investment in the race.
A Monmouth University poll (October 9-11 of 406 likely voters) has Koster ahead by three points, 46 percent to 43 percent. Koster was winning 85 percent of Democrats, while Greitens was getting 80 percent of Republicans. He had a one-point advantage over Koster among independents, 42 percent to 41 percent.
Both sides express confidence that they will prevail here.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: The Senate race has greatly overshadowed this open-seat gubernatorial contest between Democratic Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern and Republican Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, who is also the son of former Gov. John Sununu and the brother of former U.S. Sen. John Sununu.
The general election didn’t get underway until after the mid-September primary, and compared to the Senate race, there has been relatively little in the way of television advertising and polling. Republicans are attacking Van Ostern as a big government liberal, while Democrats are going after Sununu for his management of his family-owned ski resort and ties to his brother’s lobbying firm.
According to the HuffPollster trend line of the eight polls taken since September 15, Van Ostern is ahead of Sununu, 47.2 percent to 41.4 percent. There appears to be one outlier in this group that may have bumped Van Ostern’s lead. Two of the most recent surveys show a race within the margin of error. A MassInc/WBUR survey (October 10-12 of 501 likely voters) gave Van Ostern a three-point advantage, 47 percent to 44 percent. An UMass/Lowell poll (October 7-11 of 517 likely voters) showed Sununu leading Van Ostern, 41 percent to 39 percent.
The candidates’ favorable/unfavorable ratings in the MassInc poll provide a clue as to the challenge that Sununu faces. He had a favorable rating of 29 percent and an unfavorable rating of 41 percent: 95 percent of voters had heard of him. By contrast, Van Ostern’s name identification was 69 percent and his favorable/unfavorable ratings were 29 percent to 15 percent. In other words, Van Ostern has more room to grow and Sununu really can’t afford to have his negatives go up much more.
So far, Van Ostern has run positive ads, while the DGA and RGA are attacking their respective candidate’s opponents. Sununu hasn’t gone on the air yet.
Today, this might be the tightest of all the races in Toss Up.
NORTH CAROLINA: This race between GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper is easily the most contentious in the country. It has gotten to the point that during a recent debate Cooper said that McCrory is the subject of an FBI investigation, and McCrory called for Cooper’s resignation since no such investigation exists.
Beyond the back and forth between the candidates, there is a lot going on in the background. There is the ongoing controversy over HB 2, the so-called bathroom bill, and the fall out that led the NCAA and the ACC to pull basketball tournament games from the state. There were riots in Charlotte over a police shooting in late September, followed by flooding in the eastern part of the state even before Hurricane Matthew whipped through in early October. The state is also hosting competitive presidential and U.S. Senate contests in which Democrats are outspending Republicans by has much as three to one.
This is easily the most polled gubernatorial contest in the country. According to HuffPollster, there have been 19 surveys taken since September 1. Cooper has been ahead in 14, while McCrory has had the lead in five. As a result, the HuffPollster trend line gives Cooper a 47.9-percent to 44.8-percent advantage over McCrory.
McCrory is running on the state’s economic success while attacking Cooper on his tenure as Attorney General, particularly his handling of the state crime lab. Cooper and Democrats are largely focused on HB 2 and argue that the state’s economy is not as great as McCrory portrays it to be.
Democrats see this as their best pick up opportunity. It is a Toss Up, but it is hard not to put a little bit of a thumb on the scale for Cooper. The final weeks of this race are worth watching closely.
VERMONT: Against all indicators to the contrary, this open seat may be Republicans’ best pick up opportunity. Their nominee, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is extremely well liked with favorable ratings in the low-60s. He is also been able to win in adverse political environments, winning re-election in 2012 with 57 percent even as President Obama was carrying the state with 67 percent.
The Democrat is state Transportation Secretary Sue Minter, who survived a five-way mid-September primary with 49 percent of the vote. Despite the primary, Democratic strategists contend that Minter is still not well known and has room to grow. And, Scott’s electoral history notwithstanding, they argue that they are waging this race on friendly political terrain, noting that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has endorsed Minter. Republicans also bring up Sanders’ endorsement, noting that it didn’t come until mid-October and was bestowed via press release. In truth, Minter is probably a bit moderate for Sanders, but having his endorsement is important for her prospects.
What is missing from this race is a public poll. There has not been a single general election survey released. Our sense is that this is a close race and Scott may be running slightly ahead.
WEST VIRGINIA: This is one of the stranger races of the cycle. There has been surprisingly little spending by either side, neither campaign seems to generate a lot of energy or enthusiasm, and voters seem content to ignore the faults of at least one of the candidates.
The Republican nominee is state Senate President Bill Cole, who is running on his record and the need to bring jobs to the state. His opponent is billionaire Jim Justice, whose business interests range from coal mines to the Greenbrier resort. Justice is also fairly controversial. His companies are the subject of multiple legal actions and fines for safety violations. It has been reported that he owes $15 million in back taxes. Justice says that he doesn’t have the funds to pay the taxes, but he has spent resources on the campaign. If voters have noticed, they don’t seem to care. While Cole and Republicans bring up all these issues, they are also working to tie Justice to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton since she is expected to lose the state by as much as 20 points.
Justice runs on his success in business and his vision for the state while attacking Cole for his tenure as state Senate President and for using his position to bolster his car dealerships by trying to alter the state’s “lemon” laws.
Polling does show Justice ahead. A Repass Research survey for West Virginia MetroNews (October 12-17 of 408 likely voters) gave Justice an 11-point advantage over Cole, 44 percent to 33 percent. Mountain Party nominee Charlotte Pritt got 8 percent, and Libertarian David Moran took 5 percent. Both sides acknowledge that Justice has a lead, but that lead is more likely in the single digits.
In the year of Trump, it seems that voters are willing to overlook a lot. In fact, even though they are from different parties, voters may see Justice and Trump as the same type of candidate articulating very similar messages.
This is a close race, but Justice has a slight advantage.
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