Between the presidential race and the battle for the Senate majority, the 12 gubernatorial contests on the ballot this year have gotten very little attention. That’s unfortunate because half of the races are in the Toss Up column.
Gubernatorial races that take place in presidential years don’t always bend with whatever political winds are blowing at the top of the ballot. Democrats currently hold governorships in Missouri, Montana and West Virginia; all states that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried easily in 2012. And regardless of whether it is a presidential year, there are solidly red and solidly blue states that elect Governors of the other party. Louisiana, which has a Democratic Governor, and Maryland and Massachusetts, both of which have Republican Governors, are all good examples.
Despite all the oddities of the presidential contest, this year doesn’t appear to be any different. All the races in the Toss Up column would be there regardless of what else was on the ballot.
Democrats have more exposure this cycle. Of the 12 races, Democrats hold eight of them to four for Republicans. Of the Democrats’ eight races, five are open. And, of these open-seat contests, four are in the Toss Up column.
As the ratings stand today, the open seat in Delaware where Democrat Jack Markell is term limited and Washington where Gov. Jay Inslee is seeking a second term are in the Solid Democratic column.
Oregon, where Gov. Kate Brown is running to fill the remainder of former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s term, is in the Likely Democratic column. Oregon is a very blue state and voters may be inclined to give Brown the benefit of the doubt based on her performance, but three polls taken since June 1 suggest a closer race than one would expect. Part of the reason is Republican nominee Bud Pierce, a physician and former head of the Oregon Medical Association. Pierce is more moderate than recent candidates; he supports equal pay and appears to be pro choice. While it is hard to see a Republican doing well in such a blue state, the recent polls and the fact that Brown is still new to many voters make the race worth watching to see what develops. It moves to the Likely Democratic column.
In Montana, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is seeking a second term and is facing a challenge from political newcomer Greg Gianforte, who can put substantial personal resources into the race. While there hasn’t been much in the way of public polling, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump should do well in Montana and Gianforte is a very credible opponent. The race moves to the Lean Democratic column.
The open seats in Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia are all in the Toss Up column. Solidly blue Vermont is the most recent addition to the list, which is likely to surprise those who haven’t been paying attention to gubernatorial contests this cycle. As Democratic as the state is, it does have a tradition of electing as many Republicans as Democrats in the last three decades. Both parties nominated solid and well-matched candidates.
Republicans have four seats up this cycle, which allows them to play more offense than defense. That doesn’t mean that all their seats are safe. The open seat in North Dakota and Gov. Gary Herbert in Utah are in the Solid Republican column. But, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has been in Democrats’ sights since 2012 and they have nominated three-term Attorney General Roy Cooper. Polling has had this race within the margin of error since its inception. The open-seat contest in Indiana is now in the Toss Up column. The seat became open when Gov. Mike Pence became the party’s nominee for Vice President and the party named Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb as the new nominee. As a result, an essentially new race started in late July.
Below are snap shots of where the most competitive races stand today.
INDIANA: Indiana’s gubernatorial contest had to reboot. After Republican Gov. Mike Pence accepted Donald Trump’s offer to be his vice presidential running mate, the Central Committee of the state’s Republican Party had to select a new gubernatorial nominee since state law prohibits the incumbent for running for both offices. They settled on Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb. Holcomb, who has spent much of his career as a campaign strategist and senior staff member to former Gov. Mitch Daniels and U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, became the state Lieutenant Governor in March of this year. This gives him some claim to incumbency yet makes it hard for Democrats to tag him with responsibility for any of the controversies that dogged Pence’s first term.
The Democrat is former Speaker of the state House John Gregg. Gregg was the nominee in 2012, losing the race to Pence by two points. Gregg had been focusing on Pence and will now have to regroup for a race against Holcomb. Still, and despite Holcomb’s short tenure as Lieutenant Governor, Democrats believe that they can tie him to Pence and his record.
The first poll in the new race gives Gregg a seven-point advantage. The Expedition Strategies (D) survey (August 1-3 of 800 likely voters) had Gregg leading Holcomb, 46 percent to 39 percent. In truth, these results aren’t surprising given that Holcomb’s name identification is below 50 percent.
This contest is still in its infancy and needs time to develop, but expect a very competitive contest. It moves to the Toss Up column.
MISSOURI: Now that Republicans have a nominee, this open-seat contest has finally gotten underway. Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster faced nominal opposition for the nomination, winning the primary with 79 percent of the vote. He has been standing on the sidelines watching what was a crowded and sometimes ugly Republican primary race. The GOP primary featured two candidates who have won statewide office, a third who had finished second in a U.S. Senate primary and a fourth who has never run for office. The newcomer, Eric Greitens, won the primary with 35 percent of the vote. Greitens is a Rhodes Scholar, former Navy Seal who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and author of four books who was chairman and CEO of The Mission Continues, a foundation that encourages veterans to heal through public service. He left the foundation to pursue the Governor’s office.
Koster has spent most of his career as a prosecutor. He was elected Cass County Prosecutor and to the state Senate as a Republican. He became a Democrat in 2007, just before mounting a campaign for Attorney General. After winning the primary by just 829 votes, Koster won the general election with 53 percent. He was re-elected in 2012 with 56 percent. One of Koster’s strengths is his ties to rural voters and the farming community; he has endorsements from the Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri Corn Growers and the Missouri Soybean Association, all groups that usually favor Republicans.
Greitens will continue to run as an outsider, calling for change and more transparency in Jefferson City and labeling Koster a career politician who is part of the problem. Koster will run on his record and resume, which he believes makes him more qualified to run the state. Democrats believe that Greitens’ primary opponents inflicted some wounds that they intend to keep on poking. Koster was on the air the day after the primary with television ads. Greitens has yet to return to the airwaves.
There hasn’t been any recent general election polling, but this is going to be one of the most competitive gubernatorial contests of the cycle. The race is in the Toss Up column.
MONTANA: Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is seeking a second term, and Republicans believe that they can give him a race. Greg Gianforte, a tech entrepreneur who started RightNow Technologies, and became wealthy after its sale to Oracle, announced his candidacy in January. He has managed to clear the field of other credible candidates. Gianforte is known to support very conservative causes, which Democrats believe will become his Achilles Heel in the race. They have spent the summer attacking the Republican on public access issues, accusing Gianforte of trying to close access to a river adjacent to his property. For his part, Gianforte is campaigning on job creation and school choice. It’s not entirely clear how vulnerable Bullock is, but Democrats seem concerned enough to launch aggressive attacks on Gianforte or making a substantial reservation for ad time in the fall. Gianforte has already put over $1 million into the race, but he will need to invest much more if he is going to make his case against Bullock. There has been a surprising absence of polling in the race, but both parties appear to be paying close attention. The race is now in the Lean Democratic column.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Once Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan announced that she would challenge first-term GOP U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, this became an open seat and one of four Democratic-held seats in Toss Up. Both sides are hosting competitive primaries. On the Democratic side, Mark Connolly, a financial adviser and former head of the state Bureau of Securities Regulation; Colin Van Ostern, a member of the Executive Council and a former manager at Stonyfield Inc. (yogurt); former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand and three minor candidates are seeking the nomination. Van Ostern and Connolly are considered the frontrunners.
On the Republican side, Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, the son of former Gov. John Sununu and brother of former U.S. Sen. John Sununu, Jr., was the first to announce. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who served as president of the state Senate; state Rep. Frank Edelblut; and state Sen. Jeanie Forrester have all said that they will seek the nod. Both Sununu and Gatsas have name identification and ability to raise money, but Sununu has better name identification and has to be considered the frontrunner.
At this point, neither party has the advantage here going into the September 13 primary. One thing that might change that is the top of the ticket because New Hampshire is one of the states where the presidential nominees matter and could tip the scale a bit one way or the other. For now, though, this race is in the Toss Up column.
NORTH CAROLINA: Of the four incumbent Governors who are currently seeking re-election in 2016, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is the most vulnerable. McCrory won this open seat in 2012 with 55 percent of the vote. His biggest challenge in his first term has been his own party, specifically the Republican-controlled state legislature. Republicans won control of both chambers in 2012 for the first time since Reconstruction, and have put forth a very conservative agenda. Based on his record as Mayor of Charlotte, McCrory isn’t as conservative as that agenda suggests. He has signed some of the legislation that has landed on his desk and vetoed other bills (the legislature has overridden several vetoes). While many have been controversial, H.B. 2, a bill that requires transgender residents to use public bathrooms that correlate to the gender listed on their birth certificates rather than their gender identity.
While Democrats were successfully linking McCrory to the more extreme elements of his party, H.B. 2, which they say is the most anti-transgender law in the nation and is thus harmful to the state’s economy, handed them a big issue. Many votes have moved on from the specific topic, but the law did serve to polarize voters on both sides.
The Democratic nominee is state Attorney General Roy Cooper. Cooper, who won his party’s nod with 69 percent of the vote, is in his fourth term and is very popular with voters. He is in his fourth term, having won the office in 2000 with 51 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2004 with 56 percent and in 2008 with 61 percent. He was unopposed in 2012, meaning it’s been at least 12 years since he has had a competitive race.
For his part, McCrory has also moved beyond H.B. 2 and is focusing his campaign on the state’s economic growth since he took office. Republicans also criticize Cooper for declining to defend the state on a number of issues, including H.B. 2, arguing that he puts politics over the job he is elected to do. This is the most polled gubernatorial contest this cycle. There is very little light between the two candidates, although Cooper got a bit of a bump in the aftermath of H.B. 2 that seems to be dissipating somewhat. Suffice it to say that the race is within the margin of error, and there is little reason to expect that to change. It is in the Toss Up column.
VERMONT: Three-term Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin announced on June 8 that he would not seek a fourth two-year term in 2016. In 2014, Shumlin failed to get 50 percent of the vote; he took 47 percent to 45 percent for GOP businessman Scott Milne. Under Vermont law if no one gets 50 percent, the election is decided by the state House of Representatives. Not surprisingly, the heavily Democratic chamber supported Shumlin’s re-election. The Governor has also seen his popularity wane. Voters have grown restless over the state’s stagnant economy, and the disastrous rollout of the state’s health exchange. The problems that plagued the exchange also put one of Shumlin’s biggest priorities – creating the nation’s first single-payer health care system – in doubt (he lack of a funding source also has played a major role). Given the 2014 results, Republican strategists started to give the race a serious look, but so did Progressives, who talked about running their own candidate. Democrats’ first choice, At-Large U.S. Rep. Peter Welsh, decided not to run, and Progressives backed away from their threat.
The Democratic nominee is Sue Minter, the head of the state Agency of Transportation and a former four-term state Representative. She won the nomination with 49 percent to 37 percent for former state Sen. Matt Dunne, and 9 percent for former state Sen. Peter Galbraith. Minter was appointed to her post at Transportation in 2011 just months before super storm Irene caused massive damage to the state and particularly its roads. Her role in cleaning up after the storm was a big focus of her primary campaign. Among Minter’s claims to fame is that she won two gold medals in U.S. Figure Skating Association competitions while in high school.
The Republican nominee is Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who defeated former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman, 60 percent to 40 percent. Scott worked for a construction firm that he eventually bought from his uncle. He also competes in stock car races every summer, compiling a winning record. He was first elected Lieutenant Governor in 2010 with 49 percent in a five-way race, and was re-elected in 2012 with 57 percent even as President Obama was carrying the state with 67 percent. In fact, Scott was one of only three Republicans to win statewide office in a state Obama carried that year (hat tip: former U.S. Tom Davis). He was re-elected in 2014 with 62 percent.
Minter and Scott are pretty evenly matched and will be equally well funded. That the Republican Governors Association started airing television ads the day after the primary says something about how they view their chances (they don’t spend money in races they can’t win). Vermont is a pretty reliable Democratic state, but voters have a record of electing Republican Governors. This race is in the Toss Up column.
WEST VIRGINIA: While Republicans see this open-seat contest as their best opportunity to pick up a Democratic-held seat in 2016, Democrats aren’t folding their tent here. Billionaire Jim Justice easily won the Democratic nomination with 51 percent of the vote. Justice owns the Greenbrier resort and, according to his bio, is head of 47 different companies that are engaged in businesses ranging coal mining to agriculture to golf courses. To date, he has self-funded his campaign, and overwhelmed his primary opponents on television. Democrats hope that Justice’s pro-coal views and his profile as an outsider will bring back voters who have abandoned the party in recent statewide elections. At the same time, Justice and his companies have been the subject of countless lawsuits, fines and tax liens, providing Republicans with plenty of fodder with which to challenge him. That said, such business problems haven’t proven to be disqualifying ones this cycle. Justice garnered mountains of good press after recent flooding in the state when he opened the Greenbrier to local residents whose homes were lost or damaged by the disaster.
On the Republican side, state Senate President Bill Cole was unchallenged for the nomination. A businessman, Cole has had something of a meteoric rise in state politics. He was appointed to a vacancy in the state House of Delegates in 2010, moved to the state Senate in 2012 and became president of the chamber in 2015. Cole is running on the need to reform state government and economic development.
Democrats have had a lock of the Governor’s office for the last 15 years so this may be the race that tests whether the state has become solidly red. It will also be one of the few places where the presidential race may well create a favorable tail wind for Republicans. This contest should be an epic battle between the parties. It is in the Toss Up column.
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