2010 Governor rankings: For once, Democrats are on the defensive

What a change! In the last cycle, we had 11 gubernatorial races to follow, only three of which were even remotely competitive by the fall of 2008. Now, we have to keep track of a total of 38 races, a stunning 22 of which are currently rated as competitive (i.e. in the categories “lean take-over,” “toss-up” or “lean retention”). And for once, it is Democrats who are on the defensive! 14 Dem-held seats are currently rated as competitive, versus only 8 Republican governorships.

The main source of trouble for both parties are the open seats. Due to most states’ two-term limit laws, 17 Governors are barred from seeking re-election and are leaving their seat open for the taking - a stunningly huge number that should give every political junkie shivers of excitement.

Given that both parties had captured some unlikely governorships in the 2002 cycle, the first major question of the cycle is whether they will even be able to mount any sort of credible defense in states where the other party is typically the strongest: Can Democrats stay competitive in Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming - all staunchly red states? And can Republicans hope to keep Hawaii, Rhode Island and (most importantly) California?

Not all open races are like the aforementioned states, however. Some will be held in swing states, and should thus be the most closely contested contests of the cycle. Unfortunately for Democrats, they will have to defend the three most important of these competitive open seats: Virginia, Michigan and Pennsylvania - the holy triptych of 2010 gubernatorial races. All three are states that have been trending Democratic, but that will only make the GOP more desperate to stop the bleeding and show it can still win statewide. It would constitute progress for Republicans to win even one of these seats, and they already have the slightest of edges in Virginia. (The two others are pure toss-ups.)

And this is not all! Both parties have a number of open seats to defend that might be competitive depending on the opposing party’s recruitment and the national environment. Republicans are favored to hold on to Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina or South Dakota, but they should be careful not to be complacent; the same is true for Democrats in Maine, New Mexico and Oregon.

As if this avalanche of open seats was not enough, we will have to keep an eye on a large number of vulnerable incumbents, starting with four who are sure to face a competitive race: Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Jim Gibbons of Nevada, Janice Brewer of Arizona and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. Those who could face a competitive race depending on recruitment and environmental factors include Colorado’s Bill Ritter, Ohio’s Ted Strickland, New York’s David Paterson, Illinois’s Pat Quinn and Connecticut’s Jodi Rell.

Quite a cycle indeed! And the action kicks off in just a few months, since New Jersey and Virginia’s election is scheduled for November 2009. Here is a table recapping the different ratings. Open seats are italicized, and clicking on a state’s name will take you to its description:

Safe GOP Likely GOP Lean GOP Toss-up Lean Dem Likely Dem Safe Dem
Dem-held KS

GOP-held AK


Lean Take-over (3 D, 2 R)

1. Wyoming (Open)

Dave Freudenthal scored a major upset in 2002, beating a Republican opponent that was expected to prevail. Now, he is term-limited out of office, and Democrats will be hard pressed to hold on to this job in a staunchly red state where Republicans control most levels of power, including huge margins in both chambers of the state legislature.

It is hard to feel passionate about Wyoming’s governorship, and it will still take a while for the field of contenders to shake up. Most names that are circulating for now are Republican, including party chairman Fred Parady, former party chairman Tom Sansonetti or Secretary of State Max Maxfield.

2. Rhode Island (Open)

Rhode Island is just as staunchly blue as Wyoming is ruby red, and Democrats are poised to claim the gubernatorial mansion now that Donald Carcieri is term-limited. The Democrat who attracts the most buzz is David Cicilline, Providence’s openly gay Mayor. Will Cicilline become the first politician to be elected Governor as an already-out gay man? As is expected in such a liberal state, Democrats have a long list of potential candidates, starting with Attorney General Patrick Lynch and Treasurer Frank Caprio.

Meanwhile, it is a testament to the weakness of the GOP bench that one of the only Republican names mentioned is former Mayor Stephen Laffey, a conservative Republican who mounted an impressive primary challenge against then-Senator Lincoln Chaffee in 2006. (Chaffee survived by only 6%.) Other potential GOP candidates are Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and state Rep. Joe Trillo.

The wild card in this race is the possibility that Chaffee jumps in as an independent. (He quit the GOP shortly after his 2006 defeat to then-Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse.) A three-way race could prove very entertaining, but the Democrat would still start the race with the upper-hand: Rhode Island is blue enough that any Democratic nominee starts with a strong level of base support, and Chaffee would bleed votes from the right if the GOP fields a credible nominee like Laffey.

3. Hawaii (Open)

Republicans have never enjoyed much success in Hawaii, and Linda Lingle’s 2002 victory was a major upset that gave the GOP hope it could advance its cause in the state. But very little has happened since then to endanger the Democrats’ hold on Hawaii, and whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee will be favored to win this open seat. (Lingle is term-limited.)

There are a number of Democratic candidates who have expressed interest in a run, including Rep. Neil Abercombie, former Rep. Ed Case, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa. On the Republican side, the most obvious contender is Lieutenant Governor James Aiona; Lingle is popular enough a Governor that Aiona could have a chance if he ties himself to the term-limited incumbent.

4. Kansas (Open)

Popular Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius cannot run for re-election due to term limits, and the GOP is confident it can reclaim the governorship of one of the country’s most conservative states. And Republicans have an interesting stat on their side: Since 1965, a Kansas Governor has never been replaced by a Governor of the same party. Boosting Republican optimism is the possibility that Senator Sam Brownback (who has already announced he will not run for re-election in 2010) jumps in the gubernatorial race. Brownback would obviously be a formidable candidate, and his entry would surely be enough to clear the Republican field in a state in which the GOP’s internal divisions have been the main obstacle to their rule.

Democrats have their own candidate waiting in the wings: Lieutenant Governor Mark Parkinson, who was a Republican until Sebelius recruited him to be on her ticket in 2006 in an effort to exploit the state GOP’s severe ideological rift. If Brownback is running, there might not be much Parkinson can do to stop him, but he would nonetheless be a viable Democratic nominee.

5. Tennessee (Open)

Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen is barred from running for a third term, and the state has swung to the Republican column so much in the past decade that the GOP starts with the upper-hand, making the GOP nomination that much more attractive. Former Senator Bill Frist’s decision to stay out of the race cleared the way for other Republicans to jump in, and Rep. Zach Wamp wasted no time before doing so; Wamp is expected to face a competitive primary, with Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam as his most probable competitor.

This is not to say that Democrats have given up hope of keeping the seat, and they have a number of viable potential candidates - starting with former Rep. Harold Ford and state Senator Andy Berke. Rep. Lincoln Davis was expected to jump in the race, but he recently decided against it after joining the House Appropriations Committee; as for Ford, he ran an excellent Senate campaign in 2006 only to come up short; it should be easier for him to win a state race than a federal one.

Toss-up (4 D, 2 R)

6. Oklahoma (Open)

As the rest of the country colored itself blue in November, Oklahoma anchored itself in the Republican column and became the only state in which John McCain won every single county. With Democratic Governor Brad Henry barred from seeking a third term due to the state’s term limit laws, the GOP is understandably looking forward to contesting an open seat race.

Yet, Democrats have been successful at the state level in recent years, and they currently hold every single statewide office! (They were particularly successful in the 2006 cycle.) Not only does this mean that they have a good bench to choose from, it also suggests that state voters have no problem sending Democrats to Oklahoma City. In particular, Democrats will be looking to convince Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins and Attorney General Drew Edmonson, both of which would be very credible candidates. Republicans have no obvious candidate since they have been shut out of statewide offices; former Lieutenant Governor and current Rep. Mary Falin is most often mentioned.

7. California (Open)

The race is ranked a toss-up because both parties have muddied fields and it will take a long time to determine the shape of this contest. That said, Democrats have the clear upper-hand. The special circumstances of the 2003 recall race helped the GOP score an upset: It allowed Republicans to field a moderate candidate without his having to first face conservatives in the primary, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was then able to capitalize on the discontent felt against Davis. Now, Davis is gone, Schwarzenegger cannot run for a third term due to state term limit laws, and the GOP candidate will be selected by the state’s conservative primary voters.

These problematic circumstances leave Republicans with little comfort as they confront this simple fact: California is one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country (Obama received 61% of the vote), and reclaiming its Governor’s mansion is one of the Democrats’ top priorities in 2010.

There is understandably a very long list of Democrats looking to jump in the gubernatorial primary: Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi has already declared his candidacy, while former Governor Jerry Brown and San Fransisco Mayor Gavin Newsom are all but certain to do so in the weeks ahead. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also harbors gubernatorial ambitions, but he must concentrate on his re-election race this spring before starting to preparing a statewide run. The biggest wild card is Senator Diane Feinstein, who would probably scare away many Democrats (and Republicans) if she were to run; on the other hand, Feinstein is conservative enough that she would be sure to face at least one strong challenger who would run to her left.

Deprived of Schwarzenegger, who can Republicans run whose credentials are moderate enough to win the general election and conservative enough to survive the primary? State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former EBay CEO Meg Whitman are both seen as probable candidates, and the GOP is putting most of its hopes in the latter. But there are a number of question marks surrounding Whitman. For one, will conservatives view her as acceptable - and would Whitman be able to avoid going so far to the right as to endanger her general election chances? Given that she has never faced voters before, how would she stack up to state Democrat’s formidable machine?

8. Nevada (Jim Gibbons)

Jim Gibbons is arguably the most unpopular Governor in the country; polls often show more than 70% of respondents disapproving of his performance. This is certainly not surprising given the number of controversies that have embroiled the former congressman: a very messy divorce that has captivated the state, allegations of sexual misconduct, a federal bribery investigation, shady land deals, undeclared donations, and the list goes on. Needless to say, Gibbons might not even run for re-election - and Republicans are certainly hope he bows out. If Gibbons does run, it is conceivable that he could face a competitive primary if Rep. Dean Heller (who replaced Gibbons in the House in 2006) challenges him for the GOP nomination.

On the Democratic side, there are a number of credible contenders who are considering bids, starting with state House Speaker Barbara Buckley, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, state Treasurer Kate Marshall, Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. But the highest-profile name is that of Rory Reid, son of Senator Harry Reid and the Chairman of the Clark County Commission. Any of these Democrats would guarantee a competitive race, though the party could face a problem if Rory Reid wins the nomination: Harry is also up for re-election in 2010, and it might not be the best combination for two Reids to lead the Democrats’ ticket in the state. After all, Harry does not enjoy the highest of approval ratings.

9. Virginia (open, 2009 contest)

For two decades, the party that is shut out of the White House has won Virginia’s gubernatorial election. Republicans hope that the trend will continue in 2009 so that they can recapture the governorship that has been out of their hand since Mark Warner’s victory in 2001. Yet, the continued growth of blue Northern Virginia has changed the state. The state GOP is on the run after Democrats captured both Senate positions and scored a presidential victory. Thus, the stakes are high in next fall’s gubernatorial race: Yet another Democratic statewide victory after Kaine’s, Webb’s, Obama’s and Warner’s would confirm Virginia’s remarkable transition - and Republicans will do everything to show that they can still win in the Old Dominion.

The good news for the GOP is that Attorney General Robert McDonnell is running uncontested in the primary after Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling’s surprising decision not to seek the governorship. Meanwhile, Democrats are preparing to go through a tough three-way primary that will be resolved in June. Former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe is facing two state legislators, Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds. Whoever moves on to the general election will have his hands full (a recent poll shows McDonnell leading all three Democrats), and this race is likely to remain a toss-up until well in the fall.

10. Michigan (Open)

The Wolverine State has been spiraling downward for much of the decade, and Democrats have gotten their share of the blame since they have held power in Lansing. This transformed Michigan into the most vulnerable blue state for much of 2008, at least until the fall’s economic crisis dramatically undercut McCain’s support among blue-collar voters and transformed Michigan into a cemetery for Republicans.

Despite the 2008 results, Michigan remains an evenly divided state. Both parties control a number of statewide offices, one chamber of the state legislature and about half of the House representatives. On the Democratic side, Lieutenant Governor John Cherry is the favorite, though Flint Mayor Don Williamson has already announced his candidacy; state House Speaker Andy Dillon, state Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero are already rumored as candidates. On the Republican side, there are more high-profile names circulating, including Attorney General Mike Cox, Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Rep. Mike Rogers, Rep. Candice Miller, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, Domino’s Pizza CEO David Brandon.

Given the caliber of the actors involved, the stakes for the 2010 open gubernatorial race are high. Democrats will do their best to put the state out of the swing state column by scoring yet another decisive victory, and Republicans will try to prove that they are still competitive as Michigan is the type of populist state the GOP needs to reconquer power; failing to contest Michigan would prove to be the end of the Reagan Coalition. Much will depend on the economic situation and which party voters have come to blame if conditions have not improved.

11. Pennsylvania (Open)

Pennsylvania’s governorship is one of the biggest prizes of the 2010 cycle, and it is a particularly symbolic one for both parties. The Keystone State has been drifting to the Democratic column over the past decade, but it has still not moved out of the swing state column. Letting this large state become reliably blue is something they simply cannot afford, so (just as in Michigan and in Virginia) Republicans will want to show they can still be competitive in Pennsylvania.

A large number of contenders from both parties are considering jumping in the race. On the Republican side, moderate Rep. Jim Gerlach and conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey could wage an ideological warfare that could boost Attorney General Tom Corbett or former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan. On the Democratic side, a number of statewide officials (Auditor General Jack Wagner, Treasurer Robin Weisserman) could fight against lesser-known Democrats like Tom Knox, a wealthy businessman who is looking to self-fund his campaign.

Needless to say, there are too many candidates on both sides to have any idea of what the race will look like a year from now. When races are this open and with no power of incumbency stabilizing the situation, things are unlikely to settle down before the primaries roll around and much will depend on the national environment and economic conjecture at the time the nominees are selected and introduce themselves to voters. Until, both parties have reason to be hopeful: Democrats will be boosted by 2008’s hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters, Republicans by the fascinating trivia that parties have traded the governorship every eight years since WWII!

Lean Retention (7 D, 4 R)

12. Minnesota (Tim Pawlenty)

Governor Pawlenty barely survived his 2006 re-election race, and Democrats are determined to make up for that loss this year. Pawlenty’s status as a rising Republican star who featured prominently in McCain’s veepstakes and is mentioned as a possible future presidential candidate should make Democrats even more determined to take him down while he is still Governor. Minnesota is blue enough that any Republican incumbent will find it challenging to win re-election; but it is also the type of state in which voters might be particularly open to punishing Democrats if they are not content with the Obama Administration in 2010. In other words, Pawlenty is likely cruise to re-election if the midterm environment is challenging Democrats; but he would be one of the country’s most endangered incumbents if Obama remains popular.

Given the very long list of potential challengers, there is no doubt that Minnesota Democrats believe Pawlenty can be overthrown. House Speaker Margaret Anderson, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak would all make strong contenders - as would other Democrats who are actively considering a run. But the most intriguing name is that of former Senator Mark Dayton, who has launched a statewide tour in preparation for a run. Dayton left his office in 2006 after just one term and without making much of a mark; does time heal wounds?

13. New Jersey (Jon Corzine, 2009 contest)

Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine is unpopular and his early poll numbers are disastrous. Yet, he is only ranked 14th in these rankings. What gives? All you need to know is that Republicans have not won a statewide race since 1997: New Jersey voters always complain about Democratic rule in Trenton and a number of races have initially looked competitive over the past few cycles. Yet, voters always end up lining up behind the Democratic nominee in the final weeks of a general election. Republicans have to find a way to convince voters that it is worth giving them a chance, and they firmly believe that 2009 could be the year. For one, it is far more likely that voters will throw out Democrats at the state level than in federal elections.

Second, the GOP believes it has found a strong candidate: former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie represents the type of anti-Trenton figure Republicans need to run, and he also looks more ready for the job than Tom Kean Jr. did three years (Kean lost the 2006 senatorial race to Bob Menendez). Early polls show dismal numbers for Corzine; a Rasmussen poll even has Christie leading the incumbent! Christie faces a competitive primary, but he should be boosted by establishment support and by the possibility that conservatives split their vote between Franklin Mayor Brian Levine and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan.

14. Arizona (Jan Brewer)

Janet Napolitano’s appointment to Obama’s Cabinet changed Arizona’s political situation by elevating to the Governor’s Mansion a conservative Republican, Secretary of State Jan Brewer. Napolitano was barred from seeking a third term in 2010, so the race was going to be an open seat; now, Brewer (who was expected to run in 2010 even before she became Governor) will be able to run as the incumbent. This is a shame for Democrats, who were making steady progress over the past few cycles and who believed they had a strong enough bench to have the upper-hand in an open gubernatorial race.

The GOP’s task has undoubtedly been greatly facilitated by Napolitano’s departure. Yet, a number of top-tier Democrats (Attorney General Terry Goddard, former state party chair Jim Pederson, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon) are considering the race and the party is sure to mount a strong run. Democrats could be further boosted if Brewer is challenged in the Republican primary; Rep. Jeffrey Flake is mentioned as a potential contender.

15. Oregon (Open)

Governor Ted Kulongoski is term-limited, but Democrats retain the upper-hand in a state that has been trending increasingly blue over the past few cycles. Considered one of the tightest swing states at the start of the decade, Oregon delivered a 16% victory to Obama this past November while throwing out its Republican Senator; the road to a statewide victory looks tough for the GOP. In fact, they might be better off with an open seat than having to run Kulongoski, who is not the most popular of Governors.

Democrats already have a candidate in the race, former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. He could be joined by Rep. Peter DeFazio, one of the most progressive members of the House, and state Senate President Peter Courtney. The Republican bench, on the other hand, is thin and the GOP’s best hope might be to recruit just-defeated Senator Gordon Smith; Oregon voters did just reject him, but he could fare better in a less Democratic year and in a state-level election. Rep. Greg Walden is also mentioned as a possible Republican contender.

16. New Mexico (Open)

Richardson cannot run for re-election in 2010 because of the state’s term limit law, so the Governor’s mansion is open for the taking. But for a while at the end of 2008, we thought that 2010 would see Diane Denish run for re-election: When Obama announced that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson would become his Secretary of Commerce, Lieutenant Governor Denish Denish looked destined to take Richardson’s place. Yet, Richardson had to drop out from Obama’s Cabinet in early January, forcing Denish to cancel her transition preparations. Instead of running as the incumbent, Denish will have to run for an open seat - a far more difficult proposition. For one, she could face a competitive primary as state Majority Leader Michael Sanchez is also mulling a run.

That said, Democrats are favored to retain the governorship. New Mexico took a dramatic swing to the left in 2008, delivering a massive victory to Obama and giving all its House and Senate seats to Democrats. This leaves a thin bench for Republicans to find a candidate; two possible contenders are former Reps. Steve Pearce and Heather Wilson, who waged a fierce battle for their party’s senatorial nomination in 2008 (Pearce went on to be crushed by Tom Udall in the general election). Pearce or Wilson might have more luck in this gubernatorial race, since (1) it is not a federal contest and (2) 2010 is not expected to be as favorable to Democrats as 2008.

17. Alabama (Open)

Alabama remains enough of a blue state at the state level (Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature and they were successful in the 2008 House races) that Democrats have a shot are reclaiming the Governor’s mansion now that Governor Riley is term-limited out of office. In a testament to Democrats’ confidence that they have three viable contenders lining up. Rep. Artur Davis has already announced that he will leave his safe House seat for a bid to become Alabama’s first Africa-American Governor; in the primary, he could face Lieutenant Governor Jim Folsom and Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks.

On the other hand, the South has changed enough for the GOP to start off an open seat race with the upper hand, and that will make the Republican nomination very attractive - and likely very competitive. The GOP has many potentially strong contenders as well, starting with the state’s Attorney General, Treasurer and Secretary of State.

18. Wisconsin (William Doyle)

Unlike most other states, Wisconsin does not bar its Governors from seeking a third term - but that does not guarantee that William Doyle will do so. Doyle has discussed his indecision, and he is expected to announce whether he plans on running for re-election in the coming months. Politicians from both parties are likely to wait for Doyle’s decision before making any definite plans themselves, which is not to say that he should expect Republicans to fold if he runs for re-election.

The GOP believes that Democratic seats in economically hit Midwestern states are vulnerable to challenges, and a number of Republican candidates could jump in whether or not Doyle runs (those include Rep. Paul Ryan, Attorney General Van Hollen and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker). Democrats, meanwhile, have a solid bench as well in case Doyle calls it quits. They could for instance turn to Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton, who has already acknowledged that she is thinking about the race.

19. Ohio (Ted Strickland)

Ted Strickland does not seem like an easy target for Republicans. In 2006, he triumphed to win the open seat, beating then-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell 60% to 39%. Should that not be enough to scare the GOP from targeting Strickland? Unfortunately for Democrats, the dire economic conditions make any Midwestern incumbent somewhat vulnerable, and Strickland is no exception. While the incumbent starts the race with the clear upper-hand, much will depend on the economic conjecture and on Obama’s popularity. If the national environment is tough for Democrats in 2010, Strickland could be one of those finding himself in an uncomfortably tight race.

At the very least, Republicans look certain to field a credible challenger: former Rep. John Kasich is preparing a run, and a recent poll showed him trailing Strickland by only 6%. Another potential candidate is former Senator Mike DeWine, who is said to be also thinking about a Senate run. (He is probably less likely to jump in the latter now that Rob Portman is seeking the Republican nomination.) State Senator Kevin Coughlin is already in the race.

20. Illinois (Pat Quinn)

Even before his December arrest and subsequent impeachment, Rod Blagojevich had a huge target on his back. That Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn has taken his place is thus a good development for Democrats in the perspective of the midterm elections. Yet, we will have to wait for the Illinois political scene to settle down to get a better sense of what to expect in 2010. The first question mark concerns the Democratic field: Will Quinn run for re-election? If he does, will other Democrats who were planning to challenge Blagojevich jump in against Quinn? All eyes are on Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (who is also mentioned as a potential Senate candidate) and former Clinton Secretary William Daley.

The second question mark concerns the Republican field: The Illinois GOP has a thin field, and no obvious candidate to run against these big Democratic names. Their strongest candidate would be Rep. Mark Kirk; but even if the GOP can convince him to run for statewide office, he is more likely to opt for the Senate race. Rep. Peter Roskam or former Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka could also make credible candidates. The third question mark concerns the political environment in 2010: How much will Rod Blagojevich still be talked about? Will the scandal continue making waves, with a trial perhaps scheduled sometime in the months leading up to Election Day? This would certainly be the worst case scenario for Democrats as it would give the GOP an opening to build up the contrast on ethics - provided they can field a credible contender.

21. Colorado (Bill Ritter)

In 2006, Bill Ritter won the open gubernatorial race with surprising ease, crushing rising GOP star then-Rep. Bob Beauprez by 16%. That type of margin should dissuade Republicans from attempting to do too much against the incumbent next year, especially when newly-appointed Senator Michael Bennet looks like a far more vulnerable target. Yet, most Republicans who are rumored to be considering a statewide run are said to be leaning towards challenging Ritter rather than Bennet! Former Rep. Scott McInnis has already ruled out a senatorial run, adding that he is still considering running for Governor; former Rep. Tom Tancredo and Ritter’s 2006 opponent Beauprez are also said to be mulling a gubernatorial run.

At the very least, Ritter dodged a bullet when Attorney General John Suthers announced he would not challenge him; Suthers is the only current office-holder who was mentioned as a possible contender - a fact that underscores the weakness of the GOP’s bench in Colorado after major losses in successive cycles. This race could rise in the rankings if the GOP fields a credible candidate, but Ritter starts the cycle with the upper-hand.

22. South Dakota (Open)

South Dakota Democrats have been strong in congressional elections, but they have been less competitive at the gubernatorial level: The GOP has controlled the Governor’s mansion since 1979. Whether Democrats have a shot at stopping that streak will depend on the decision of Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the state’s sole U.S. representative. Herseth Slandin, who is said to be motivated by the fact that her grandfather occupied the Governor’s Mansion (from 1959 to 1961), is reportedly be planning a run; she would be a strong candidate - perhaps the only Democrat who could make the race competitive (if she does not run, this contest would immediately move down the rankings).

After all, been elected statewide four times already already, suggesting that state voters have no qualms about voting for her. That said, South Dakota remains a staunchly red state, and Herseth Slandin should not expect an easy ride - quite the contrary. The GOP has a number of candidates who are already in the race, starting with Lieutenant Governor Dennis Daugaard, state Senator Dave Knudson and Brookings Mayor Scott Munsterman.

Likely retention (4 D, 4 R)

23. New York (David Paterson)

The Empire State’s budgetary problems and the chaotic process by which David Paterson selected Hillary Clinton’s replacement have hurt the Governor’s standing in the state - and there is reason to believe things could get worse over the next few months as the economic crisis worsens. This logically complicates Paterson’s re-election chances; a recent poll shows the incumbent trailing against Mike Bloomberg and against Rudy Giuliani.Yet, New York’s New York Republicans have lost their footing so badly that it is difficult to see how they can take advantage of the Governor’s trouble. Rudy Giuliani’s name is often mentioned, but his favorability numbers are so low that it is hard to see him winning a statewide race; as for Bloomberg, he is unlikely to run against Paterson a year after running for re-election. All in all, former Rep. Rick Lazio might be the GOP’s best bet to make this race competitive; after all, Lazio is untarnished by the Bush years, since he left office in 2000.

Paterson could also face a competitive Democratic primary if Attorney General Andrew Cuomo jumps in. A recent poll found the Governor leading Cuomo by only 2%. Yet, a Cuomo run remains unlikely: he is probably too ambitious to risk his career on such a difficult primary (not to mention that this would be Cuomo’s second gubernatorial run against an African-American who was favored by the establishment).

24. Connecticut (Jodi Rell)

Jodi Rell remains a highly popular Governor - surprisingly so given the ignominious circumstances in which she rose to her current position. In 2006, she demolished her very credible Democratic opponent (New Haven Mayor Destefano) 63% to 35%, a huge margin obtained in a great year for national Democrats. That certainly suggests Rell is favored to win another term.

Yet, Connecticut is blue enough a state that we should keep our eye on this race. As in every gubernatorial election, all eyes were turned to five-term Attorney General Richard Blumenthal; as usual, Blumenthal announced he would not seek the Governor’s mansion but run for a sixth term as Attorney General. Other Democrats are lining up: former House Speaker James Amann, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz and Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy have all filed paperwork to set up explanatory committees or candidate committees.

25. Georgia (Open)

After successive cycles of sharp decline, Georgia Democrats had somewhat of a renaissance in 2008: Barack Obama got within 5% of John McCain while state Senator Jim Martin forced Senator Saxby Chambliss into a runoff. While this uptick did not result in any high profile wins, perhaps Democrats would have been more successful had they nominated a stronger candidate than the little-known Martin. Much of the 2008 results can be explained by the dramatic increase in black turnout; however, African-Americans did not go to the polls in high numbers in December’s Senate runoff.

Whether Democrats can maintain impressive levels of black turnout in 2010 will surely decide whether they have a chance at recapturing Georgia’s Governor mansion. At the very least, they have some decent contenders to nominate: former SoS and former Labor Commissioner David Poythress is already running, while Thurbert Baker (the state’s Attorney General since 1997) is mulling jumping in.

The GOP’s bench, meanwhile, is much deeper than the Democrats’, and the most likely scenario remains an easy Republican hold. (A parallel could be the open Senate race in 2004; Johnny Isakson faced minor opposition from a freshman Democratic congresswoman and won an overwhelming victory.) Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine are already running; they could be joined by state legislators, Secretary of State Karen Handel or even U.S. representatives (Jack Kingston and Lynn Westmoreland are reportedly considering running.)

26. Maine (Open)

Along with the rest of the Northeast, Maine has been coloring itself increasingly blue and Democrats have the upper-hand in the race to replace term-limited Governor John Baldacci. Yet, a first surprise occurred when former Rep. Tom Allen declined to run. Allen was crushed in the 2008 senatorial run, and his reluctance to go on the attack against Senator Susan Collins was taken as a sign that he intended to run for Governor in 2010. Democrats have enough of a bench that they are sure to field a strong contender. Former Attorney General Steven Rowe is already in the race, and others (like Rep. Mike Michaud) are mulling runs.

On the other hand, the GOP does not have much of a bench left in the state. The Republican attracting the most buzz is perhaps Rick Bennett, who served as the last GOP President of the Maine Senate in… the early 1990s. Democrats might have more to fear from an independent candidate, as Maine has a history of electing third-party candidates: Two of the five most recent Governors have been independents. Lynne Williams is already seeking the Independent Green Party’s nomination.

27. South Carolina (Open)

Governor Mark Stanford is leaving office with national ambitions, so we might hear from him again in the future. First is the race to succeed him, and the GOP undeniably starts with the upper-hand given how much South Carolina has swung to the red column over the past decade. The ease with which Republicans won the open Senate seat long held by Democrats in 2004 testifies to the state’s transformation, and a similar scenario could unfold next year.

In fact, one of the potential Democratic candidates is Inez Tenenbaum, the former Superintendent of Schools who was the Democrats’ unsuccessful candidate in that Senate race. Other contenders include a collection of state legislators and a former state party chairman, Joe Erwin. In other words, Democrats have some names that could make this a competitive race, but no obvious candidate that would offset challenge the GOP’s advantage. That will make the Republican primary that much more sought after, with Attorney General Henry McMaster, Lieutenant Governor André Bauer and Rep. Greshman Barrett leading the charge.

28. Maryland (Martin O’Malley)

Polls have shown that Democratic Governor O’Malley has a low enough approval rating to be vulnerable, but Maryland is a blue enough state that it will not be easy for Republicans to take advantage of that. For one, the GOP has a thin bench in the state, and the only credible candidate who is attracting buzz is former Governor Bob Ehrlich, who was defeated by O’Malley in the 2006 race. Ehrilch has expressed his interest in the race, but he has not given little hint as to what he will ultimately decide. Even if he runs, O’Malley will retain the upper-hand, since it will take massive mistakes on the incumbent’s part for a Republican to win in Maryland; at the very least, this contest would rise in the rankings. If he does not run, Republicans will be hard pressed to find a credible challenger

29. Iowa (Chet Culver)

Iowa might be trending increasingly blue, as demonstrated by Chet Culver’s comfortable victory in 2006 and by Barack Obama’s large victory against John McCain, but Republicans have a long list of potential gubernatorial candidates, starting with Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, State Auditor David Vaudt, U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, or state House Minority Leader Christopher Rants; even Reps. Steve King and Tom Latham mentioned. The first question is, of course, whether any of these Republicans will want to jump in a difficult race against a relatively popular incumbent whose most recent opponent was demolished with unexpected ease.

30. Vermont (Jim Douglas)

Vermont Governors serve two year terms, so Jim Douglas was also on the ballot in 2008, when he received 53% of the vote in a 3-way race. As the Republican Governor in one of the most Democratic states in the country, Douglas will never be fully safe - but he is popular enough to start his re-election race with the upper-hand. Former Lieutenant Governor Doug Racine (who Douglas beat back in 2002) has already announced he will run, and he could make a credible candidate. Other potential candidates include Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and Treasurer Jeb Spaulding, who has acknowledged his interest in the race.

Complicating the picture for Democrats is the possible repeat candidacy of independent candidate Anthony Pollina. In 2008, Pollina got more votes than the Democratic nominee; his entry could once again split the left-leaning vote in 2010. Another possibility is that Douglas retires. The race would immediately rise at the top of these rankings, as Republicans would face a tough time defending the seat and as Democrats have a deep bench of strong candidates.

Safe (5 R, 3 D)

31. Texas (Rick Perry)

Texas has no term limit laws, and Rick Perry will become the longest serving Governor of state history by the time his term ends. Yet, he could finally lose his job in 2010. The danger does not come from Democrats, who have lost all power over the past decade and have not won a gubernatorial or senatorial race in Texas since 1990 and 1988, respectively. Rather, Perry could fall in the Republican primary if Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison jumps in the gubernatorial race.She has long eyed the Governor’s mansion and she was close to challenging Perry in 2006. She is now said to be laying the groundwork for a 2010 run, though the most recent reports suggested she might be reconsidering her plans after Senate Republicans pleaded for her not to leave her seat open.

A primary between Perry and Hutchison would be a bruising battle of the titans, and either would be favored in the general election. Democrats are hoping that Hutchison does jump in the gubernatorial race so they can have a shot at her Senate seat, so do not expect many credible Democrats to run for Governor. That said, the situation might change if Hutchison does not challenge Perry: (1) Democrats might think that the incumbent Governor is more vulnerable than Hutchison might have been and, (2) those who were planning on running for the open Senate seat will have their plans’ thwarted. It is then possible that Houston Mayor Bill White or former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson decide to run for Governor.

32. Florida (Charlie Crist)

Charlie Crist is one of the most popular Governors of the country, a surprising fact given that Governors of large divided states rarely enjoy astronomical approval ratings. A recent poll found 65% of Floridians have a favorable impression of Crist, versus only 23% who have an unfavorable one. With such numbers, Crist is expected to coast to re-election and perhaps position himself for a presidential run in 2012 or 2016. In fact, Crist looks so invincible that no Democrat is planning to challenge him. State CFO Alex Sink has transparent gubernatorial ambitions, but she will wait until 2014, when Crist will be barred from seeking another term due to term limit laws.

The only development that could make this race competitive would be for Crist to jump in Florida’s open Senate race. While it remains very unlikely Crist would consider doing so given how safe and popular he is in Tallahassee, the NRSC has been trying to recruit him ever since Jeb Bush announced he would not run. If Crist were to run for Senate, it would suddenly make the senatorial race into the uninteresting contest and transform the gubernatorial one into a chaotic free-for-all. (Alex Sink would then be likely to seek the Democratic nomination.)

33. New Hampshire (John Lynch)

New Hampshire Governors only serve two year terms, which means that Lynch will be facing his fourth gubernatorial election in as many cycles. He triumphed with more than 70% in 2008, which tells us all we need to know about his popularity and how serious an effort Republicans will be making against Lynch. The race could be far more complicated if Lynch does not run for re-election. He has already announced that he will not run for Senate, but he added “I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 2010.” A Lynch retirement would be an opportunity for Republicans to make a comeback in the Granite State, and it would certainly warrant raising the state in these rankings; but Lynch is still expected to seek re-election.

34. Massachusetts (Deval Patrick)

Democrats have had trouble winning the gubernatorial mansion over the past two decades, as voters tried to avoid giving one party all of the state’s powers. But that weariness is hardly enough for the GOP to have a chance against an incumbent Democrat in one of the country’s bluest states - even if that incumbent has taken a fair number of hits over the past few years. Patrick should sail to a second term. There is some speculation that former Governor Mitt Romney could jump in the race, but it is difficult to see why he would endanger his national career with such a difficult race - not to mention that he has moved too far to the right to have much of a chance of winning in Massachusetts. The GOP’s 2006 nominee, Romney’s Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, could seek a rematch; but she would also be a significant underdog considering how badly she was crushed in 2006.

35. Idaho (Butch Otter)

Butch Otter is in little danger as a Republican incumbent in one of the country’s reddest states. Yet, his first election in 2006 was unexpectedly competitive, and that could be enough to give a (bare) glimmer of hope to Democrats. Boise Mayor David Bieter might be the party’s only hope to mount a remotely competitive race since other state Democrats (including Otter’s 2006 opponent Brady) have already turned out a race.

36. Arkansas (Mike Beebe)

Arkansas might vote Republican in presidential elections, but it remains one of the most overwhelmingly Democratic states of the country at all levels: Democrats hold the governorship, both Senate seats, three out of four House seats, all statewide offices and supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature! Needless to say, the GOP has no bench from which to find a credible candidate - and ambitious Republicans are likely to start by contesting lower-profile offices.

37. Alaska (Sarah Palin)

Sarah Palin failed to seduce the country during the presidential campaign, but Alaska remained faithful to its Governor as Republicans performed unexpectedly strongly up-and-down the ballot. To put it simply, if Alaska voters are not willing to vote against Rep. Don Young (who scored an unlikely upset to survive in 2008), there is no way they are voting against Sarah Palin. On the other hand, Democrats can hope to give Palin enough of a challenge to force her to spend some time in Alaska and prevent her from traveling across the country to help fellow Republicans and to build a national network in preparation for a presidential run.

Former Commissioner of Administration Bob Poe has already jumped in the race. Other potential candidates include 2008 House candidate Ethan Berkowitz. One possibility is that Sarah Palin gives up on the gubernatorial race and challenges Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Senate seat’s primary. That would leave an open race, but Republicans would certainly have the upper-hand: They have a deep bench while Democrats don’t have many credible candidates left after Tony Knowles’s consecutive defeats and Begich’s departure to Washington.

38. Nebraska (Dave Heineman)

When he was elevated to the Governor’s mansion when Gov. Johanns left the position in 2004, Dave Heineman was meant to be a short-term Governor. But he unexpectedly prevailed in a difficult primary in 2006 to win a renomination, demonstrating his appeal to Nebraska’s conservative voters. Heineman is unlikely to face serious opposition, though a couple of Democratic state Senators (Steve Lathrop, Tom White) are reportedly considering a run.

3 Responses to “2010 Governor rankings: For once, Democrats are on the defensive”

  1. 1 Steven J. Berke

    A slight correction about California, specifically LA Mayor Villraigosa–Los Angeles municipal elections are in the spring, not the fall. This year the (nonpartisan) first round is on March 3, and the runoff on May 19. Filing has already ended, and Villaraigosa faces several unknowns; it is very likely that he will get a majority in the first round and be reelected without a runoff.

  2. 2 YSF

    It frustrates the hell out of me that two northeastern states - Connecticut and Vermont - are so incapable of electing a Democratic governor… it really says something about the in-state politics there. Connecticut’s last attempt to run a Democratic governor was a complete disaster, with John DeStefano getting crushed. I wish more Democrats in these states could step up and be charismatic enough to win!

  3. 3 Jaxx Raxxor

    I agree with these ratings, and I do believe that it is in the guberentorial races where the Republicans will have the most success, even if Obama continues to be very popular. You can’t really say that about the Senate, which at least for now looks like the third straight cycle of net GOP gains (and may even no GOP gains at all) and in the house, where I see a 1-3 net gain for the GOP at most at this point (of course House races develop much later and the Democrats will almost certainly be focused on defense this time around). The GOP could get a net gain of up to 5 seats in the guberentorial races, which is very importanant not only for the state and federal redistricting but also for presidential prospects in 2012 and especially 2016 if Obama wins reeleection. The GOP candidates in the coming Presidential cycles will almost certaintly be governors or former governors.

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