New ratings find large number of competitive Governor’s races

In 2010, 37 states will hold Governor’s races, and at the moment the incumbent party can be said to be safe in only five of them! That is not due to any attempt on my part to pile on races in the “likely retention” category: A full 22 states are here classified in the most competitive categories: 13 are “leans” and 9 are “toss-ups.” And the stakes are high for each and every contest: Governors who are elected next year will play a decisive role  in the next round of redistricting, and they will oversee major policy fights - starting with the potential debate over whether states should opt-out of a public option.

Most of the country’s biggest states are holding all-out battles, if not in the general election than at least in the primary. One year before Election Day, it’s tough to predict with any certainty who will lead California, New York, Texas, Florida and Ohio come 2011; and let’s not even talk about states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Minnesota that are holding wildly unpredictable contests that could end up in the victory of any of a half-dozen contenders.

There is no mystery as to why the gubernatorial landscape is so competitive. First, 21 states will host open seat contests - a large number that isn’t just due to term-limits since 5 of the retiring executives could have run for another term. Most of these vacancies create golden pick-up opportunities for the opposing party. It will be tough for Democrats to hold on to Oklahoma, Wyoming and Tennessee; Republicans face an uphill climb in defending California, Vermont, Rhode Island and even Minnesota.

Second, the economic crisis and states’ fiscal troubles have plunged most governors in depths of unpopularity: This applies not only to David Paterson and Jim Gibbons, but also to incumbents like Ted Strickland and Chet Culver who at the start of the year looked to enjoy a strong standing. As such, the traditional incumbency advantage is melting away, making most races competitive. Even in states in which the opposing party is unsure to field a top candidate, some governors are facing credible primary threats - Texas, Illinois and New York, for instance.

Interestingly, while Democrats might be facing an increasingly treacherous landscape in the Senate and House battles, the two parties have maintained balance in what they can expect at the gubernatorial level. (At the moment, 5 Dem-held and 4 GOP-held states are rated as lean takeover; 5 GOP-held and 4 Dem-held states are rated as toss-ups.) Whatever happens in congressional elections, it looks likely that Democrats will have a number of major prizes to celebrate at the state level and perhaps even regain their footing in the South, where they have a number of opportunities; as for Republicans, they are in a good position to make major inroads in the Midwest, which would position them well for 2012.


Safe GOP Likely GOP Lean GOP Toss-up Lean Dem Likely Dem Safe Dem
Dem-held Kansas Iowa


GOP-held Idaho


The full rankings are available here.

Likely Take-over (0 D, 1 R)

1. Kansas (Open)

The 2010 cycle is shaping up to be a disaster for Kansas Democrats, who have been busier sabotaging themselves than searching for viable contenders: Kathleen Sebelius’s departure to Washington left Mark Parkinson in charge of the Governor’s Mansion, giving him an opportunity to run as an incumbent or at least appoint as Lieutenant Governor a politician who could use that position as a springboard for 2010. Not only did Parkinson rule out a run of his own, but he tapped as LG a man who immediately declared he would seek no office. That’s of course not surprising, considering Parkinson used to be the state’s Republican chairman until Sebelius chose him as her running-mate in 2006. This bizarre series of events leaves as the Democrats’ sole candidate retired businessman Tom Wiggans, who should be no match for Sam Brownback. The retiring Senator has also gotten rid of the threat of a primary challenge from SoS Ron Thornburgh, which makes him the overwhelming favorite.

Lean Take-over (4 D, 4 R)

2. Rhode Island (Open)

Republicans are all but certain to lose the governorship of one of the bluest states in the country - but that doesn’t mean Democrats are certain to pick-it up: Everyone expects former Senator Lincoln Chaffee to run as an independent, and he should be a formidable candidate thanks to his personal popularity, to his appeal among centrists and to the likelihood that he’ll emerge as the de facto GOP nominee, since Republicans are failing to field any credible contender. That said, Chaffee lost his re-election race in 2006, raising obvious questions as to his electability. Treasurer Frank Caprio and Attorney General Patrick Lynch are both likely to run in what will be a less crowded primary than we expected (Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts and Providence Mayor David Cicilline surprisingly ruled out the race in the spring). One potential obstacle for Democrats: The primary will be held very late (September 14), which could make it difficult for the winner to prepare for the general election.

3. Wyoming (Open)

The situation in the country’s smallest state is rather confusing. Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal is term-limited out of office, but he might file a lawsuit challenging the state’s term-limit law. Why might that succeed? In 2004, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling overturning term limits for state legislators, and it presumably would be willing to apply it to gubernatorial terms. If Freudenthal pursues this course of action and succeeds, he would be able to run for re-election, and he is popular enough that the seat should stay in Democratic hands.

Yet, if Freudenthal announces that he’ll retire peacefully - or if courts refuse to overturn the law - Republicans would be in an ideal position to reclaim the seat. The state is so conservative that a Democratic victory in an open seat can only come as a stunning upset (just as Freudenthal’s 2002 victory was), and Republicans have enough prominent candidates (Secretary of State Max Maxfield, state Speaker Colin Simpson and many others) that whoever wins the primary would be heavily favored. Furthermore, Freudenthal’s indecision could hurt his party’s ability to rally around another contender - especially given that it should take many months for the state Supreme Court to issue a decision.

4. Hawaii (Open)

To hold on to the governorship of one of the country’s bluest states, the GOP will need the type of perfect storm that rarely repeats itself. Lieutenant Governor Duke Aiona might be a credible candidate (and he’ll be able to count on term-limited Governor Linda Lingle’s popularity) but Democrats are fielding two well-known and well-liked politicians, neither of whom risks upsetting the state’s partisan balance: A summer poll conducted by Research 2000 confirmed that Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann would start with an edge. That said, a bruising Democratic contest could help Aiona given how late Hawaii holds its primaries (September). There is reason to think Abercombie and Hannemann won’t go easy on each other: The two go way back, having faced each other twice in the 1980s!

5. Tennessee (Open)

An open seat in a Southern state, a tough year for Democrats anywhere in the country - let alone in a state that’s been drifting further to the right every cycle and strong Republican candidates: That’s a clear recipe for a Republican takeover. Whoever wins the primary between Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, Rep. Zach Wamp and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam will be favored heading into the general election. That said, it wasn’t that long ago that Tennessee was still loyal to its Democratic roots - and that can matter in a state race more than in a federal one. State Senator Roy Herron, businessman Mike McWherter (the son of the former governor), state Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle and former state House Majority Leader Kim McMillan are all running, so Democrats will be in a position of staying competitive.

6. Vermont (Open)

Governor Jim Douglas’s unexpected August retirement gave Democrats a golden opportunity to reclaim a position that has escaped them ever since Howard Dean left the Governor’s Mansion in 2002. Not only is Vermont one of the most liberal states in the country, but Democrats also have a strong bench to choose from from: Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, former LG Doug Racine, former state Sen. Matt Dunne, state Sen. Susan Bartless (all of whom are already running) would all start the general election favored. Yet, Republicans should be competitive thanks to the candidacy of Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie, who has been elected every two years since 2002. Complicating matters is the fact that the Progressive Party is a major force in the state (in 2008, its gubernatorial nominee came in front of the Democratic candidate) and Democrats have to take Progressive demands seriously if they want to recapture the governorship.

7. Oklahoma (Open)

It’s a testament to Oklahoma voters’ willingness to buck their federal voting patterns in local races that Democrats hold every single of the state’s statewide offices! Heading into the 2010 open seat race, they have two top-tier candidates already running: LG Jari Askins and AG Drew Edmonson. Yet, Oklahoma is as staunchly conservative state as any - and that’s enough to give the GOP an edge in any open seat race. Republicans were not weighed down by their lack of statewide bench: A former Lieutenant Governor, Rep. Mary Fallin managed to impose herself as the GOP’s heir apparent - especially after former Rep. J.C. Watts announced he would not run. Whether she faces Askins or Edmonson, don’t expect Fallin to win the race in a walk but the state’s partisan leanings gives her the early edge.

8. California (Open)

The Golden State was supposed to host a blockbuster of a Democratic primary. Instead, Loretta Sanchez, John Garamendi, Antonio Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom dropped out one by one, leaving Attorney General Jerry Brown as the last man standing. Senator Diane Feinstein is still making noise about jumping in, but at this point it is safe to call Brown the presumptive nominee. He will get to stockpile millions he can use to pummel his Republican opponent as soon as one emerges, bloodied and in financial difficulty. Indeed, Meg Whitman, Steve Poizner and Tom Campbell are locked in an unpredictable 3-way GOP race that has already gotten very heated.

It was never going to be easy for Republicans to defend the governorship of one of the country’s most emblematic blue states, and this asymmetrical situation should only aggravate matters. At first considered the frontrunner, Whitman stumbled due to reports about her nonexistent voting record; the GOP’s best shot might be to nominate the relatively moderate Campbell, but whether he could financially compete in an expensive state like California is an open question. In any case, early polls are showing Brown heavily favored to win against any of them; the reputable Field Poll’s October 2009 survey had him leading by margins ranging from 20% and 25%. Yet, Brown should be careful not to wait for the general election to start offering detailed proposals as to how he’ll fix the state and not to let the GOP dominate the airwaves in the meantime.

9. Iowa (Chet Culver)

Culver has suddenly become one of the most vulnerable incumbents of the 2010 cycle - a startling evolution for someone who won his first term such surprising ease. The recession, which is bound to have more political consequences in the Midwest than elsewhere in the country, damaged his approval rating - and the GOP moved in for the kill by recruiting the most formidable challenger possible: Terry Branstad, who served as Iowa Governor from 1982 to 1998. While Branstad has some vulnerabilities for Culver to exploit (will voters want to reach back more than a decade to satisfy a desire for new leadership? will conservatives reconcile with a man they almost defeated in 1994?), two recent polls showed Culver trailing by the sort of margins incumbents rarely recover from: Rasmussen has Branstad leading 54% to 34%, Selzer 57% to 33%.

You can continue reading the rankings here.

7 Responses to “New ratings find large number of competitive Governor’s races”

  1. 1 Cliff

    I disagree with you on only two states: NY and TX.

    NY is not going R. Even if Rudy Giuliani gets in, Cuomo will beat Patterson, and will then beat Giuliani. Nobody else in the state stands a prayer. The ONLY way this prediction is wrong is if Patterson somehow gets the nomination, but the only way he can do that is literally to kill Cuomo. And I’m not even sure that would let him keep the nomination.

    TX is not going D. No matter how bloody the primary between Perry and Hutchison is, the winner of the primary will win. Bill White might be a credible candidate but he simply cannot get 50%+1 in Texas.

  2. 2 desmoinesdem

    The irony is, social conservatives saved Branstad in the 1994 GOP primary. Fred Grandy was the more moderate candidate and was campaigning primarily against Branstad’s fiscal mismanagement.

    Here’s a poli-sci journal article about that primary:

    Now many Iowa wingnuts think Branstad is too moderate. Partly that’s because he didn’t deliver on a lot of the social issues during his final term as governor, when the GOP also controlled the Iowa legislature.

  3. 3 Cliff

    Ignore my post, I didn’t see the “click below” to finish the thing.

  4. 4 Patrician

    Cliff, your take on NY and TX is right on the money. In TX, Perry should win the primary rather easily if the conservative base turns out…as it usually does.

  5. 5 Maurice

    Overall, a great analysis. The one thing I object to is putting Utah as “Safe”. Granted, it probably is, but if you put a state like Maryland as “Likely”, Utah should be too. And Ralph Becker is more likely to jump in, more popular, and more electable.

    And no offense, but living in Idaho, that’s rather a funny typo:
    “Butch Odder”

  6. 6 Cliff


  7. 7 Taniel

    Cliff, it’s coming, it’s coming!

    Maurice, Utah is the case in which it might be competitive if Dems get their top recruit - and it’s not like that seems that likely - which explains why I put it in the safe category. And I’ll correct your governor’s name - interesting typo indeed!

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