The 11 gubernatorial races this year continue to be shaped by the coronavirus pandemic, with governors becoming unusually influential and high-profile policy figures.
In nine of this year’s 11 races, an incumbent governor is seeking another term: Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. The other two – Montana and Utah – have open seats.
In general, the party that currently controls the governorship has an edge at the moment, except in Montana, a red state that currently has a Democratic governor and that we are rating as a pure toss-up. In several of this year’s races, an incumbent’s aggressive efforts to rein in the coronavirus have boosted their electoral prospects, including Republicans Phil Scott in Vermont and Chris Sununu in New Hampshire and Democrat Roy Cooper in North Carolina.
With this update to our gubernatorial ratings – our first since early July – we’ve moved Scott from Likely Republican to Safe Republican, and we’ve moved Sununu from Lean Democratic to Likely Democratic. In Indiana, we’re moving Gov. Eric Holcomb from Safe Republican to Likely Republican, while in Washington state, we’ve shifted Gov. Jay Inslee from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic.
Beyond Montana, we see only two other seats as fully competitive between the parties: the Democratic-held seat in North Carolina, which we rate Lean Democratic, and the Republican-held seat in Missouri, which we rate Lean Republican.
Because the GOP currently controls 26 seats nationally and the Democrats control 24, the Democrats would need to hold on to their seats in Montana and North Carolina and flip Missouri to pull even with the Republicans at 25 seats. That’s possible, but it’s equally possible that the GOP could expand their lead slightly.
Our ratings are based on reporting with political observers in the states and a look at historical, demographic, and polling data.
Within each of our rating categories, we’ve ranked the states from most likely to vote Republican to most likely to vote Democratic. The goal, after Election Day, is to be able to draw a line in the middle and have all the Republican-won states above the line and all the Democratic-won states below the line.
Here’s our ratings and a thumbnail rundown of how each race stands today:
North Dakota: Gov. Doug Burgum (R)
Burgum, a former businessman currently serving his first term as governor, remains the heavy favorite to win reelection in this solidly Republican state, despite the special hit the state’s oil and gas fields have taken from the coronavirus-induced global economic slowdown. Democratic nominee Shelley Lenz, a veterinarian and former school board member from western North Dakota, is criticizing Burgum for not issuing a statewide mask order during a spike in coronavirus cases, but it’s unlikely a Democrat will be able to win statewide in North Dakota in today’s national political environment.
Utah: Open seat (Republican Gov. Gary Herbert is retiring)
In this Republican state, the hotly contested GOP primary was almost certainly the decisive contest. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox narrowly won the primary with 36% of the vote, edging former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. with 35%, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes with 21%, former Chairman of the Utah Republican Party Thomas Wright with 8%. Some Huntsman supporters pushed him to run as a write-in candidate, but he declined.
Cox’s tenure as lieutenant governor has generally been well-regarded, with a mostly pragmatic approach, but he’s been on the hot seat as head of the state’s coronavirus task force. The Democratic nominee, University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson, has criticized outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision not to issue a statewide mask order. However, it’s unlikely to be a decisive factor. Cox is the overwhelming favorite.
Vermont: Gov. Phil Scott (R) (shift from Likely Republican)
Scott is a moderate Republican who has managed to win twice in deep blue Vermont; he is on track to win a third two-year term in 2020. Scott has won plaudits for keeping coronavirus rates in his state among the lowest in the country.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman won the Aug. 11 Democratic primary by a double-digit margin, but while he had hoped to focus his campaign on the need for a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, and more aggressive energy and environmental policies, the pandemic intervened. Zuckerman has also taken heat for opposing mandatory vaccinations. Worth noting: Vermont governors who run for reelection have always won since 1962. We’re moving this race from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.
Indiana: Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) (shift from Safe Republican)
Holcomb has long been assumed to be a shoo-in for a second term in solidly red Indiana. He won the governorship in 2016 during a compressed electoral cycle after then-Gov. Mike Pence joined Trump’s presidential ticket. As recently as May, Holcomb had a 79% approval rating.
But conservatives in the state are unhappy with Holcomb over his statewide mask order, and that may be weakening the incumbent’s advantage. A Sept. 11 poll shows a tight race between Holcomb at 36%, Democrat Woody Myers at 30%, and the little-known Libertarian candidate, Donald Rainwater, with 24%. Holcomb moved the state to Stage 5 reopening, the final stage in reopening which allows restaurants, bars, fitness centers and stores to operate at full capacity, in late September. Some assumed the tightening race may be a motivation for Holcomb to open the state.
Until further evidence emerges of Holcomb being in trouble, we’re treating this poll as an outlier. And even if Holcomb is losing support, it’s far from clear that either Myers or Rainwater could take advantage of the opportunity. Holcomb is getting lots of paid and earned media and is well-funded. Still, to be safe, we’re shifting this race to Likely Republican, with Holcomb remaining the favorite.
West Virginia: Gov. Jim Justice (R)
The billionaire Justice, originally elected as a Democrat, switched to the GOP – the ascendant party in West Virginia – in 2017 and is now seeking his second term. Justice has faced persistent legal troubles surrounding his business, but he stared down aggressive primary opposition from Woody Thrasher, his former commerce secretary, whom he defeated, 63% to 18%. President Trump won the state by 42 points in 2016, and Democrats have been fading for years in West Virginia.
Ben Salango, a wealthy attorney and a Kanawha County commissioner, won the three-way Democratic primary with 39%. Salango is beginning to get more visibility, but he remains far less known than Justice, who has leveraged his near-daily briefings to remind residents of his efforts to combat the coronavirus. As long as the coronavirus remains relatively controlled in the state, Justice should be in good shape for a new term.
New Hampshire: Gov. Chris Sununu (R) (Shift from Lean Republican)
Sununu, a Republican, has won the governorship of the Granite State for two two-year terms, despite the GOP’s weakened position in New England. The incumbent was already in a strong position for a third term thanks to generally well-received efforts to contain the coronavirus; the state’s late Democratic primary, on Sept. 8, has also helped to solidify his position. In the primary, state Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes defeated executive councilor Andru Volinsky, 52%-48%. Feltes was the establishment candidate (Volinsky was popular on the party’s left) so he’s a credible general election challenger. But he’s largely unknown, and after spending heavily to win the primary, he now has little time in a cluttered political landscape to make an impression on voters. We’re moving this race from Lean Republican to Likely Republican.
Missouri: Gov. Mike Parson (R)
Parson, a longtime legislator, ascended to the governorship after Republican Eric Greitens resigned in June 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. In 2020, he’s seeking a term in his own right against Democratic challenger Nicole Galloway, the state auditor.
In recent elections, Missouri has shifted to the right, but Republican weakness in the suburbs has cut Trump’s margins in recent polls, and to some extent, those trends have also hurt Parson. Meanwhile, Galloway has been a strong fundraiser for a red-state Democratic challenger, enabling her to spend heavily on TV ads. Parson’s ratings for handling the coronavirus haven’t been stellar by the standards of other governors, and in late September, he announced that he and his wife had contracted the virus. If the Democrats are to win, they will need big turnout in Kansas City and St. Louis. Four polls starting in mid-August have shown Parson leading Galloway by between seven and 15 percentage points, but a late-September internal poll for Galloway’s campaign showed her trailing by just two points. We’re keeping this race at Lean Republican.
Montana: Open seat (Democrat Steve Bullock is term-limited and running for a Senate seat)
Montana is a red state, but the Democrats have held the governorship since winning the 2004 election. Now, Bullock’s departure is leaving the seat open.
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte won the GOP primary. The upside for Republicans is that Gianforte is a former tech CEO with deep pockets. The downside is that Gianforte is best known for assaulting a reporter, which resulted in a sentence of 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management classes. Meanwhile, the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, is well-liked and has a long resume in state politics, including service as secretary of state and state senator. But that opens the door for Cooney to be attacked as a career politician.
The latest independent poll, by the New York Times and Siena College, had Gianforte leading, 45% to 39%, with Libertarian Lyman Bishop receiving 4%. That follows a period of strong fundraising and aggressive campaigning by Cooney, and a risk-averse strategy by Gianforte. For Cooney to get all the way to 50% in a conservative state – and in a presidential election year in which a Supreme Court seat is at stake – will be challenging. The race is probably Gianforte’s to lose, but it’s close enough for us to keep it in the Tossup category for now.
North Carolina: Gov. Roy Cooper (D)
Cooper, who narrowly won in 2016, faces Lt. Gov. Dan Forest in a bid for a second term.
Cooper has made a series of tough decisions due to the coronavirus, and so far, North Carolinians seem to be giving him credit for his efforts. Recent polls show Cooper ahead by between five and 19 points, a margin well ahead of Democratic presidential nominee Biden in the state.
Forest has tried to raise his profile by suing Cooper over his handling of the virus; the lieutenant governor has also questioned the effectiveness of masks and said he will not mandate them if he wins. Cooper has responded with TV ads chastising Forest for holding crowded, in-person events.
For now, Cooper’s approach seems to be serving him well. Indeed, in multiple polls, a durable 8% to 12% of voters indicate support for both Trump and Cooper. Because North Carolina is a purple state, we’re not ready to move this race to Likely Democratic, but it’s clearly leaning in Cooper’s direction.
Washington: Jay Inslee (D) (Shift from Likely Democratic)
Inslee, who like Bullock ran for president this year before dropping out, finished first in Washington state’s all-party primary with 50%, far outpacing any Republican.
In the general election, Inslee will face Loren Culp, a pro-gun rights police chief from eastern Washington, who won 17% of the primary vote. This race remains Safe Democratic.
Delaware: Gov. John Carney (D)
Carney, who won his current post by 19 points in 2016, should have no trouble winning a second term against GOP nominee Julianne Murray, a lawyer.
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