The governor’s afternoon press briefing has become a daily fixture for many Americans as millions remain confined to their homes, anxiously awaiting updates on the new coronavirus pandemic. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has received particularly high marks for his response, accompanied by a surge in his approval rating. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, whose state was at one point the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, has also earned praise for his handling of the situation. Others, such as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, have captured headlines for the wrong reasons.
For some of these governors, including Inslee and Justice, their response to the coronavirus could have near-term electoral ramifications. That’s because 11 states will cast ballots for governor in 2020, and in at least eight of those states, incumbents are seeking reelection. As you can see in the table below, six contests are currently rated as “safe” for one party, but a few could still be quite competitive come November. And any gains Democrats make in 2020 could help to give them the edge nationally, as Republicans currently control 26 of the 50 state governorships. However, Republicans are defending more safe ground in 2020 than the Democrats, so they may be in a better position to extend their narrow advantage.
Most 2020 governor races are in GOP-leaning turf
Governor seats up for election in 2020, as rated by three major election handicappers and by their state’s partisan lean
|State||Incumbent||Inc. Party||Rating||Partisan lean|
|North Dakota||Doug Burgum||R||Safe R||R+33.2|
|West Virginia||Jim Justice||R||Safe R||R+30.5|
|Missouri||Mike Parson||R||Likely R||R+19.0|
|Indiana||Eric Holcomb||R||Safe R||R+17.9|
|North Carolina||Roy Cooper||D||Lean D||R+5.1|
|New Hampshire||Chris Sununu||R||Lean R||R+1.7|
|Washington||Jay Inslee||D||Safe D||D+11.6|
|Delaware||John Carney||D||Safe D||D+13.6|
|Vermont||Phil Scott||R||Likely R||D+24.1|
The most competitive contest is probably the governor’s race in Montana, where Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is term-limited. While both parties will select their gubernatorial nominees on June 2, the 2020 race includes at least one familiar face: Bullock’s general election opponent from 2016, Rep. Greg Gianforte, is running again, and is currently the leading GOP contender.
It may seem surprising that election forecasters at Inside Elections, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report all rate Montana as a toss-up, considering the state’s R+18 Republican lean,1 but Montanans have backed a Democrat in the last four gubernatorial elections. Fortunately for Democrats, governors races aren’t quite as nationalized as Senate races, which means in a state like Montana, a Democrat like Bullock can win reelection by 4 percentage points even though President Trump carried the state by 20 points.
As for the current lay of the land in Montana, the last comprehensive poll of the GOP primary came out in September, and it found Gianforte up 56 percent to 29 percent over Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, the other well-known Republican contender. Gianforte, a wealthy technology entrepreneur and Montana’s lone House member, is perhaps best known for attacking a reporter during Montana’s 2017 special election for the seat he now holds. Nonetheless, he’s favored in part because he’s a strong fundraiser — on top of being independently wealthy — having significantly outraised Fox $2.3 million to $680,000 (though Gianforte’s haul included a $500,000 personal loan). As for the Democrats, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Williams seem locked in a close race. There’s no meaningful public polling, but both candidates have raised about $700,000. Cooney has a lengthy political resume and Bullock’s endorsement, which might give him an advantage, but Williams has strong familial ties to Montana politics even though she hasn’t held public office before. Her father is former Democratic Rep. Pat Williams, who represented part or all of Montana for 18 years.
As for the four other states that aren’t rated as “safe” for either party, North Carolina might be important to watch, as it had the closest gubernatorial election in 2016 — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won by just 0.2 points. He’s up for reelection there in 2020, and although he has led most polling in the race, he could face stiff competition from Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest this November. North Carolina is a relatively inelastic state, meaning it doesn’t swing that much from election to election despite shifts in the national political environment, so with its slight Republican lean (R+5), it’s likely Cooper as an incumbent Democratic governor will face a relatively close race.
New Hampshire and Vermont could also be competitive in 2020, although their Republican governors are pretty popular. In fact, according to the latest polling numbers from Morning Consult (which releases quarterly job approval ratings for every governor in the nation), Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu are the fourth- and fifth-most popular governors in the U.S.
Early polls in New Hampshire give Sununu a big edge against the two leading Democratic contenders, state Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes and Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky. Still, New Hampshire is a very competitive state with only a slight Republican lean (R+2). It also tends to be very sensitive to the national political environment. If the presidential contest is close in New Hampshire, it could influence the down-ballot gubernatorial race.
Next door in Vermont, Scott hasn’t technically announced his reelection campaign, but he’s already been busy fundraising and is favored to win a third term, per election handicappers. On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman has decided to run, and as a member of Vermont’s Progressive Party, he’d definitely be running to the left of Scott. Vermont analysts currently think he is likely to win the Democratic nomination, beating out former state Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. That might be good news for Scott, as he held a big lead over Zuckerman in the first survey of the race in February. Scott’s moderation has made him popular with Democrats, so he might pull in some centrist Democrats turned off by Zuckerman’s left-wing views.
Another state that could be competitive is Missouri, although with its R+19 lean, it’s likely Republican Gov. Mike Parson wins reelection. Elected as the state’s lieutenant governor, Parson became governor in 2018 after Republican Gov. Eric Greitens resigned following a sex scandal. Parson is likely to face off against Democratic state Auditor Nicole Galloway in November, Missouri’s only statewide elected Democrat, but right now it doesn’t seem as if Parson has that much to worry about — he has held double-digit leads in most polls.
The other six states with upcoming gubernatorial races might not have competitive general elections, but at least two will have contentious primaries. The messiest is undoubtedly Utah’s Republican race to replace retiring Gov. Gary Herbert. The leading candidates are Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (who Herbert backs) and former Gov. Jon Huntsman, but Huntsman might already be in trouble.
Utah elections officials rejected more than half of Huntsman’s signatures to make the June 30 primary ballot because of various problems — such as signatures from voters not registered as Republicans — so he still has to collect thousands more in just six days. (The deadline is April 13.) There is one more avenue for Huntsman to make the ballot, though. Up to two candidates can make the primary ballot via the state party convention. However, that might be equally difficult for Huntsman, as GOP conventions are dominated by conservatives and Huntsman’s reputation as a moderate might hurt him. (He served as former President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China as well as Trump’s ambassador to Russia.) But the fact that neither Cox nor Huntsman are polling much above 30 percent means that if Huntsman can’t run, the door might be open for one of the other GOP contenders.
West Virginia’s Justice may also face meaningful primary opposition. Elected as a Democrat in 2016 before switching parties in 2017, Justice has only a mediocre approval rating and has dealt with controversy surrounding some of his business dealings, so it’s not entirely a shock that he drew a primary challenge from former state Secretary of Commerce Woody Thrasher. An internal poll released by Thrasher found Thrasher down by just 8 points (though remember to take internal polls with a grain of salt). A few public polls have given Justice a healthier lead of more than 30 points, but the June 9 primary contest is worth keeping an eye on, especially as Justice’s ham-fisted response to the coronavirus pandemic could affect the race, too.
As for the other four governors mansions on the ballot in 2020, the incumbents there all look set to win reelection: Democratic Gov. John Carney of Delaware, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Republican Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota look like shoo-ins for second terms while Inslee of Washington is well-positioned to win a third. But with seven months to go before the general in November, there is still a lot that can change, and any gains Democrats make could help them win back control of state governorships. We’ll of course be here to keep you updated.