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The 7 Governorships Republicans Could Pick Up This Year

Democrats have a great chance at picking up gubernatorial seats in November — but that doesn’t mean they won’t need to defend a few of their own.

Last week, we showed why polls of governors races released so far should be taken with a grain of salt. This early in the campaign, a qualitative assessment — based on things like base partisanship, candidate quality and, yes, the consensus of polls — provides the most honest read of each race. By this method, roughly 25 of the 36 governors races on the 2018 ballot rate as potentially competitive, based on a consensus of ratings from nonpartisan handicappers The Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Inside Elections.1 Today, we’ll run through the 10 states with Democratic and independent incumbents. (We’ll address the more numerous Republican-held seats in a subsequent article.)

Note that you won’t find blurbs for California, Hawaii or New York below. That’s because Democrats are virtually assured of holding those governorships2 — but that doesn’t mean those states are short on gubernatorial intrigue. All three could sport interesting primaries. In California, an epic NorCal-SoCal faceoff is brewing between Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Thanks to the state’s unusual primary system — whereby the top two vote-getters regardless of party advance to November — that fight could go all the way to the general election. In Hawaii, Democratic Gov. David Ige’s middling approval ratings attracted a primary challenge from Colleen Hanabusa, who represents half the state in the U.S. House.3 Finally, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who is viewed with suspicion by the state’s progressives, could face a celebrity primary challenger in actress Cynthia Nixon.

The other six Democratic governorships, as well as the nation’s lone independent governor, are at some risk of flipping to Republicans.

Alaska

Cook Political Report rating: toss-up
Sabato’s Crystal Ball rating: toss-up
Inside Elections rating: lean independent

Gov. Bill Walker is a complicated guy: a former Republican and current independent who was elected governor as the de facto Democratic candidate in 2014. (That year’s Democratic nominee, Byron Mallott, dropped out and joined Walker’s ticket as lieutenant governor.) It’s far from certain that Walker will benefit from the same type of coalition in 2018. Democrats still get to nominate a gubernatorial candidate through their regular primary process. In the worst-case scenario for Walker, that candidate would be heavyweight ex-Sen. Mark Begich, who is notorious for jumping into campaigns at the last minute. In the best-case scenario for Walker, it would be Walker himself, as the state party is trying to engineer it so that independents are eligible to run in the Democratic primary.

Even if Walker gets to face the Republican nominee one-on-one (most likely one of ex-state Sen. Mike Dunleavy, businessman Scott Hawkins or former Alaska House Speaker Mike Chenault), he’ll be very vulnerable: With a job approval rating of 29 percent (compared with 55 percent disapproval), he’s the least popular governor up for re-election in 2018.

Colorado

Cook: lean Democratic
Sabato: toss-up
Inside Elections: lean Democratic

One of the few governorships in a swing state that Democrats held on to in both 2010 and 2014, Colorado’s office is an open seat after two terms of (possible 2020 contender?) John Hickenlooper. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis — a multi-millionaire who sold several successful dot-com startups — can spend whatever it takes to win and is the likely front-runner in at least the Democratic primary; he led an early poll with 24 percent, compared with single digits for opponents like Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy.

The Republican primary was thrown wide open after proto-Trumpian immigration hawk Tom Tancredo recently dropped out. (Tancredo said he didn’t want to win the primary but lose the general, something polls indicated was a real possibility.) State Treasurer Walker Stapleton (George W. Bush’s second cousin), Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and businessman Victor Mitchell (who says he’ll spend $3 million of his own money on the campaign) will fight for the votes Tancredo left behind. Polls haven’t yet given us a clue how a Republican less divisive than Tancredo might fare in the general election, but given that Democrats have won three straight presidential and three straight gubernatorial contests in Colorado, the blue team likely has a slight advantage.

Connecticut

Cook: toss-up
Sabato: toss-up
Inside Elections: lean Democratic

Connecticut may be the one blue state where the environment actually favors Republicans: Outgoing Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy is less popular in the state than President Trump. Both parties’ primaries are a free-for-all: Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin led the Democratic field in fundraising in the last quarter of 2017, with not-quite-official-candidate-yet Susan Bysiewicz, a former secretary of state who has repeatedly been thwarted in her attempts for higher office, not far behind. However, millionaire Ned Lamont — who became a progressive hero back in 2006 when he toppled then-Sen. Joe Lieberman in a primary — jumped into the race last month and can certainly self-fund.

The Republican field includes a troika of mayors: Danbury’s Mark Boughton, Shelton’s Mark Lauretti and (on an exploratory basis) New Britain’s Erin Stewart. Boughton has raised $272,000 and may have the highest name recognition from his two previous runs for governor, but Lauretti, former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker and state Rep. Prasad Srinivasan have all raised more than a quarter million themselves.

Minnesota

Cook: toss-up
Sabato: lean Democratic
Inside Elections: likely Democratic

The fact that Minnesota hasn’t elected a Republican to any statewide office since 2006 obscures the fact that it is actually a swing state. In this case, though, the Democratic field to replace retiring Gov. Mark Dayton is seen as much stronger than the Republican one.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and Republican Jeff Johnson (the GOP’s 2014 nominee) are their parties’ respective front-runners in terms of fundraising and grassroots support, as measured by support in last week’s precinct caucuses, but they’re not exactly on equal footing. As of the end of 2017, Walz had raised $1.1 million to Johnson’s $263,000, and attendance at Democratic caucuses was 2.5 times that of Republicans. Even former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, the Democrats’ second-most prolific fundraiser, raked in more money than all six Republican candidates combined.

The GOP could receive a boost soon, however, in the person of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The 2012 Republican presidential candidate is reportedly considering jumping into the fray, helping to explain why Republican donors haven’t yet opened up their pocketbooks. Pawlenty would immediately marshal the cash and local goodwill to make this race competitive, but so far it has been all Democrats.

Oregon

Cook: likely Democratic
Sabato: likely Democratic
Inside Elections: likely Democratic

Not since Victor Atiyeh in 1982 has a Republican been elected governor of Oregon. Will the streak end this year? In a pro-Democratic environment nationally, probably not, but it’s worth noting that a pair of polls put Democratic incumbent Kate Brown just a few percentage points ahead of various Republican challengers, including moderate state Rep. Knute Buehler and pro-Trump businessman Sam Carpenter. Past Republicans with Buehler’s profile have used the generous support of Oregon’s business community to outraise their Democratic opponents, and Republican Chris Dudley came as close as 1.5 points to a win in 2010 — but that was a year when the wind was at Republicans’ backs. In short, we’re skeptical, but keep an eye on it.

Pennsylvania

Cook: lean Democratic
Sabato: lean Democratic
Inside Elections: lean Democratic

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf spent eight figures out of his own pocket to get elected by 10 percentage points in 2014 (a strong year nationally for Republicans). At least two Republicans are trying the same tactic in 2018. State Sen. Scott Wagner, who owns a waste-management firm, lent or donated $7.2 million to his own campaign, while business consultant Paul Mango gave himself $6.7 million. Like Wolf did in 2014, both are attempting to build up cred with the GOP primary electorate by saturating the airwaves with campaign commercials months before the primary. Two other Republicans, state House Speaker Mike Turzai and lawyer Laura Ellsworth, have war chests that would be respectable in another state but put them far behind in Pennsylvania.

Wagner has performed the strongest so far in GOP state committee straw polls that help determine the party’s official endorsement, leading observers to dub him the primary front-runner. He also has a crucial geographic advantage: A resident of eastern Pennsylvania, he’s the only one of the four who is not from Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County.

For Wolf’s part, polling shows that Pennsylvanians are hardly devoted to the incumbent in a general election, but with $11 million in the bank, Wolf will have the resources to make his case.

Rhode Island

Cook: likely Democratic
Sabato: lean Democratic
Inside Elections: solid Democratic

Nothing comes easy for Gov. Gina Raimondo. First elected in a three-way race in 2014 with only 41 percent of the vote, the incumbent has fought with her fellow Democrats in the state legislature. As state treasurer, Raimondo made enemies in the state by pushing through a painful pension overhaul, and the voters of Rhode Island have cooled and definitely not warmed to her governorship after an embarrassing mishap over, of all things, the state’s tourism slogan. According to the latest Morning Consult poll, her approval/disapproval spread in the Ocean State sits underwater, 40 percent to 47 percent.

Republicans Allan Fung, the mayor of Cranston, and Patricia Morgan, a state representative, are vying for the right to take Raimondo on, but the eventual GOP nominee’s path to victory may be complicated by Trump-supporting independent Joe Trillo’s candidacy. Another problem is that the three challengers combined to raise just $212,000 in the fourth quarter of 2017. In the end, Raimondo’s $3.35 million war chest and Rhode Island’s anti-Trump mood (his 32 percent approval rating in the state is even worse than Raimondo’s) may end up saving the Democrat from herself.

Footnotes

  1. Where I am also a contributing analyst.

  2. They’re all rated as “safe” or “solid” Democrat by the three handicappers.

  3. And that was before Ige bungled the response to Hawaii’s false missile alert.

Nathaniel Rakich is a politics and baseball writer whose work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic and The Boston Globe.

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