A lot of focus this election season is trained on the battle for Capitol Hill. And rightly so, with the majority in the Senate up for grabs and Democrats hoping to avoid another harmful midterm election in the House. But there are also a host of gubernatorial battles being waged this year. In fact, the midterm elections every four years mark a bonanza of statehouse contests. Thirty-six of the nation’s fifty states will be choosing their chief executive this November.
In 2010, the last midterm election, thirty-seven gubernatorial elections produced a staggering 17 partisan takeovers – 11 by Republicans, 5 by Democrats, and independent Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. Add to that count several states in which sitting governors were term-limited, decided against running for reelection, or lost their primary, and you have a remarkable statistic. Twenty-six states — over half the states in the country — welcomed a new governor in 2011.
So do we have the same kind of shakeup in store in 2014? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of interesting and competitive races to enjoy this year.
Here’s a look at a baker’s dozen of states which have at least a decent chance of electing a governor from a different party on Election Day. I’ve ranked them and categorized them according to their level of vulnerability.
Easy Pickup (1 Republican)
- Pennsylvania – Republican Tom Corbett is struggling mightily under approval ratings that make President Obama’s numbers look enviable. Former Pennsylvania Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf is the prohibitive favorite to earn the takeover.
Lean Toward Takeover (2 Democrats)
- Arkansas – If Democrat Governor Mike Beebe were free to run for a third term, this race would not be on this list. As it turns out, however, he is term-limited, and the door is open for a Republican to win the statehouse this year in this ever-reddening state. Asa Hutchinson, the former congressman, is the GOP nominee. All three polls taken recently give him leads ranging from 3 to 6 points over Democrat Mike Ross, another former congressman.
- Hawaii – Democrat Governor Neil Abercrombie has a treacherous re-election path ahead of him. First, he must contend with a strong primary challenge from state Senator David Ige. Then, if he survives, he faces a daunting three-way race with Mufi Hannemann, former Democratic mayor of Honolulu, siphoning off votes as an independent. And, to top it off, the Republican nominee, former Lt. Governor Duke Aiona, is ahead in the polls. Despite Hawaii’s very deep blue hue, Aiona appears well-positioned to earn the governorship.
True Toss-up (3 Republicans, 2 Democrats)
- Illinois – Polls give Republican Bruce Rauner the lead here, but Governor Quinn has a history of finding a way to come out on top. And deep-blue Illinois is not the best place for a Republican, even in gubernatorial races. Though Rauner currently leads in the polls, I’m not confident in his chances. One reason: Polls put Republican Bill Brady almost five points ahead of Quinn in 2010. Quinn won by 0.5%.
- Maine – Republican Paul LePage, like Neil Abercrombie, faces a three-way race in his reelection bid this year. But that’s not unusual in a state that has given at least 20% of the gubernatorial vote to an independent in all but one election since 1994. Democrat Congressman Michael Michaud is LePage’s biggest threat, however.
- Florida – This race is probably the most visible, anticipated and important statehouse election on this year’s slate. Former Republican Governor Charlie Crist, who ran for the Senate as an independent after losing the 2010 GOP Senate primary to Marco Rubio, later switched to the Democratic Party. He is now challenging Republican Rick Scott for a ticket back to the governor’s mansion. In a major battleground state, this race is truly a toss-up.
- Connecticut – Democrat Dan Malloy won the statehouse here in 2010 by less than one point over Republican Tom Foley. One word tells why this race is on this list in 2014 — rematch. Connecticut is a blue state to be sure, but Foley’s likely nomination gives Democrats a headache in the Nutmeg State. The latest polls put Foley in the lead, further illustrating Malloy’s difficult road ahead. This one will be close again.
- Michigan – In 2010, Republican Rick Snyder capitalized on term-limited Governor Jennifer Granholm’s poor approval ratings to score an open-seat gubernatorial takeover. Four years later, Snyder must contend with sub-par approval himself as he faces a strong challenge from former Congressman Mark Schauer.
Lean Toward Hold (4 Republicans, 1 Democrat)
- Wisconsin – Scott Walker famously survived a recall election in 2012 by a slightly larger margin than his first gubernatorial win in 2010. In 2014, the Republican faces another challenge in this Democrat-leaning battleground state. Educator Mary Burke is the likely Democrat nominee. Polls show Walker and Burke locked in a very close battle. Two surveys were released in July. One gave Walker a one-point lead. The other had Burke up by the same margin.
- Kansas – Even though it is a deep-red state, Kansas has a propensity for Democrat governors. Half of the chief executives elected here since 1966 have been Democrats. So, it’s not terribly surprising to see this race on the competitive list. What is surprising is that Sam Brownback, who has won two Senate races and the 2010 gubernatorial race by an average margin of 36 points, is the vulnerable incumbent.
- Georgia – Republican Governor Nathan Deal hopes Georgia’s conservative tilt will overcome the name recognition of his Democrat opponent, Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. Deal must also overcome the pall of scandal which clouds further his reelection prospects. For now, he maintains the upper hand, but this race might become a full-fledged toss-up before too long.
- Colorado – Democratic incumbent John Hickenlooper enjoyed comfortable leads against a crowded Republican field throughout the primary season. Recently, however, now that Colorado Republicans have settled on former Congressman Bob Beauprez, he has fallen back into a very close battle.
- New Mexico – Republican Susana Martinez made history four years ago becoming the first female Hispanic governor in U.S. history. This year, she’s facing a tough reelection battle against New Mexico Attorney General Gary King. Though she still enjoys a “Likely R” label from Charlie Cook, a recent Rasmussen poll shows her exactly tied with King, 43-43.
Bonus: Three potentially competitive races: Arizona, Ohio, Oklahoma.
As things currently stand, Election Projection is projecting Republicans to pick up Arkansas, Hawaii and Illinois and Democrats to gain Florida, Maine and Pennsylvania. That works out to a net change of zero. However, with so many very close gubernatorial contests out there, I’m sure the map will be in constant flux between now and Election Day.
(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)