Democratic hopes that the country might be on the verge of a blue wave were dashed in Wisconsin earlier this month. In truth, Democrats don't have a lot of opportunities to win back governorships. That's not to say they'll lose too many. There simply aren't a lot of competitive races currently at play.
In this second installment of Hotline's monthly gubernatorial rankings, we examine the races most likely to change partisan control of governor's offices this year. That is, we see North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue's seat as more likely to wind up in Republican hands than Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire's.
Our complex methodology includes a delicate balance of poll numbers (both public and private); fundraising performance; message resonance; buzz on the trail; and, the key ingredient, our gut feelings.
Using those five factors, we answer a fundamental question: Which candidate would we rather be? The ultimate conclusions are subjective, of course. But they represent months of close scrutiny of each race, and our best-drawn conclusions as to where battles for the statehouse are headed this year.
|NORTH CAROLINA (Open D, Gov. Bev Perdue retiring) (Last month: 1)
The fundamentals of the contest between Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and Republican former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory haven't changed much. Each candidate is working to undermine the other's image — Dalton wants McCrory to release his tax returns, McCrory wants to see Dalton's travel records — but the advantage lies with McCrory. That's largely because Walton's boss, Gov. Bev Perdue, is so unpopular. In an era of increased partisanship, it's going to be tough for Dalton to convince North Carolinians to give the Democratic Party another shot, albeit with a different candidate.
|WASHINGTON (Open D, Gov. Christine Gregoire retiring) (Last month: 3)
Attorney General Rob McKenna's lead was never going to hold. As Democrats begin to wrap their heads around having ex-Rep. Jay Inslee as their party's standard-bearer, polls show him closing on the popular Republican. According to recent surveys, it's a statistical tie — or close to it. McKenna must overcome Democratic headwinds, but in a state that hasn't voted Republican for governor since 1980, he presents the party with its best possible shot.
|MONTANA (Open D, Gov. Brian Schweitzer retiring) (Last month: 4)
Former Rep. Rick Hill's GOP primary victory has brought some clarity to a race that has received scant media attention. Republicans nominated their most electable candidate to take on Attorney General Steve Bullock, who coasted through an easy primary campaign and benefits from the continued popularity of Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. The upcoming Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act will give Republicans the opportunity to tie Bullock to unpopular national Democratic policies; Bullock has to encourage the distinction between federal and statewide candidates.
|NEW HAMPSHIRE (Open D, Gov. John Lynch retiring) (Last month: 6)
Former state Sen. Maggie Hassan is the Democratic favorite battling an alternative backed by labor, while Republican attorney Ovide LaMontagne is running ahead of conservative activist Kevin Smith in the GOP race. Both Hassan and Lamontagne have been putting up impressive fundraising numbers, which will pay dividends as the primaries approach. The general-election race may come down to the amount of effort the Democratic nominee, and President Obama, put into outgoing Gov. John Lynch's once-formidable turnout machine.
|VIRGINIA (Open R, Gov. Bob McDonnell retiring) (Last month: 5)
Poor Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. The Republican stood aside when then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell decided he wanted to leapfrog into the top job in 2009, and now a state party ruling that the GOP will nominate a candidate through a convention favors Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Democrats face the prospect of their own primary, although Sen. Mark Warner could clear the field by entering. If not Warner, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe would start as the front-runner, but party strategists are skeptical he can connect with the kinds of voters who have carried Democrats to victory here in recent years.
|NEW JERSEY (R, Gov. Chris Christie) (Last month: 7)
Gov. Chris Christie's popularity ratings are his best friend. Anything that threatens to undermine the Republican's image (see the recent New York Times investigation of the Garden State's halfway-house program and its close ties to Christie himself) gives Democrats an opening in 2013 in what should be a blue state. But lower turnout in off-year elections tilts the scales ever so slightly to the Republican. Democrats would do best to nominate someone from outside Trenton, although their best possible candidate — Newark Mayor Cory Booker — is friendly with the incumbent.
|WEST VIRGINIA (D, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin) (Last month: 8)
No state displays a greater divergence between local and national party than West Virginia — a fact made clear when Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Sen. Joe Manchin refused to say they would back President Obama in November. Republican businessman Bill Maloney has been pummeling Tomblin's indecisiveness. Tomblin has good poll numbers and should be safe, but Maloney has the ability to fund his own campaign. If West Virginians start voting in statewide elections like they do in federal ones, Tomblin could be in for a closer race than expected. As it stands, he's still a safe bet for a full term.
|INDIANA (Open R, Gov. Mitch Daniels retiring) (Last month: 9)
Democrat John Gregg needs to run a perfect campaign to have a shot against GOP Rep. Mike Pence. And with two top staffers leaving in the last month and a steep fundraising disadvantage, the state's former House speaker isn't perfect. Pence remains the heavy favorite to take over for retiring Gov. Mitch Daniels.
|MISSOURI (D, Gov. Jay Nixon) (Last month: 9)
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon should be thanking Republicans for the lengths to which they're going in order to ensure he gets a second term. First, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder dropped out of the race amid a "pantsless parties" scandal. Now, businessman Dave Spence (he of home-ec degree fame) is apparently surprised to meet anyone who doesn't live in St. Louis. Not an auspicious start for his campaign. All that comes on top of Nixon's poll numbers, which show he'd be hard for even a strong candidate to beat.
|NORTH DAKOTA (R, Gov. Jack Dalrymple) (Last month: —)
Republican Jack Dalrymple, who became governor when predecessor John Hoeven won the 2010 Senate race, is heavily favored to win a full term. Given North Dakota's thriving economy — thanks largely to an oil boom — and increasingly Republican tilt, he should have an easy enough time turning back a Democratic challenge from state Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor. As of the end of May, Dalrymple was crushing Taylor in fundraising, having brought in $1.35 million to the Democrat's $304,000.