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The 15 Governorships Most Likely to Flip The 15 Governorships Most Likely to Flip

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The 15 Governorships Most Likely to Flip

National Journal ranks the gubernatorial seats in the top running for new red or blue paint jobs this year.

(Win McNamee/Getty Images (Hickenlooper); Mario Tama/Getty Images (Corbett))

February 24, 2014

1-Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett (R)


Corbett is the most unpopular governor in the country. Education cuts, slow job growth, and Corbett’s handling of the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky scandal are among the issues contributing to his sagging first-term poll numbers. His weak approval ratings have spurred an array of eager Democrats to jump into the race, and Corbett trails even the least well-known of them in the polls. Although the contested primary will sap Democratic resources from the general election, the intra-party battle has been fairly civil so far. Some Democrats are especially excited about the bids of Rep. Allyson Schwartz and former state Environmental Secretary Katie McGinty, which offer voters a historic opportunity to elect the state’s first female governor. Treasurer Rob McCord and self-funding businessman Tom Wolf are also top Democratic contenders.



2-Maine, Gov. Paul LePage (R)


Whether he’s claiming that climate change is a good thing or making jokes about blowing up the Portland Press Herald building, LePage is known for an aggressive style and off-the-wall statements that would gain national attention if Maine were a swing state. He squeaked to victory in 2010, in a three-way race in which a Democrat and an independent split the vote, and this year’s landscape looks similar. The governor’s best hope this time around is to run the same play against Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Michael Michaud and 2010 independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who is campaigning to the left of Michaud. But voters may have wised up since last time: In a Pan Atlantic SMS Group poll in November, 68 percent of Michaud’s and Cutler’s supporters said they’d consider voting for their second choice in order to defeat LePage. Michaud’s candidacy would make history: He’d be the first openly gay governor in the country.


3-Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R)


Former Gov. Charlie Crist left the Republican Party during his unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2010, and in 2012 he made the full switch to the Democratic Party in hopes of winning his old job back. Crist’s party change—and various new policy positions—don’t seem to have cost him much with voters. He is still viewed more favorably than Scott, and he leads in the polls. Scott won a bitter race four years ago, spending $62 million—almost all of it his own money. This time around, he intends to spend other people’s money, hoping to tally $100 million in campaign contributions; as of the end of January, he’d raised $32 million. Both national parties view the Sunshine State race as among the most significant of 2014, given Florida’s importance on the 2016 map. Neither campaign is in full swing yet beyond fundraising—a contest in which Crist is lagging so far. But Floridians can look forward to a summer and fall of TV advertising and personal attacks from both sides.


4-Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn (D)


Quinn is just as unpopular as the three incumbents listed above, but the state’s Democratic orientation and the uncertainty about the identity of the GOP nominee have for now put a thumb on the scale for Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s successor, who is seeking a second full term. The battle ahead of the March 18 Republican primary has been brutal. Businessman Bruce Rauner has pumped millions of his own money into the race and dominated the airwaves over the past few months. But as the contest has heated up, the other GOP candidates have gotten into the mix, arguing that Rauner, who has donated to Democrats and is close to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, isn’t conservative enough. Meanwhile, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford’s campaign was recently rocked by a lawsuit filed by a former employee, who alleges that Rutherford sexually harassed him. A WGN TV/Chicago Tribune poll earlier this month showed Rauner leading 2010 nominee Bill Brady in the primary, 40 percent to 20 percent.


5-Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe (D)


Each party already has a de facto nominee. Democrats are running with former Blue Dog Rep. Mike Ross, who, unlike embattled Sen. Mark Pryor, won’t have the millstone of a vote for the health care law dragging him down. Ross even touts his vote against the law on his campaign website. The GOP nominee is likely to be former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, best known as a Bill Clinton impeachment manager, 2006 gubernatorial loser, and National Rifle Association point person on school safety. The Republican Governors Association launched its first TV ads of the 2014 cycle here last week. Arkansas has been trending away from Democrats in recent years, but Beebe, who is throwing his full weight behind Ross, remains popular. Polls show the two likely nominees neck and neck, but Ross so far leads the money race, ending the year with $2.5 million to Hutchinson’s $1.3 million.


6-Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D)


Malloy has never been popular in the Nutmeg State. Ever since defeating GOP nominee Thomas Foley by half a percentage point four years ago, Malloy has had consistently mediocre poll numbers. While most new governors enjoy a honeymoon period, Malloy’s approval rating in a Quinnipiac University poll two months into his term was underwater, and he’s never gotten above 48 percent since. The governor hasn’t confirmed he will seek reelection, but Democrats aren’t yet jockeying to succeed him. Foley is back for another run this year, but he faces a crowded GOP field: State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton are running, and state Sen. Toni Boucher is considering a bid. Although Connecticut is a Democratic state, Republicans have done well at the gubernatorial level. Before Malloy’s election, Republicans—including John Rowland, who served time in federal prison for honest-services fraud—ran the state from 1995 to 2011.


7-Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R)


Democrats failed to unseat Walker in a June 2012 recall election, and the odds are against them here. Untested first-time candidate Mary Burke, a former state commerce secretary and Trek Bicycle executive, is Walker’s likely opponent. At the start of the year, the governor held a big fundraising advantage over Burke, and he has led in every poll so far. Voters learned a lot about Walker and his policy stances during the recall election, and they’re either for him or against him. This was reflected in Marquette Law School’s first survey on the race last October, in which Burke polled unusually well for an unknown candidate, at 45 percent. The opportunity to persuade voters is Burke’s, but she’ll need both cash and political savvy to do it. It won’t be easy, but Democrats would love to knock off—or at least dent—Walker ahead of a possible 2016 presidential bid.


8-Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder (R)


Snyder won his first term relatively easily, defeating Democratic nominee Virg Bernero by 18 percentage points in 2010. Since then, Snyder has struck a balance between the moderate, technocratic, “One Tough Nerd” persona he cultivates, and the conservatives in the state Legislature who pushed him to sign right-to-work legislation in late 2012 that angered organized labor. Snyder’s all-but-certain Democratic opponent is former Rep. Mark Schauer, who was swept out of his battleground-district seat in the 2010 GOP wave. Polls show Snyder leading Schauer, but Democrats see Michigan as an important target. The Democratic Governors Association last month launched its first TV ads this cycle, featuring Schauer, direct-to-camera, criticizing Snyder on education. Although Snyder appears unlikely to match his margin of victory four years ago, he’s the favorite for reelection.


9-Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick (D)


Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley and 2010 GOP nominee Charlie Baker are comfortably situated to be their parties’ respective candidates, but Coakley’s path to victory is riddled with potholes. Delegates and party insiders control the Democratic nominating convention in June, and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman is cashing in on loyalty earned over his decades of supporting local candidates. Still, Coakley will likely surpass the 15 percent threshold at the convention to make it to the September primary. Financially, she trails both Grossman and Baker, and the state’s stringent campaign finance laws, which cap individual and PAC donations at $500, could make a fundraising gap tough to bridge. In the end, a Coakley-versus-Baker matchup would feature two candidates who have suffered high-profile losses, and the result would depend on who took better notes on the hard-earned lessons of 2010.


10-Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback (R)


By all rights, Kansas should be safe Republican territory, but it features the sleeper race of the cycle. The Sunflower State has voted Republican in 18 of the last 19 presidential elections (Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 landslide was the exception). Democrats have had success here at the gubernatorial level, though, winning three of the past six elections, including victories for Kathleen Sebelius in 2002 and 2006. Moreover, the Kansas GOP has split in two, with ascendant conservatives purging moderate legislators over the past couple of elections. Brownback is closely aligned with conservatives, and moderates have banded together to oppose his agenda. There are rumblings that some moderate Republicans may even support the Democratic candidate, state House Minority Leader Paul Davis. An automated poll conducted late last year found Davis narrowly ahead of Brownback, while a Brownback internal survey showed the incumbent ahead but well below the 50 percent mark.


11-Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D)


At one point considered a shoo-in for a second term, Hickenlooper watched his approval ratings slide in 2013 after he signed new legislation on renewable energy and on restricting gun ownership. But his job rating rebounded in a Quinnipiac University poll this month, and he leads his Republican competition. Heading the GOP pack is former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who ran in 2010 on the Constitution Party ticket after support for Dan Maes, the Republican nominee, collapsed. Tancredo still carries lots of baggage from his congressional career and 2008 presidential campaign, which was a single-issue candidacy centered on illegal immigration. The other leading Republican candidate is outspoken Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who proudly carries the nickname “Honey Badger” for his persistence on red-meat GOP issues such as voter fraud. The Hickenlooper-in-2016 chatter has died down, but in recent months his 2014 prospects have been looking up.


12-Ohio, Gov. John Kasich (R)


Kasich knocked first-term Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland out of office in 2010, and he won’t be easy to unseat in 2014. Kasich’s likely Democratic opponent, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, has run a less-than-stellar campaign thus far. He dumped his first running mate, state Sen. Eric Kearney, within a month of naming him to the ticket, after it was revealed that Kearney and his wife owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes. The governor entered the year with a big fundraising lead, with $7.9 million on hand to FitzGerald’s $1.4 million. Democrats will use the successful repeal of the GOP-sponsored antiunion measure SB 5 in 2010 and a wave of new abortion restrictions as fuel to fire up FitzGerald’s liberal base. But Kasich’s willingness to buck his party by expanding Medicaid will allow him to run as a “compassionate conservative” who can appeal to the swing state’s perennial middle.


13-Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer (R)


Arizona’s Constitution limits officeholders to two terms, but it’s unclear what that means for Brewer, who was elevated from secretary of state to governor when Janet Napolitano became Homeland Security secretary. Brewer won her first full term in 2010, and any attempt to run for a second seems likely to end up in court. If she opts out, the race will be wide open. Former state Board of Regents Chairman Fred DuVal has the benefit of a relatively clear Democratic primary field, while six Republicans would duke it out in the August primary. GOP candidates include Secretary of State Ken Bennett, state Treasurer Doug Ducey, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, former Go Daddy executive Christine Jones, state Sen. Al Melvin, and Frank Riggs, a former House member from California. The state’s rightward slant gives the eventual Republican nominee the edge, but whether Brewer runs or not, the GOP will have to contend with her controversial legacy.


14-Hawaii, Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D)


No Democrat should have to worry about winning reelection in a state where President Obama took more than 70 percent of the vote in 2012, but there could be trouble in paradise for Abercrombie. The former congressman beat then-Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona by 17 points in the Republican wave year of 2010, but Abercrombie’s approval ratings have since taken a dive. He now faces a primary challenge from state Sen. David Ige and the threat of a rematch with Aiona in the general election. A Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll earlier this month found Abercrombie ahead of Ige in the primary by single digits but 8 points behind Aiona in the general. Hawaii is a tough state to survey accurately, and Democrats say they don’t think the poll reflects the likely electorate in either race. Further complicating matters is former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hanneman: The Democrat says he may join the race as a Republican or an independent.


15-Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R)


Democrats’ chances in the Lone Star state are exactly what this 15th-place ranking implies: a long shot. State Sen. Wendy Davis became a national sensation after her 11-hour filibuster last June over restrictive new abortion legislation, which ultimately passed. The money that will be poured into this race is what will keep it on our radar screen, as will the involvement of Democratic groups using the excitement around Davis’s candidacy as a launching pad for efforts to engage and register Hispanic voters they hope will help make the state competitive in years to come. Davis’s best hope is that Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott makes a series of unforced errors, but he is a seasoned politician whose Texas-sized campaign war chest contains more than $29 million. As was the case with her filibuster, Davis’s candidacy may prove to be largely symbolic in this traditional GOP stronghold.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Wisconsin Democratic candidate Mary Burke's vote share in a Marquette Law School poll last October.

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