The Governors’ Mansions Most Likely to Flip in 2014

Operating outside the national political climate, some unexpected states will feature hard-fought governor’s races.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett speaks during the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of US President Abraham Lincolns historic Gettysburg Address on November 19, 2013 at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Karyn Bruggeman and Scott Bland Alex Roarty
Aug. 14, 2014, 2:02 a.m.

While Wash­ing­ton has been swept by waves of red and blue over the past few elec­tions, the na­tion’s gubernat­ori­al con­tests are still un­pre­dict­able. States that seem “safe” for one party or the oth­er in a pres­id­en­tial or con­gres­sion­al race will of­ten flip the oth­er way in a gov­ernor’s race. Loc­al angles, per­son­al­it­ies, and policies are less tethered to what people think about the pres­id­ent. As a res­ult, the latest edi­tion of Hot­line‘s gov­ernor’s race rank­ings fea­tures one of the most con­ser­vat­ive states—Kan­sas—and one of the most lib­er­al states—Hawaii—mov­ing up the list of loc­al struggles in which the gov­ernor’s man­sion could slip through the dom­in­ant party’s hands.

That loc­al ef­fect is part of the reas­on why the gov­ernor’s races look more fa­vor­able for Demo­crats than the down-bal­lot Sen­ate and House races in 2014. Also, plenty of Re­pub­lic­ans are up for reelec­tion after the GOP wave of 2010 swept them in­to of­fice. But there’s still li­ab­il­ity for Demo­crats, as two of Pres­id­ent Obama’s strongest states con­tin­ue to look very vul­ner­able for his party. The rank­ings are best as­sessed in tiers: In the top four races, the in­cum­bent party looks to be the un­der­dog; the next six or so look like toss-ups; and the party in power is still favored in the fi­nal six entries.

Here is our list of the top gov­ernor’s races of 2014, ranked in or­der of most to least likely to change parties:

1) Pennsylvania (R, Gov. Tom Corbett) (Pre­vi­ous rank: 1)

Corbett’s reelec­tion pro­spects looked grim when the year began, and they haven’t im­proved since. Demo­crats didn’t do him any fa­vors this May when they nom­in­ated a strong can­did­ate (Tom Wolf) whose ten­ure as head of a large fam­ily-owned busi­ness ap­peals to mod­er­ate voters. Mean­while, the gov­ernor’s own cam­paign of late has been be­sieged by re­ports he met with cam­paign aides in­side his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s of­fi­cial of­fices—a sens­it­ive sub­ject for a former at­tor­ney gen­er­al who made his name bust­ing politi­cians for cam­paign­ing on the pub­lic dime. The polling is uni­formly con­clus­ive: Corbett is likely to be the first ex­ec­ut­ive in state his­tory to lose reelec­tion, and he’s also squarely our No. 1 choice as the na­tion’s most vul­ner­able gov­ernor.

2) Maine (R, Gov. Paul LePage) (Pre­vi­ous: 2)

LePage’s fate rests on the per­form­ance of in­de­pend­ent can­did­ate Eli­ot Cut­ler. Polls show a dead­locked race between LePage and Demo­crat­ic Rep. Mi­chael Michaud, but Cut­ler is tak­ing away just enough lib­er­al sup­port from Michaud to keep the race com­pet­it­ive. Were it a two-way race, LePage would be toast. Luck­ily for Michaud, Cut­ler has been slip­ping in the polls over the past year, and the lower the in­de­pend­ent drops, the bet­ter Michaud’s chances at win­ning get.

3) Arkan­sas (Open D, Gov. Mike Beebe re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 5)

Run­ning as a former mem­ber of Con­gress un­der the party la­bel of an un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ent is prov­ing dif­fi­cult for Demo­crat Mike Ross in Arkan­sas. Ross lacks the es­tab­lished fam­ily brand name of Sen. Mark Pry­or, and his re­l­at­ive lack of name re­cog­ni­tion made it easi­er for his Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent, Asa Hutchin­son, to define him in the early part of the year. It was al­ways go­ing to be a tough slog for Demo­crats to hold onto this open seat in an in­creas­ingly red state, and pub­lic polling show­ing Ross run­ning be­hind Hutchin­son—and not run­ning as strongly as Pry­or, who’s locked in a tough race for his Sen­ate seat—con­firms that.

4) Illinois (D, Gov. Pat Quinn) (Pre­vi­ous: 4)

Quinn’s been tied or trail­ing in some of Demo­crats’ own re­cent polling. That says it all about the un­pop­u­lar gov­ernor, who could eas­ily have lost his primary last winter had a top Demo­crat like At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Lisa Madigan fol­lowed through on plans to run. As the party ham­mers Re­pub­lic­an Bruce Rau­ner on his private equity firm’s in­vest­ment prac­tices, more Illinois Demo­crats may come home to Quinn. But Rau­ner is bet­ter-fun­ded than any re­cent Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates in Illinois, and D.C. Demo­crats privately worry that Quinn’s troubles could be a drag on some of their con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates, es­pe­cially down­state.

5) Flor­ida (R, Gov. Rick Scott) (Pre­vi­ous: 3)

Don’t count Scott out. Thanks to a de­luge of spend­ing and a plum­met­ing state un­em­ploy­ment rate, the GOP in­cum­bent finds him­self in much stronger shape against Re­pub­lic­an-turned-Demo­crat Charlie Crist than he did a year ago. Even polls that once showed him trail­ing now in­dic­ate Scott holds a small lead. The ques­tion now, however, is wheth­er a stronger on-air pres­ence from Crist and his al­lies in the race’s fi­nal months will help re­cap­ture mo­mentum against an in­cum­bent of whom most voters have taken a dim view for most of his first term. One thing is for sure: Flor­ida voters don’t really like either can­did­ate right now. The next three months might be a con­test to see which one can avoid hit­ting bot­tom first.

6) Con­necti­c­ut (D, Gov. Dan­nel Mal­loy) (Pre­vi­ous: 6)

Polls show Mal­loy tied with his 2010 op­pon­ent, Re­pub­lic­an Tom Fo­ley, but the in­her­ent Demo­crat­ic lean of his state con­tin­ues to give Mal­loy the edge. Fo­ley is already strug­gling to ar­tic­u­late clear stances on is­sues—like gun con­trol—that threaten to ali­en­ate him from either in­de­pend­ents or con­ser­vat­ives. Mal­loy made tough de­cisions to raise taxes to close the state budget de­fi­cit, and voters nev­er warmed to him on a per­son­al level. However, Fo­ley doesn’t of­fer a par­tic­u­larly com­pel­ling al­tern­at­ive when it comes to cha­risma. Sim­il­ar to Flor­ida, this race will come down to whom voters find more pal­at­able.

7) Kan­sas (R, Gov. Sam Brown­back) (Pre­vi­ous: 10)

Mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans are dis­ap­poin­ted in Brown­back over rev­en­ue short­falls and a budget de­fi­cit that many trace back to Brown­back’s first-term tax cuts, and all out­ward signs—in­clud­ing Brown­back’s poor 63 per­cent win in his primary—point to a Brown­back loss. He has neither out-fun­draised nor out-polled his Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent, state House Minor­ity Lead­er Paul Dav­is, but the ques­tion­able qual­ity of pub­lic polling avail­able leaves a linger­ing sense of doubt about Dav­is’s abil­ity to win in a state as deeply con­ser­vat­ive as Kan­sas, where con­ser­vat­ive voters still could come home to the in­cum­bent. What’s more, Brown­back has time to go on of­fense here. The state primary wasn’t held un­til early Au­gust. Demo­crats’ best hope is to keep this race a rare ref­er­en­dum on policy in­stead of party.

8) Wis­con­sin (R, Gov. Scott Walk­er) (Pre­vi­ous: 7)

Don’t mis­take Walk­er’s rank­ing drop for a safer situ­ation. We said it in Feb­ru­ary, and we’ll say it again: Walk­er has a tough battle on his hands be­fore people can start think­ing about him as a 2016 pres­id­en­tial con­tender. Poll after poll from Mar­quette Law School shows Walk­er stick­ing in the mid-40s and Demo­crat Mary Burke run­ning about even with him as more people get to know the former ex­ec­ut­ive for the Trek bi­cycle com­pany. Walk­er may have sur­vived a midterm re­call test in 2012, but this cam­paign is not play­ing out the same way, with both sides fo­cus­ing on the eco­nomy more broadly than in the labor-fueled fight of two years ago.

9) Hawaii (Open D, Gov. Neil Aber­crom­bie lost primary) (Pre­vi­ous: 14)

Now that Aber­crom­bie lost his primary, the race in Hawaii is in flux. Aber­crom­bie ap­peared destined to lose in Novem­ber against second-time Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate and former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, but Demo­crats’ new stand­ard-bear­er, state Sen. Dav­id Ige, has an op­por­tun­ity to hit the re­fresh but­ton in a heav­ily Demo­crat­ic state and get his par­tis­ans to come home. Like in Maine, however, a third-party can­did­ate threatens to give Re­pub­lic­ans a path to vic­tory. Former Hon­olulu May­or Mufi Han­nemann, who lost Demo­crat­ic primar­ies for gov­ernor and Con­gress in 2010 and 2012, is run­ning as an in­de­pend­ent, and he could be a real thorn in Ige’s side.

10) Michigan (R, Gov. Rick Snyder) (Pre­vi­ous: 8)

If there was ever doubt Snyder would get a com­pet­it­ive race this year, it should be gone by now. The in­cum­bent Re­pub­lic­an re­mains a slight fa­vor­ite, but after months of cam­paign­ing he hasn’t been able to put much dis­tance between him­self and his Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent, former Rep. Mark Schauer. Snyder’s “one tough nerd” per­sona helped him win an easy elec­tion in 2010, but like his Great Lakes col­league Scott Walk­er, some of his first-term policy achieve­ments seem to have done more polit­ic­al harm than good. Wheth­er that im­age can with­stand an­oth­er three months of neg­at­ive cam­paign­ing—in a race the Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation has iden­ti­fied as a top pri­or­ity—will go a long way to­ward de­term­in­ing wheth­er Snyder earns a second term.

11) Col­or­ado (D, Gov. John Hick­en­loop­er) (Pre­vi­ous: 11)

Hick­en­loop­er’s hopes for an easy reelec­tion race were dashed in June, when Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ated former Rep. Bob Beau­prez over the con­tro­ver­sial former im­mig­ra­tion cru­sader Tom Tan­credo. The Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent had some not­able polit­ic­al stumbles in 2013, though he still isn’t seen as likely to lose in blue-trend­ing Col­or­ado. But polls show a tight race and Re­pub­lic­ans—mind­ful of the po­ten­tially ma­jor­ity-mak­ing state Sen­ate con­test there—will likely in­vest heav­ily in voter out­reach. Hick­en­loop­er might feel at ease enough to spend an af­ter­noon play­ing pool with the (un­pop­u­lar) Pres­id­ent Obama, but more im­port­ant to his reelec­tion chances was a deal to avoid a con­tro­ver­sial frack­ing ini­ti­at­ive on the bal­lot this Novem­ber.

12) Mas­sachu­setts (Open D, Gov. Dev­al Patrick re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 9)

At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Martha Coakley is still known in Wash­ing­ton only for los­ing a Sen­ate spe­cial elec­tion to Scott Brown in 2010. But she’s re­built her­self in Mas­sachu­setts and main­tains healthy fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings with the elect­or­ate to go with a wide lead in the state’s late Demo­crat­ic primary. Charlie Baker, the Re­pub­lic­an stand­ard-bear­er for the second elec­tion run­ning, high­lights his so­cially mod­er­ate po­s­i­tions on is­sues like same-sex mar­riage and abor­tion, part of the reas­on he has a shot in the deep blue Bay State. But Coakley has al­ways main­tained a lead against him in The Bo­ston Globe‘s fre­quent polls.

13) Geor­gia (R, Gov. Nath­an Deal) (Pre­vi­ous: not ranked)

The Peach State could move around on this list as we pro­gress through the fall cam­paign. Deal has nu­mer­ous li­ab­il­it­ies, es­pe­cially the fact that his of­fice ap­pears to have leaned on the state eth­ics com­mis­sion to make com­plaints against Deal go away. And with loc­al Demo­crat­ic roy­alty—Jason Carter in the gov­ernor’s race and Michelle Nunn in the Sen­ate race—on the tick­et, Re­pub­lic­ans will be fa­cing a fully fun­ded statewide ef­fort for the first time since 2002. However, none of that means Carter will win. Geor­gia is still a Re­pub­lic­an state—and one where pub­lic polling has been a bit er­rat­ic already this year.

14) South Car­o­lina (R, Gov. Nikki Haley) (Pre­vi­ous: not ranked)

Haley un­der­per­formed re­l­at­ive to Re­pub­lic­ans’ large class of in­cum­bent gov­ernors in 2010, beat­ing Demo­crat Vin­cent Sheheen by just 4 per­cent­age points. Sheheen is run­ning again this year, and wouldn’t stand much of a chance were it not for the emer­gence of self-pro­claimed “in­de­pend­ent Re­pub­lic­an” can­did­ate Tom Ervin, a former judge and state rep­res­ent­at­ive. Ervin pledged to spend $2 mil­lion on tele­vi­sion ads be­fore Labor Day and could take enough con­ser­vat­ive votes away from Haley to of­fer Demo­crats a glim­mer of hope here in Novem­ber.

15) Ari­zona (Open R, Gov. Jan Brew­er re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 13)

Ari­zona is an­oth­er state with a late primary, and the race is very flu­id. At the mo­ment, all the ac­tion is in the Re­pub­lic­an primary, where Gov. Jan Brew­er just en­dorsed Mesa May­or Scott Smith to suc­ceed her as Smith battles for the nom­in­a­tion with state Treas­urer Doug Ducey and a couple oth­er GOP hope­fuls. Mean­while, Demo­crat Fred DuVal has en­joyed a long, un­ruffled peri­od of fun­drais­ing and politick­ing without fa­cing at­tacks. That’ll change in just a couple weeks, but it makes judging the state—which def­in­itely leans Re­pub­lic­an but has a tra­di­tion of elect­ing mod­er­ate Demo­crat­ic gov­ernors—dif­fi­cult for the time be­ing.

16) Ohio (R, Gov. John Kasich) (Pre­vi­ous: 12)

Kasich stands alone: Of all the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors elec­ted in 2010 to a state that bor­ders a Great Lake (Walk­er, Snyder, and Corbett), only the Ohio chief ex­ec­ut­ive looks like a pretty safe bet to earn a second term. He has a good story to tell, plenty of money to tell it, and plenty of friends will­ing to help him do so. But he’d prob­ably be fine even without all of those ad­vant­ages, after Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee Ed FitzGer­ald was swamped with an em­bar­rass­ing story about be­ing caught by po­lice in a car with a wo­man—who was not his wife—at 4:30 in the morn­ing. To para­phrase an old cliché, if you’re apo­lo­giz­ing, you’re los­ing.

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