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.