Governor races across the country offer another reminder that candidate quality matters in determining downballot success, particularly in an unpredictable presidential cycle.
Nowhere is that more evident than in West Virginia, where the open seat ranked most likely to flip in April but now resides close to the bottom of this list of competitive races.
A dozen states are holding gubernatorial elections in less than two months. Half are open-seat races. Democrats control two-thirds of them, while Republicans hope to bolster their already historic dominance at the state level.
But as in West Virginia, Democrats are running moderate candidates in their most difficult races in hopes of outperforming Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Republicans also picked candidates from the center in New England states such as Vermont to counter their own potentially toxic ticket-topper, Donald Trump.
Here is Hotline‘s latest ranking of the governor races most likely to switch parties.
1. Missouri - Open (D) (Previous ranking: 2)
One of Democrats’ top recruits this cycle was Republican-turned-Democratic state Attorney General Chris Koster, long expected to seek to succeed term-limited Gov. Jay Nixon. But Republican Eric Greitens’s nomination and the Republican lean of the state make this a top pickup opportunity for the GOP. Both candidates boast fundraising prowess aided by unlimited direct campaign contributions. So far, Koster is winning establishment support from both sides of the aisle and enjoys a head start in cash on hand, but Greitens is banking on Trump’s coattails to take him over the top in the trending-red state.
2. North Carolina - Pat McCrory (R) (3)
Gov. Pat McCrory remains America’s most endangered governor, and things are only getting worse. While Democratic state Attorney General Roy Cooper has built a credible lead in public polling, TV advertising, and fundraising, both sides stress this race is still a tossup. McCrory’s party worries his embrace of antidiscrimination-protection legislation, known as House Bill 2, turns off independents who backed him in 2012. The Republican’s campaign and allies have increasingly targeted Cooper’s job performance as the state’s top law enforcement official.
3. New Hampshire - Open (D) (4)
The perennial swing state just held its primaries last week, leaving little time for Republican Chris Sununu and Democrat Colin Van Ostern, who both sit on the state’s five-member Executive Council, to pivot to the general. New Hampshire is definitively purple, and both candidates remain in part at the mercy of voters’ preference in the presidential race and in a high-profile campaign between Sen. Kelly Ayotte and her challenger, vacating Gov. Maggie Hassan.
4. Vermont - Open (D) (7)
Vermont doesn’t immediately stand out as top pickup opportunity given its predilection for repeatedly electing liberals, but Bernie Sanders’s home state also has a penchant for electing moderate Republican governors. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s nomination last month was crucial to the GOP’s hopes there. Democrats have been quick to tie Scott to the national GOP’s candidates and platform, but the Republican Governors Association has pushed out multiple TV ads boosting the moderate businessman.
5. Indiana - Open (R) (5)
This race heated up when Mike Pence accepted the vice presidential nomination. Pence’s newly appointed lieutenant governor, longtime party operative Eric Holcomb, has been slow to introduce himself to voters and is handicapped by low name ID, lack of access to Pence’s promised campaign coffers, and his ties to the polarizing vice presidential nominee. But Democrat John Gregg is similarly unknown, despite running for governor in 2012. Gregg enjoys an early lead in head-to-head polling, and the company of a reinvigorated campaign to replace Sen. Dan Coats, but Indiana is still Republicans’ to lose.
6. West Virginia - Open (D) (1)
The race to replace term-limited Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin started as Republicans’ most promising target. It could still be, but Republican Bill Cole has yet to prove he can capitalize on the state’s favoritism for his party in the face of a newfound political juggernaut, Democratic coal magnate Jim Justice, who consistently leads in public polling and fundraising. Justice’s deep pockets, favorable coverage during devastating floods, and Joe Manchin-like moderation are not to be underestimated.
7. Montana - Steve Bullock (D) (6)
A host of caveats apply to this race, where there has been no credible public polling. But Bullock is doing everything right to win a second term. He leads wealthy Republican tech entrepreneur Greg Gianforte in fundraising, though Gianforte is keeping pace by self-funding. Bullock and Gianforte have mutually agreed to keep the race divorced from national trends, a boon for Bullock in red Montana.