Hotline’s 2016 Governor Race Rankings

West Virginia slid down the list, with Democrats more likely to hold that open seat.

Jim Justice, the Democratic nominee for governor in West Virginia
AP Photo/Chris Tilley
Sept. 19, 2016, 8 p.m.

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.

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