Hotline’s Governor-Race Power Rankings

The initial rankings are top-heavy with Republican open seats.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a New York Mets game on July 18.
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
Zach C. Cohen and Kyle Trygstad
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July 25, 2017, 8 p.m.

The combination of vacant seats and Donald Trump’s presidency is creating one of the most turbulent gubernatorial cycles in recent memory. After growing to a near-historic majority in governorships since 2010, Republicans are defending three times as many seats as Democrats. Half of the seats are open, either by retirement or term limits, prompting more than 200 candidates to enter the fray.

With 15 months to go until three dozen governor elections, many more races could become competitive if Trump’s approval rating continues to slide. Incumbents in states that supported the other party for president could face strong challengers. Swing and traditionally Republican-leaning states could prove to be election-night surprises, potentially turning a favorable Democratic map into a landslide. As a result, the makeup and order of this list will change.

Below are National Journal Hotline’s list of 12 governor seats most likely to switch parties this year and next.

1. New Jersey—Open (R—Chris Christie term-limited)

Expect Democrat Phil Murphy to be sworn in come January. The former ambassador to Germany is the clear favorite in polling over Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, largely because both Christie and Trump are disliked. Guadagno and Murphy, a former executive at Goldman Sachs who largely self-funded his primary campaign, promised to limit general-election spending by adhering to the state’s public financing.

2. New Mexico—Open (R—Susana Martinez term-limited)

Martinez’s favorability has faded as the economy stagnates in the Democratic-trending state. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a former state Cabinet official backed by EMILY’s List, is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination and general election next year. She’ll face primary opposition from the son of a former governor, a state senator, and potentially others. Republicans have cleared the field for Rep. Steve Pearce, who starts from behind when it comes to cash on hand.

3. Illinois—Bruce Rauner (R)

In what could break spending records for a state race, Republicans’ most vulnerable incumbent is seeking a second term after overseeing a two-year budget impasse in a state Hillary Clinton won handily. Rauner seeded his campaign with $50 million and has shifted right by hiring conservative think-tankers. Among the Democrats, billionaire J.B. Pritzker has the resources and profile to overcome the initial name ID of millionaire Chris Kennedy, son of Robert F. Kennedy, and small-dollar fundraising by state Sen. Daniel Biss.

4. Nevada—Open (R—Brian Sandoval term-limited)

In a state that was a bright spot for Democrats last year, Clark County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak is a moderate Democrat who can more credibly claim the mantle of heir apparent to Sandoval than conservative state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is expected to run. Both campaigns will be stocked—Sisolak posted $3.8 million on hand earlier this year, and the Sheldon Adelson-backed Laxalt reported $1.5 million in the bank.

5. Maine—Open (R—Paul LePage term-limited)

State Attorney General Janet Mills, former state Speaker Mark Eves, and attorney Adam Cote are all credible Democratic candidates against Republican Mary Mayhew, who until recently was a LePage Cabinet official. This race moves toward Republicans if Sen. Susan Collins jumps in and survives the primary, or if independent Terry Hayes mounts a viable campaign.

6. Florida—Open (R—Rick Scott term-limited)

Democrats have been locked out of the governor’s mansion since 1999 and the state just backed Trump, but they see promise in a primary field led by former Rep. Gwen Graham. Republican state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, also a former congressman, has amassed nearly $12 million but will likely face state Speaker Richard Corcoran, state Sen. Jack Latvala, and maybe more for the nomination.

7. Michigan—Open (R—Rick Snyder term-limited)

With Snyder leaving in the wake of the Flint water-poisoning crisis, Democrats hope to retake a seat they controlled seven years ago in a state Trump carried narrowly. If nominated, Gretchen Whitmer, the leading Democrat in fundraising and Lansing support, would likely face either state Attorney General Bill Schuette or Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, neither of whom has announced.

8. Ohio—Open (R—John Kasich term-limited)

Most of Ohio’s statewide officeholders can’t seek reelection, creating a crowded GOP primary among state Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, and Rep. Jim Renacci. Democrats’ field is diverse but barely known in the swing state, prompting insiders to promote a possible Richard Cordray candidacy if he’s fired as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

9. Virginia—Open (D—Terry McAuliffe term-limited)

In a state that tends to elect governors opposite of the party in the White House but didn’t in 2013, Democrats hope a popular term-limited governor and unpopular president will propel Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam to the top job this year. Recent polling shows a tight race with Republican Ed Gillespie, a consummate political pro with a $1.5 million cash-on-hand advantage and millions more pouring in from the Republican Governors Association.

10. Connecticut—Open (D—Dannel Malloy retiring)

Malloy’s decision not to seek a third term opens up a Democratic-leaning state with a history of electing Republican governors. Republicans have gained legislative seats as the state faces perpetual fiscal shortfalls, and they have fielded decent fundraisers with limited name ID for governor. Democrats have a deeper bench, including statewide officeholders like Comptroller Kevin Lembo and, potentially, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.

11. Colorado—Open (D—John Hickenlooper term-limited)

Hickenlooper barely won his campaigns for governor in two GOP-favoring midterms. Democratic Rep. Jared Polis and Republican District Attorney George Brauchler are standouts among the numerous candidates in both parties’ still-growing fields.

12. Minnesota—Open (D—Mark Dayton retiring)

The fact that Trump came within 2 points of ending Minnesota’s record 40 years of choosing Democrats for president, and the fact that the GOP controls both legislative chambers, gives Republicans hope of gaining complete control in St. Paul. But Democrats boast a much larger and stronger field, including Rep. Tim Walz.

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