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Democrats face uphill climb in 2012 governors races

at 05:25 PM ET, 10/07/2011

Democrats’ victory in the West Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday effectively brings to an end the 2011 gubernatorial season — or at least the competitive races.

But, never fear because the big governors races of 2012 are beginning to take shape. And it’s already clear that Democrats have their work cut out for them.

To wit:

* In New Hampshire, Gov. John Lynch (D) announced his retirement, paving the way for a competitive open seat race.

* In Montana, state Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann (R) joined an undistinguished field of GOP candidates, potentially giving Republicans a new frontrunner and setting up a matchup with state Attorney General Steve Bullock (D).

* In North Carolina, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R) looks more and more like a candidate, even though he announced this week that he won’t officially announce his campaign until 2012.

Given those developments, all five races on our Friday Line continue to be Democratic-held seats, and we wouldn’t expect that to change any time soon.

As always, these races are numbered from most likely to change parties (No. 1) to least likely to change parties (No. 5).

To the Line!

5. West Virginia (D): Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) should have more of the advantages of incumbency in 2012 now that he has been elected in his own right. (Prior to Tuesday he was simply filling the vacancy cause by Joe Manchin’s election to the Senate in 2010.) A big question is whether Tomblin gets a pass in the primary or if one of his 2011 opponents thinks he or she might have a better shot with fewer candidates in the race. (The person most likely to run against him again is House Speaker Rick Thompson). It’s also a presidential year, which could make things harder for Tomblin in a very anti-Obama state. But the GOP bench is pretty thin after the just-defeated Bill Maloney and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito who seems unlikely to run. (Previous ranking: 3)

4. Washington (D): Republicans have long argued that state Attorney General Rob McKenna is their best chance at winning a statewide race. And a new independent poll seems to confirm that sentiment, as McKenna leads Rep. Jay Inslee (D) 46 percent to 39 percent. Some — if not most — of McKenna’s edge is attributable to a name identification advantage; among people who know both men, the race is tied. Still, McKenna’s early lead suggests he starts from a position of strength in the race, and that’s a rare place for a Republican in this Democratic-leaning state. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. New Hampshire (D) With Lynch’s decision to retire, this race instantly became one of the most competitive in the country. Republicans have a well-known and well-connected candidate in 2010 Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne, but he could face trouble on the right from Kevin Smith of the conservative advocacy group Cornerstone Action. Both have ties to the tea party movement, for better or for worse, and Democrats think a race to the ideological right will help their chances of holding the seat. No Democrats are in yet, though former state senator Maggie Hassan appears the party’s best bet. (Previous ranking: 5)

2. Montana (D) In a crowded Republican field — there are eight candidates, including a sci-fi author and an anti-wolf activist (darn wolves!) — former congressman Rick Hill is still the frontrunner. But he was easily outraised by Bullock last quarter, and some Republicans are more excited about Essmann, who got in the race this week. We’ll have to wait until the next fundraising report to see if Essmann is the real deal. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. North Carolina (D): Gov. Bev Perdue (D) was the most endangered incumbent in the country even before she suggested recently that the best way to solve the current economic problems facing the country would be to suspend congressional election for two years. Perdue’s explanation — she was joking! — didn’t ring true, and the story drew her negative headlines not just in North Carolina but nationally. Perdue has proven to be an awkward public presence since beating McCrory in 2008. McCrory is back for a rematch and polling suggests that he starts the race as a favorite. (Previous ranking: 1)

With Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner

 
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