The Fix’s top 15 gubernatorial races

June 14, 2013

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s decision to switch from independent to Democrat effectively handed Democrats their 20th governorship.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (Steven Senne/AP)
Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (Steven Senne/AP)

It also means they likely have one less seat to contest – at least the way things look now.

The dirty little secret about Chafee’s party switch is that it may not help Chafee much, but it is very likely to help his new party. He’s set to face a primary with state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, or both, and assuming someone not named Chafee wins – a strong possibility given the governor's terrible numbers – Democrats will be heavy favorites to hold the seat.

Because of this, Rhode Island drops off our list of the 15 governor’s seats most likely to change parties, all the way down from No. 2 on the last list.

It also means Democrats are even more on offense than they were before.

Of the top seven seats on the list, six are currently held by Republicans. This, of course, is a reflection of the very good year that Republicans had in 2010 – winning many swing and even a few blue states -- but the fact remains that they are very much on defense in 2013 and 2014 because of it.

GOP governors in Florida, Maine, Pennsylvania, Michigan and South Carolina all have subpar numbers. Most of these races were expected to be competitive regardless, of course, but the GOP would certainly like to be in better shape in each of these states than it is right now.

The situation is pretty much the inverse of the landscape for the Senate, where Republicans currently have eight of the top nine pickup opportunities, according to our last line.

And just as a majority of the Senate is tough but gettable for Senate Republicans, Democrats have at least a shot at winning the five seats they need to reach parity in governor’s seats -- or the six they need to win a majority of the 50.

Of course, a majority of governorships wouldn’t practically mean anything, besides that the Democrats had a very, very good 2014.

And now, to our list of the 15 seats most likely to change control. As always, No. 1 is most likely to change.

To the Line!

15. Minnesota (Democratic-controlled): Gov. Mark Dayton (D) is ramping up for his reelection campaign, hiring longtime spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci as his campaign manager and announcing that he won't rely on his ability to self-fund his campaign this time. Dayton won a Senate seat and the 2010 governor's race in large part thanks to his personal fortune. (Previous ranking: 15)

14. Arizona (Republican-controlled): Gov. Jan Brewer (R) still hasn't said whether she'll challenge the state's term limits law, but if she does, she might be risking some primary opposition. The governor this week called a special session to pass a budget that includes the Medicaid expansion that some GOP governors have turned down. The legislation passed thanks to Democrats, and had conservatives howling. (Previous ranking: 14)

13. Wisconsin (R): Gov. Scott Walker (R) said this week that he will sign in a bill requiring women seeking abortions to get ultrasounds. It's a somewhat surprising move considering Wisconsin's electorate, and one that could come back to bite him in his reelection campaign. Of course unless/until a credible Democratic opponent steps up, it won't matter much at all. So far at least, the Democratic side has been very quiet. (Previous ranking: 13)

12. Colorado (D): Colorado comes onto the line for the first time this cycle following a Quinnipiac University poll showing former congressman Tom Tancredo (R) running neck-and-neck with the once highly popular governor. Hickenlooper's decision to grant a temporary reprieve to a convicted murderer was received very poorly by Colorado voters in the survey. It's just one poll, and time will tell whether it is an outlier. But for now, this race is worth keeping an eye on. (Previous ranking: N/A)

11. Connecticut (D): This race is on pace for a rematch, with 2010 GOP nominee Tom Foley opting to give it another go. A Republican poll taken in March showed signs of hope for the GOP. But given the strong Democratic tilt of the state, this remains an uphill climb for Republicans, so long as Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy's numbers do not crater. (Previous ranking: 12)

10. Massachusetts (D): If Scott Brown (R) wants to make a political comeback in 2014, this race seems to make much more sense than running for the Senate in New Hampshire or challenging the winner of his own state's Senate special election.  The lack of an overwhelming favorite on either side makes this race an appealing option for the former senator, but it isn't clear how interested he is in making a bid. The other big name to watch on the Republican side is 2010 nominee Charlie Baker. Meanwhile, recent Democratic buzz has surrounded Rep. Michael Capuano (D). (Previous ranking: 11)

9. Ohio (R): Gov. John Kasich (R) seems to be taking a much more cautious approach than Walker when it comes to navigating the issue of abortion. He declined to say whether he would veto a measure that would bar publicly funded universities from signing transfer agreements with abortion clinics. Kasich's polling numbers have been on the mend, but he faces a credible threat in Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald (D). (Previous ranking: 10)

8. Illinois (D): At least one piece of the puzzle has been placed, with former White House chief of staff Bill Daley (D) launching an exploratory committee to run in the primary against Gov. Pat Quinn (D). The real question, of course, is whether state Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) joins them. If she does, she is a heavy favorite to win the primary and the seat, and this race drops way down on the line. (Previous ranking: 9)

7. South Carolina (R): Democrats are surprisingly optimistic about the re-run candidacy of Vincent Sheheen against Gov. Nikki Haley (R) despite the clear GOP lean of the Palmetto State. Haley won with an unimpressive 51 percent against Sheheen in 2010 and has struggled mightily in her first term. Sheheen will get more attention (and likely money) from national Democrats this time around but Haley and her team know they are in for a fight.  And, it's still South Carolina in the second midterm election of a Democratic president. (Previous ranking: 8)

6. Virginia (R): The central dynamic of this open seat race is that voters don't really like their choices. At all. As we have said before, former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe is probably the only Democrat that state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) can beat and Cuccinelli is probably the only GOPer that McAuliffe can beat. (In that way, it's reminiscent of Virginia's 1994 Senate race between Ollie North and Chuck Robb.)  Who wins? It may depend on which way the national wind is blowing at the moment the vote happens this fall. (Previous ranking: 7)

5. Michigan (R): A poll from Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling earlier this month showed former congressman Mark Schauer (D) at 42 percent and Gov. Rick Snyder (R) at 38 percent. But more telling is that Snyder continues to be underwater in his personal approval. The fact is that Schauer's lead is small because he's largely unknown, and in a blue state, Snyder needs to recover his good name to win reelection. (Previous ranking: 6)

4. Arkansas (D): There's been little polling out of Arkansas, but the state's conservative tilt makes this Democrats' hardest hold. That said, the former congressman Mike Ross (D) is a solid recruit expected to win a primary who will give his party hope. Former congressman Asa Hutchinson is the clear Republican frontrunner, but he won't receive a free pass in the primary, with the presence of conservative candidate Curtis Coleman in the mix. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Pennsylvania (R): Gov. Tom Corbett (R) is in some early trouble. He trails Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D) by 10 points in a recent Quinnipiac poll. Being unpopular in a blue state against a top Democratic recruit is a recipe for potential disaster for the Keystone State Republican. He still has time to right the ship, but the early read isn't good for him. Pennsylvania moves two spots up the line. (Previous ranking: 5)

2. Maine (R): This race just got a whole lot more interesting, with Rep. Mike Michaud launching an exploratory committee and independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who finished second behind Gov. Paul LePage (R) in 2010, also getting in the race. LePage's numbers aren't good and Michaud's are, but in a three-way race, strange things happen. In fact, a PPP poll in January showed LePage leading just such a three-way race even though his image was much poorer than Michaud's. (Previous ranking: 3)

1. Florida (R): This is a very tough race for Gov. Rick Scott to win -- almost no matter who Democrats nominate.  A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late March showed Scott losing to former Republican governor Charlie Crist (D) 50 percent to 34 percent.  That's a somewhat remarkable finding given that Crist was elected governor as a Republican as recently as 2006. Despite those dismal numbers, we still give Scott a puncher's chance due to his massive wealth and willingness to spend it. (Previous ranking: 1)

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Chris Cillizza · June 14, 2013