The top 15 gubernatorial races of 2014


Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) is looking at a tough race. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Kent D. Johnson)

Every election cycle there are races that surprise us and ones that go pretty much how we thought they would. With five months left until the midterm elections, let's take a look at the surprises and not-so-surprises across the 2014 gubernatorial landscape thus far.

The surprises: Hawaii and Georgia 

We didn't think at the beginning of this cycle that either of these two races would be in our top 15. After all, Hawaii is solidly Democratic, and Georgia is pretty staunchly Republican.

But Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) has been sidetracked by a botched response to a winter storm and an ethics case that Democrats have seized on in the campaign. Add to the mix an impressive early campaign effort from state Sen. Jason Carter (D), grandson of President Jimmy Carter, and suddenly Deal has a real race on his hands. Just ask the Republican Governors Association, which has hit the airwaves in Georgia.

In Hawaii, Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) remains unpopular and is dealing with a primary challenger. If he wins the Democratic nomination, his reward will be a tough general election campaign in which he will have to contend with not only former lieutenant governor Duke Aiona (R), but former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann, who is running as an independent. Hannemann was Abercrombie's Democratic opponent in 2010, so he has the ability to pull votes away from the governor.

Honorable mentions: Kansas (where Democrats surprisingly have an outside chance) and Ohio (where once vulnerable Gov. John Kasich (R) is looking stronger and stronger).

The not-so-surprises: Florida and Maine 

Both of these races were in our top three way back in December of 2012. They haven't been bounced.

It's long been clear that former Florida governor Charlie Crist (D) wants his old job back. Badly. It's been equally clear that the race between him and Gov. Rick Scott (R) would shape up as a competitive, expensive and nasty battle.

In Maine, GOP Gov. Paul LePage's unpopularity made him a top Democratic target from day one. The question was -- and continues to be -- if independent Eliot Cutler will pull away enough Democratic votes to allow LePage a path to victory in a three-way race.

Honorable mention: Michigan, which both parties have eyed closely all cycle.

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

To the Line!

15. Hawaii (Democratic-controlled): Aiona made his bid official this month, taking a step closer to a rematch of 2010 against Abercrombie. But don't lose sight of the fact that Abercrombie is not a sure bet to make the general election. He faces state Sen. David Ige (D). Abercrombie has a lot more money than Ige, but he's also battling lingering unpopularity. (Previous ranking: 15)

14. Kansas (Republican-controlled): If you're an incumbent running for reelection like Gov. Sam Brownback (R), the headline, "Sources: FBI examines lobbying by Brownback loyalists," is never a good thing. That's what Brownback had to contend with last month, not to mention state House Democratic Leader Paul Davis (D), a recruit Democrats are excited about. The state's conservative tilt may be Brownback's saving grace. (Previous ranking: 14)

13. Arizona (R): The GOP primary is heating up, with a conservative group hitting former GoDaddy executive Christine Jones (R) for being to nice to former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. Meanwhile, state Treasurer Doug Ducey (R) recently landed an endorsement from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). A messy and expensive GOP race is just what Democrat Fred DuVal needs in the lead-up to November in this red state. (Previous ranking: 12)

12. Georgia (R): The Peach State moves up as the RGA goes on the air with an ad hitting Carter over health care. It's the latest sign that Republicans are sweating this race out more and more. (Previous ranking: 13)

11. Ohio (R): The Buckeye State moves down the line on the heels of a recent Quinnipiac University poll showing Kasich up 15 points over Democrat Ed FitzGerald. Kasich also has a huge cash advantage. (Previous ranking: 9)

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10. Colorado (D): Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) does not appear to be in serious danger anymore, but his race is still worth watching. (There was a moment there in 2013 when his outlook was much bleaker.) A recent Quinnipiac poll showed him up seven points over former congressman Tom Tancredo (R), his closest GOP competitor. Colorado is a swing state, but the weak GOP field continues to make this an uphill climb for Republicans. (Previous ranking: 11)

9. South Carolina (R): State Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D) hit the airwaves this week with his first TV ad, a spot pointed directly at Gov. Nikki Haley (R). Sheheen knows he can't win a straight D vs. R race in such a conservative state. His challenge is to convince Republican voters that Haley has not been an effective leader. (Previous ranking: 8)

8. Wisconsin (R): A recent Marquette Law School poll showed Walker with a slight lead over Democrat Mary Burke among those likeliest to vote. But this remains a close race in a deeply divided state. Neither Walker nor his well-heeled allies are taking anything for granted at this point. (Previous ranking: 10)

7. Michigan (R): Polls released this month show Gov. Rick Snyder (R) up by nine to 10 points over former congressman Mark Schauer (D). Off-year elections are more favorable for Republicans in this blue state, which adds to Schauer's task. (Previous ranking: 6)

6. Connecticut (D): A Quinnipiac poll released early this month showed a dead even, 43-43 race between Gov. Dan Malloy (D) and Republican Tom Foley (R). Of all the 2012 rematches ongoing across the map in 2014, this may end up being the most competitive. (Previous ranking: 7)

5. Arkansas (D): An NBC News/Marist poll showed former congressman Asa Hutchinson (R) up seven points over former congressman Mike Ross (D). Other polls have shown a closer race. Both sides expect a tight race, but this is no longer Democrats' most vulnerable seat. (See No. 4 for why.) (Previous ranking: 4)

4. Illinois (D): It's been a rough stretch for Gov. Pat Quinn (D), who was hit this month with a federal probe of an anti-violence initiative he started. The matter threatens to undercut Quinn's good-government image, a hallmark of his political profile. It also diverted attention away from Republican nominee Bruce Rauner, whom Democrats want to draw attention to in hopes of casting him as an out-of-touch candidate a la Mitt Romney. (Previous ranking: 5)

3. Florida (R): The race between Scott and Crist looks closer than it did a few months ago, when Crist had a clear lead. Democrats say they always expected a close race. Republicans say that Scott's campaign abilities shouldn't be underestimated. Both are true. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Maine (R): If Cutler is in the high single digits on Election Day, then Rep. Mike Michaud (D) stands a good chance of unseating LePage, even with the independent in the race. If Cutler's in the mid-teens or higher, then things get much iffier for Democrats. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Pennsylvania (R): Now that Democrats have completed their messy primary, they can focus on Gov. Tom Corbett (R). Businessman Tom Wolf (D) has deep pockets but has said he's not going to self-fund in the general election. He remains Democrats' best hope for a pickup. (Previous ranking: 1)

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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