Democratic Governors Association Chairman Martin O’Malley (Md.) was just re-eleected to his post after a pretty darn good 2011.
All year long, all five races on our governor’s Line, which aims to rate the top five seats most likely to switch parties next November — have been held by Democrats.
And thanks to the events of recent weeks, the GOP’s prospects of winning some of those seats appear to have improved — at least slightly.
* Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) was looking like a shoo-in thanks to Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder’s (R) myriad personal problems. But then Kinder stepped aside for businessman Dave Spence (R) and announced he would instead seek reelection to his current job. The jury is very much out on the political novice Spence, who is already being hit for serving on the board of a bank that accepted $42 million in bailout funds as well as a drunk driving arrest in 2004. And Nixon is (still) popular. But Spence has lots of money, and at least the GOP has some hope now in the race that lands just outside of our Line. (Also, a potential primary opponent just opted not to run against him.)
* Businessman Bill Maloney (R) filed papers for a second straight run in the West Virginia governor’s race. The candidacy of Maloney, who lost narrowly to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) in this year’s special election for the final year of now-Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D) term as governor, virtually ensures that the GOP will have a qualified nominee in a state where that’s not always a given. Yes, he lost in 2011, but Maloney will now be running in a presidential year in a state where the Republican nominee will win easily.
* North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue’s (D) problems grew. First, three former political advisers were indicted for campaign finance violations, and now she is faced with a politically fraught decision on whether to veto a bill that strikes down a law that allowed death row inmates to overturn their sentence if they can show racial bias contributed to their death sentences. (Got all that?) Perdue also recently had a state legislator of her own party call for her to step aside and not seek reelection. Meanwhile, GOP candidate Pat McCrory has become something of a GOP cause celebre with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) both stopping by to help him raise money.
These are all relatively small events in the grand scheme of things, but the totality of them means that a total of five or six Democratic seats could again be in play for the GOP.
There is, of course, one big caveat here: The GOP will almost certainly have to defend Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in a recall election. Though that’s not a certainty yet and we don’t know who will run against him, this would be a legitimate Democratic pickup opportunity.
Right now Republicans hold 29 of the nation’s 50 governorships. If they can get into the low 30s by the end of 2012, it will have been a good cycle for Republican Governors Association chairman and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who like O’Malley, has national ambitions.
To the Line!
5. West Virginia (Democratic-controlled): Maloney has technically filed pre-candidacy papers, but for all intents and purposes, he’s running again. Republicans say he improved as a candidate toward the end of the last campaign, which he lost to Tomblin 50 percent to 47 percent. Maloney will benefit from that fact that President Obama is likely to take 40 percent or less of the vote in West Virginia. At the same time, the state’s votes have been more than happy to split their tickets in the past and Democrats have maintained very strong majorities in the state legislature even as the South more broadly has moved toward Republicans. (Previous ranking: 5)
4. New Hampshire (D): The GOP primary in the Granite State is getting crowded — former state representative Kevin Smith has gotten in against lawyer Ovide Lamontagne, and rumor has it that Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas will join them. But it’s still Lamontagne’s race to lose. Democrats, meanwhile, still have just one major candidate in the race to replace Gov. John Lynch (D): state Sen. Maggie Hassan. Look for the GOP primary to begin to gell after the state’s Jan. 10 presidential primary. For now, things are essentially on hold. (Previous ranking: 3)
3. Washington (D): Rep. Jay Inslee (D) has challenged Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) to no less than six debates — probably because nearly every public poll shows the Republican in the lead to take over for retiring Gov. Chris Gregoire (D). The Washington Education Association just endorsed Inslee. That’s no surprise, but their early involvement could also give the Democrat a boost. Republicans are very high on McKenna, but this is a blue state in a presidential year. (Previous ranking: 4)
2. Montana (D): All of the action at the moment is on the Republican side, where nine — count ‘em, nine — candidates are battling for the GOP nod in this open seat race. Former congressman Rick Hill looks like the favorite, although predicting outcomes in such a crowded primary field is difficult, and some have high hopes for state Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann. Democrats got their top candidate when Attorney General Steve Bullock decided to run. Most politicos in the state acknowledge that Bullock is the most naturally skilled candidate in the race, but he will be running uphill in a state that Obama is almost certain to lose. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. North Carolina (D): Things have gone from bad to worse for Perdue. The reason her current problems are so painful is because her poll numbers were already something short of stellar, and Republicans already had their preferred candidate — former Charlotte mayor and 2008 nominee Pat McCrory — in the race. Perdue has to hope that Obama’s heavy focus on the state drags every last Democrat to the polls next November. And even then, it might not be enough. (Previous ranking: 1)
Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.