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Candidates strive to move from Congress to the governor’s mansion

Three of this cycle's most competitive gubernatorial candidates are hoping that the widespread negative image of Congress does not hurt their chances in November.

(Jeff Morehead/AP)

Two former members and one current member of the House have been nominated by their party to run for governor. All three are vying for open seats. In Washington, Democrats have chosen former congressman Jay Inslee, while Republicans in Montana and Indiana have respectively selected former congressman Rick Hill and Rep. Mike Pence.

At first glance, Pence, a current member, would be the easiest of the three for opponents to tie to Congress. However, Indiana is the least competitive of the three races, so even a robust attempt to tie him to Washington may not be enough for Democrats. The congressman is a substantial favorite to keep the state's top job in the hands of Republicans in November, and his Democratic opponent, former state House speaker John Gregg, has failed to build much momentum. (Though, Gregg has tried to tie Pence to Washington, D.C.)

In Washington state, a more competitive race is underway. Inslee's decision to resign from Congress in March appeared to be a smart one (some Democrats believe he should have done it sooner) because it helped him solve a distance problem. He was largely absent from he campaign trail before he stepped aside, allowing his Republican opponent to seize the lion's share of attention.

In Montana, Republicans are bullish about Hill's chances of making a pickup for the party in a red state. But Democrats, who are equally excited about Attorney General Steve Bullock's odds, have been assailing Hill's congressional record. A recent negative television ad reminds viewers that Hill was a "Washington D.C. congressman." Hill left the House in 2001.

Making the jump from the House to the governor's mansion isn't easy, as the 2010 cycle showed. Just three of the seven members who served in the 111th Congress were elected governor. And between 1990 and 2001, only four of the 29 House members who ran for governor succeeded.

All three of the candidates with congressional résumés in Montana, Washington and Indiana have a chance (in Pence's case, a very good chance) of winning this fall. Just don't expect to hear them talk about D.C. much on the campaign trail, given the public's historically low opinion of Congress.

And now, without further ado, to the Line!

(A reminder that the races below are ordered according to likelihood that they will change parties, with No. 1 being the most likely.)

5) West Virginia (Democratic-controlled): Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is going out of his way to put daylight between himself and President Obama, who is very unpopular in the state. And that's just what he needs to do this presidential year. Tomblin won't be at next week's Democratic National Convention, nor has he said whether he will vote for the president in November. Businessman Bill Maloney impressed national Republicans with his 2011 effort, but the keep-Obama-at-arm's length strategy that Sen. Joe Manchin (D) used in 2010 and Tomblin used in 2011 has proven to be effective. (Previous ranking: 5)

4) Washington (D): Republican Governors Association Chairman Bob McDonnell's comments this week tying Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) to Attorney Rob McKenna (R) were not helpful, considering Washington's Democratic-tilt. Inslee's 4-point win over McKenna in the blanket primary this month was more good news for Democrats. The blanket primary is not a perfect gauge for November, though it is worth noting that McKenna received 34 percent of the vote in King County. Strategists say a Republican has to crack 40 percent there in a general election to win. This still looks like a close race, but the past few weeks have been better for Inslee than they have been for McKenna. (Previous ranking: 3)

3) Montana (D): Democrats are not the only ones on the airwaves here. The Republican Governors Association recently went up with a TV ad that hits Attorney General Steve Bullock for refusing to join the multi-state lawsuit against the federal health-care law. (The law was upheld this summer by the Supreme Court.) Bullock was able to coast through the Democratic primary while Hill faced a crowded field. But the general election is here, and the well-funded RGA is prepared to give Hill the backup he needs in this open race. (Previous ranking: 4)

2) New Hampshire (D): A recent University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll conducted for WMUR-TV showed Republican Ovide Lamontagne, a former Senate and gubernatorial candidate, running about even with both former state Senate majority leader Maggie Hassan (D) and former state senator Jackie Cilley (D). But a lot of votes will be up for grabs this fall, with a sizable chunk of the electorate currently undecided (and unfamiliar) about the candidates. The primary is Sept. 11, and frontrunners Lamontagne and Hassan (who is backed by Bill Clinton) have outspent their respective opponents. But a recent survey from Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling showed Hassan in a tighter primary race than Lamontagne. (Previous ranking: 2)

1) North Carolina (D): This race is still the strongest GOP pickup opportunity for the GOP, in a cycle that is chock-full of them. Former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory (R) released a new TV ad this week spotlighting the state's unemployment woes (the unemployment rate is just below 10 percent), a message the GOP will underscore repeatedly in the fall. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton (D) landed a speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, which should give him a near-term boost. Moving toward November, though, McCrory still has the upper hand. (Previous ranking: 1)

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

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