Republicans had a rough 2018, losing six governor’s mansions in a very good year for Democrats. The coming 2019-2020 election cycle is looking like a more even playing field, with Democrats playing defense in a few states and Republicans playing defense in a few others.
Republicans would love to net a few more seats and get back to having at least 30 out of 50 governor’s mansions (they held 33 before the 2018 midterms). But it’s notable that some of the biggest fights for governor’s races are happening in the Republican states that hold elections in 2019: Kentucky, Louisiana and maybe even Mississippi.
Here are the top five governor’s races most likely to flip parties in 2019 and 2020. Number one is most likely to flip.
But first, an honorable mention: Mississippi. We’re not saying that Democrats are likely to flip a gubernatorial race in such a Republican state, but they have their strongest chance in decades to at least make it a competitive race. The seat is open in 2019, and Democrats have four-term Attorney General Jim Hood, who hopes to expand on Democrats winning some state legislative races here last year with his decidedly Southern style that has helped him remain the only statewide Democratic incumbent in Mississippi. He’ll be facing off against Tate Reeves, a prolific fundraiser but who just came out of a tough, expensive primary. If Hood can raise serious money, this is race could be interesting to watch.
5. New Hampshire (Republican-held, 2020 election): Democrats think Gov. Chris Sununu (R) could be vulnerable in the right environment (read: a strong showing for the Democratic presidential nominee). They think he could be taken down on the basis that he vetoed bipartisan gun bills and paid family leave bills. And if President Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, runs for Senate here, it could complicate life for Sununu by turning off independents and Republicans. But Democrats need a candidate first to unseat a popular governor who won by seven points in 2018, a great year for Democrats. They expect a strong crop of them.
4. North Carolina (Democratic-held, 2020 election): Three years ago, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) became the first candidate to knock off a sitting governor in North Carolina history by campaigning in part against the state’s infamous, Republican-driven transgender bathroom bill. But Cooper has wrangled with the state’s Republican legislature since then, and he’s going into his reelection campaign with a budget impasse that is delaying a Medicaid overhaul. Republicans have a primary with Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and state Rep. Holly Grange. But Democrats say Cooper is still popular and point to growing, diverse metropolitan areas as a point in Cooper’s column. Wild cards: This is expected to be a presidential battleground state, too (as well as a competitive Senate race).
3. Kentucky (Republican-held, 2019 election): It’s surprising to us, too, that a Republican governor in a Republican state is this high on the list. But Gov. Matt Bevin (R) is here for two reasons: 1) He’s a broadly unpopular governor, whose brash style has his own Republican lieutenant governor suing him, a Republican state senator actively campaigning against him and fights with teachers that have reverberated. 2) Democrats have nominated a big name for the state, Attorney General Andy Beshear. His internal polling shows him ahead of Bevin by nine points two months before this election. But the only nonpartisan poll shows Bevin up, and Bevin won three years ago when polls suggested he might lose.
Also in Bevin’s column, Trump won Kentucky by 30 points and could shift the election in Bevin’s favor if he campaigns for him. Republicans also say they expect Beshear’s popularity to drop when they point out he supports abortion rights and doesn’t support Trump.
2. Louisiana (Democratic-held, 2019 election): Can a Democratic governor win reelection in a state that voted for Trump by 20 points? That’s what John Bel Edwards, who won in 2015 against a flawed Republican candidate, is trying to do. Democrats think he has a case to make that the state’s economy is on the right path and that he expanded Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of people in the state; Republicans see the glass half-empty for Edwards on the economy and management issues with Medicaid expansion. Also, what does it mean for Edwards’s base that he signed one of the strictest antiabortion bills in the country?
Edwards and two top Republicans running, Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, will all be on the ballot in October in a “jungle primary.” If no one gets above 50 percent, it will go to a runoff in November between the top two vote-getters, regardless of party.
Republicans think this race is all but clinched if Edwards has to go to a runoff, because no Louisiana governor has ever won a race that was forced to a runoff. Still, it’s difficult to knock out a sitting governor who has approval ratings in the mid-50s.
1. Montana (Democratic-held but open in 2020): Presidential candidate Gov. Steve Bullock (D) is term-limited after winning in Trump country, and Republicans see a golden opportunity to take back the governor’s mansion and keep it for a long time. They have two main candidates who have both run and won statewide: Attorney General Tim Fox and Rep. Greg Gianforte (yes, that congressman who pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter then won reelection). But could a potentially damaging primary damage the eventual winner? On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and state House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner are running. Can Democrats capture the Bullock magic again, or was that specific to Bullock?