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Daily Kos political director David Nir greets former President Jimmy Carter and Georgia state Sen. Jason Carter at a March 2014 fundraiser for Jason Carter's gubernatorial campaign
(L-R) DK Elections' own David Nir, President Jimmy Carter, and Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Jason Carter

This month's edition of the Daily Kos Elections' gubernatorial power rankings is marked by a ton of movement, but only one new entry into the top 10. And unlike the Senate power rankings earlier in the month, the primary election season had less to do with the movement in the three dozen battles for state governorships across the land.

That said, it may have played at least a passing role in the new name atop the leaderboard: Georgia. Even though Republican Gov. Nathan Deal had a nuisance primary that he easily won, pollsters eager to poll the infinitely more competitive GOP Senate primary decided to blow an extra question on the gubernatorial matchup, and the forthcoming general election contest between Deal and Democratic challenger Jason Carter. Ergo, Georgia shot up the charts to No. 1 this month.

How did the rest of the field pack up? Head past the fold to find out.

(As always, for those curious about the criteria for determining these power rankings, feel free to jump to the end of the piece to peruse the methodology.)

In the short tenure of the DKE power rankings, we've never had a set where so few states went totally unheralded for a month. This month, all but five gubernatorial races notched at least one point, under our power rankings rubric.

The only race that dropped out of the top 10, as it happens, is a near lock to return to the fold come next month. That race was the battle up in Wisconsin, where, it is safe to say, things got a little more interesting over the past week. So expect to see Republican Gov. Scott Walker's name a little more often in the very near future.

One of the biggest movers in a forward direction, on the other hand, will probably go back to sleep for a little bit. That race is Nebraska, which rocketed from deep in the field (25th) to a tie for 11th this month. That bump in attention was propelled in May by one of the most competitive primary elections on the gubernatorial calendar, resulting in the nomination of AmeriTrade executive (and Republican) Pete Ricketts. That said, a poll released this week on behalf of Democrat Chuck Hassebrook has it as as a four-point race, so don't assume this is the last you will hear of the Cornhusker State this cycle.

In the top 10, meanwhile, we see a lot of the same names (nine of 10), but a whole lot of movement. Part of this could be owed to the "primary effect" we saw in the Senate power rankings. But part of it is also owed to some changing dynamics that have made the races in the top 10 an extremely intriguing lot.

Finally, because I know that someone is curious, here are the lonely five governors whose races did not merit even a single mention or poll during the ratings period (May 1-31): Robert Bentley (Alabama), Brian Sandoval (Nevada), Mary Fallin (Oklahoma), Peter Shumlin (Vermont) and Matt Mead (Wyoming). Nevada, however, will get off the schneid in next month's power rankings, because who can forget that awesome moment when none of the above won the freaking Democratic gubernatorial primary?

#10—CONNECTICUT (21 points)—DKE Rating: Leans Democratic
(Last month: Unranked)

Connecticut is the lone newcomer to the power rankings, and astute observers on gubernatorial politics may be wondering what took so long. After all, the battle in the Nutmeg State is, in all probability, going to be a rematch of one of the closest gubernatorial battles of the 2010 cycle. Democratic incumbent Gov. Dan Malloy is being challenged by former U.S. Ambassador Tom Foley, who is expected to snag the GOP nomination. The most recent polls have the race in a dead heat. In addition, a real complicating factor for Malloy is developing. The incumbent may well have to deal with the possible presence of former Democratic legislator Jonathan Pelto on the ballot. Pelto has announced an independent candidacy on the theme of education, and he is clearly running to Malloy's left.

#9—MAINE (22 points)—DKE Rating: Leans Democratic
(Last month: 9—tie)

If there is a race on the roster this year that could result in utter frustration for Democrats, it could be Maine. Here at Daily Kos Elections, we still see the race as "Leans Democratic," if only because right-wing GOP Gov. Paul LePage has to be the worst fit for his state of any governor in the nation. However, as was the case when LePage squeaked into office in 2010, split opposition might save his ass yet again. As was the case in 2010, a Democratic-leaning independent (Eliot Cutler) could snare enough support to allow LePage to win with under 40 percent of the vote, as he did four years ago. The Democratic nominee, veteran congressman Mike Michaud, has a pretty sizable resource edge over the incumbent, however. And that, plus the hope that voters in Maine will conclude this time around that a vote for Cutler is an indirect vote for LePage, is why Democrats are at least cautiously optimistic about this one.

#8—ILLINOIS (24 points)—DKE Rating: Tossup
(Last month: 4)

Illinois is kind of a strange race, quite frankly. If one only looks at poll numbers, it would look like our DKE rating of "tossup" would be a bit generous for the incumbent, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. But this is Illinois, a traditionally Democratic state that has broken Republican hearts before on occasion. If that sounds like spin to you, leave it to one of the most prolific GOP pollsters in the state to make the argument for me:

“History teaches us to not make strong assumptions from these early polls,” said We Ask America CEO Gregg Durham. “Four years ago, Pat Quinn trailed Bill Brady by 10 points in August and fought his way back to win a close victory. Rauner’s lead in the collar counties and downstate is strong and may hold, but Cook County is the real battle ground.”
Quinn is going to need Cook County to come home to him, and by a country mile, in order to earn a second term. However, he is dealing with a bit of a headwind. There is one recurring theme in a lot of these top races—not every incumbent is reviled, but few of them are beloved, either. Quinn is no exception, and he's going to need to make this race a choice, rather than a referendum.

#7—MICHIGAN (25 points)—DKE Rating: Tossup
(Last month: 3)

One incumbent whose polling numbers are better than Quinn's, but definitely in "meh" territory, is Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. His approval numbers have generally been fair-to-middling, and the open question is whether that will be good enough in a state that, if not a blue state, has a definite tint to it. The old "incumbent under 50 percent" rule has largely been chalked off, but here is a race where one wonders if there is relevance. After all, with as many undecideds as we are seeing in this race (the last five polls in the race have averaged 15 percent undecided), one wonders if Democrat Mark Schauer, who is still considerably less known than Snyder, has enough "upside" to chase down Snyder, whose polling average has been in the mid-40s. Unlike a lot of states we have seen this cycle (particularly at the Senate level), one has to think that the undecideds in this race are a little less GOP-friendly than elsewhere.

#6—IOWA (26 points)—DKE Rating: Likely Republican
(Last month: 9—tie)

Iowa's move up the board is probably the first case we've seen thus far in the power rankings of a state that benefitted from the "primary effect." Iowa held theirs on June 3, and the very intriguing GOP Senate primary led to a little spillover on the gubernatorial side. Incumbent GOP Gov. Terry Branstad had only nuisance opposition in the primary, but since pollsters were already assessing the state of play on the Senate side, a few of them also tossed in a question about Branstad's primary challenge as well. Branstad's position in the race can best be described as leading, but not safe. The handful of most recent polls pegged Branstad's lead as between 7-14 points. Much like Michigan, however, the Democratic challenger (state legislative veteran Jack Hatch) is still in the process of defining himself and may have some upside.

#5—OHIO (27 points)—DKE Rating: Leans Republican
(Last month: 6)

Anyone else starting to see a trend developing here? Those midwestern battlegrounds, which also get a bunch of attention during the presidential election years, are getting a ton of play here. This race, pitting incumbent Republican Gov. John Kasich against Democrat Ed FitzGerald, has been somewhat of a tough one to figure out. At one point, Kasich was mentioned in the same breath as Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett and Florida's Rick Scott—a trio of GOP class of 2010 governors who seemed hugely imperiled. Lately, however, there has been evidence that Kasich has opened something of a gap. One pollster, Quinnipiac, has claimed a 10-point bounce in Kasich's favor since February. To a lesser extent, PPP (polling on behalf of the Ohio Democratic Party) has seen a smaller movement, from a deadlocked race to a modest four-point edge for the incumbent.

#4—ARKANSAS (31 points)—DKE Rating: Tossup
(Last month: 2)

It wasn't long ago that it looked like Democrats were staring at a Senate race in Arkansas that was rapidly getting away from them and a gubernatorial race that looked considerably more promising for them. Over the past six weeks, that perception seems to have changed. All of a sudden, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross (the longtime former congressman from the 4th District) is running behind Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in those polls where both races have been surveyed. In the past week or so, however, Ross might have found a hole in Hutchinson's defense: he has started to hammer Hutchinson on the issue of the minimum wage, amid the prospects of a forthcoming ballot initiative in Arkansas to raise the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour. At present, Arkansas has the lowest minimum wage in the nation.

#3—PENNSYLVANIA (36 points)—DKE Rating: Leans Democratic
(Last month: 5)

Primary season has already come and gone in the Keystone State, with the almost universally expected result: the nomination of Tom Wolf as the Democratic nominee for governor. Speaking of universally expected results, it is becoming harder and harder to see a path to victory for the incumbent Republican, Gov. Tom Corbett. He starts the general election season down roughly 20 points to Wolf, and a variety of power players are not planning to let up on the pressure. One example: teachers, a powerful lobby in a state where Corbett has been slammed for his machinations in the realm of public education. As Politico's Stephanie Simon noted just this week:

"Polls show Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is in trouble - and unions smell blood. The American Federation of Teachers and its local affiliates have been relentless in attacking Corbett all spring and a senior AFT official told us this race is their No. 1 target for the fall.

Education polls as a top issue for Pennsylvania voters and unions see it as a huge vulnerability for Corbett. They accuse him of slashing $1 billion in education spending to pay for a tax cut and point to districts across the state that have laid off teachers, increased class sizes, eliminated full-day kindergarten and more.

As in Illinois, Corbett desperately needs this race not to be a referendum on the incumbent. Unlike Illinois, however, Corbett is not trying to dig out of a hole—he is trying to dig out of a freaking chasm.

#2—FLORIDA (38 points)—DKE Rating: Tossup
(Last month: 1)

The good news for Republicans this month: their once uber-endangered Republican governor in Florida, Rick Scott, has pulled back to all-square with his Democratic rival, former Gov. Charlie Crist. Indeed, Scott has actually led in four of the seven polls in the race conducted since May 1. The bad news for Republicans: Scott has already blown a lot of campaign cash (Team Crist estimates it at over $20 million), and all it has gotten him is a race that is still, for all intents and purposes, tied. What's more: Crist hasn't even bothered to try to go tit-for-tat. One assumes that Scott, despite his essentially limitless resources, isn't going to have the airwaves to himself for long. The "what to watch for" statistic is going to be what happens to the polls when the battle is joined. Has Scott's early efforts to redefine Crist paid off, keeping the race close for the duration? Or will Scott's numbers wilt even further once Crist begins to counterpunch?

#1—GEORGIA (49 points)—DKE Rating: Likely Republican
(Last month: 7—tie)

This might be the only month Georgia graces the top spot, but one can feel pretty sure that it won't be the only month that it appears prominently in the power rankings. The race got polled a ridiculous amount during the month of May—nine polls in all! Oddly, though, it is safe to say that neither the primary election for governor, or November's general election pitting incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal and his Democratic rival, state Sen. Jason Carter, had very little to do with the volume of polling in Georgia this month.

For those confused, perhaps an explanation is in order: the marquee race of the primary season, at least in terms of genuine mystery as to its outcome prior to the race, was that Georgia GOP Senate primary. Ergo, that Senate race got polled a ton (and also moved to the top spot in this month's Senate power rankings). A number of those pollsters decided to toss in a question about either the wholly uncompetitive GOP gubernatorial primary (which incumbent Nathan Deal won with ease) or looked ahead to the general.

Those general election polls, for what it is worth, put up a sizable caution sign for Carter. While he remains fairly close to Deal, polls show that Libertarian Andrew Hunt is hanging in at a disturbingly high 7-9 percent of the vote. Remember: Georgia is a state that has general election runoffs if no candidate hits 50 percent of the vote. Therefore, for Carter to avoid a low-turnout post-election runoff, it now looks like not only must he catch and pass the incumbent, he is going to have to do it by a pretty solid margin. Now, of course, historically third-party candidates poll better than they perform. But Carter has to hope that past is prologue, and Hunt's numbers do more than just recede by a few points. Of course, it's only June,  Deal is pretty unloved and Carter still has lots of time to make his case.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

With the rankings in the books, here, as promised for those interested, is the statement about the rubric for determining the power rankings:

THE RUBRIC: Three criteria were used to generate our top 10 list.

One is competitiveness. This was done rather easily, utilizing our DKE Gubernatorial race ratings. If a race had been designated by the Daily Kos Elections crew as a "toss-up," that netted that race 15 points. If the race was designated as a "lean" D/R race, it was worth 10 points. If the race was designated as a "likely" D/R contest, it was worth five points.

The second criteria is newsworthiness. Some races, for lack of a more elegant way of putting it, have more going on than others. The criteria here was also objective: a gubernatorial race received a single point for every day in the past month in which it was mentioned in a Daily Kos Elections Daily Digest. For those who are curious, top spot during the month of May went (for the second month in a row) to Pennsylvania, which was mentioned a total of 10 times.

The final criteria is "pollworthiness". Media outlets, campaigns, and polling firms are not going to poll a race for nothing. The more intriguing races are going to get more data points, typically. So, four points were awarded for each poll conducted (primary or general) in a given state's gubernatorial race, as logged in our comprehensive DKE polling database. As mentioned earlier, Georgia rocketed to the #1 position this month by virtue of being polled nine times during the month of May.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Sun Jun 22, 2014 at 08:55 AM PDT.

Also republished by Kos Georgia and Daily Kos.

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