Daily Kos Elections is pleased to announce our first set of gubernatorial race ratings for the 2015-16 election cycle. Democrats are defending nine seats while Republicans are defending six. Three governorships are up for election this fall (in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi), while the remainder are up next year, including a special election in Oregon.
Our full chart rating the competitiveness of each contest is below (with Democratic seats in blue and Republican seats in red), along with a description of our ratings categories and an explanation of why we've rated each race the way we have.
Here's how we define our ratings categories:
Tossup: Both (or all) parties have a strong, though not necessarily perfectly equal, chance of winning. Some Tossups may be shown with their backgrounds shaded blue or red, meaning they "tilt" toward the indicated party (i.e., that party has a slight advantage).
Lean: One party has an identifiable advantage, but an upset victory is possible for the other party.
Likely: One party has a strong advantage and is likely to win, though the race has the potential to become more competitive.
Safe: Barring unforeseeable developments, one party is certain to win.
Below the fold are brief explanations of our initial ratings, grouped by category of competitiveness and ranging from most competitive to least competitive. Note, however, that even within each category, not all races are equally competitive: One race in the Lean Republican grouping, for instance, might be on the border of being a Tossup, while another could be closer to Likely Republican.
• Kentucky — OPEN (D): Of the three races on tap next month, Kentucky's is by far the most competitive. The state's rightward lurch at the federal level is old hat by this point, but unlike almost everywhere else in the South, Democrats have managed to remain a force in state politics. Term-limited Gov. Steve Beshear is hoping to pass his office on to state Attorney General Jack Conway, who got killed by Rand Paul in the 2010 Senate race but has nevertheless managed to win statewide office twice. Local Democrats seem to like carping about Conway's skills as a candidate, but he's a strong fundraiser and hasn't made any obvious mistakes this time.
Conway also lucked out when Republicans picked tea partying businessman Matt Bevin as their nominee by just an 83-vote margin after a nasty primary. Bevin likewise has an unsuccessful Senate bid on his résumé—he got pancaked by Mitch McConnell last year—but if he learned anything from it, it hasn't shown. Bevin's been a terrible fundraiser, and to make matters worse, he's refused to self-fund enough to make up the difference; his paid media strategy's been bonkers, with ads only appearing very late in the game and then disappearing; and he's really and truly pissed off his fellow Republicans by acting, it seems, like a general jerk.
So much so, in fact, that the Republican Governors Association, which is tasked with electing Republicans to governorships nationwide, decided to stop airing ads on Bevin's behalf with just a month to go in the race. This stunning move was reportedly the RGA's way of trying to whip Bevin into shape, but so far, the committee doesn't seem to think that its tough-love program is having any success. A couple of recent polls have shown the race close but with Conway leading; as Election Day nears, Conway should also benefit from voters shifting away from a liberal-leaning independent, Drew Curtis, and toward him.
Republicans by all rights should have had an advantage here, but thanks to Bevin, they've biffed this one hard and left it in play.
• Missouri — OPEN (D): As in Kentucky, Democrats are trying to hold on to an open seat in a red state that they've held for two straight terms, with Gov. Jay Nixon unable to run for re-election. They're also currently experiencing a similar kind of good fortune as their Bluegrass brethren, since state Attorney General Chris Koster, a former Republican, has the party's nomination all but locked down. Republicans, meanwhile, are in the midst of one of the messiest primaries we've ever seen—so horrid that it claimed the life of one candidate, state Auditor Tom Schweich, who committed suicide after accusing a consultant who worked for a rival, former U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway, of trying to sabotage him by falsely claiming he was Jewish.
Schweich's supporters are still furious with Hanaway, who's received over $1 million in donations from billionaire conservative Rex Sinquefield, a sort of Show Me State Koch brother. (Missouri has no contribution limits.) In the mix with Hanaway are a ton of serious competitors, including Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, wealthy businessman John Brunner, state Sen. Bob Dixon, and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens. There's every reason to expect that this nomination battle will continue to feature the same kind of ugliness it's already seen.
But while the GOP burns, Koster continues to rake in the bucks, and presidential turnout should keep him competitive with whomever the Republicans wind up picking.
• New Hampshire — OPEN (D): After Rhode Island changed its laws in 1994, New Hampshire and its next-door neighbor, Vermont, became the last two states to elect their governors to two-year terms, a tradition both still maintain today. Democrats would have been the strong favorites to hold this seat again had Gov. Maggie Hassan sought re-election, but she recently decided to run against GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte instead.
That's left a wide-open race on both sides, and the fields are still forming. All the potential players range from mostly to very unknown, making early polls useless. What's more, in this age of sharp partisan polarization, Granite State politics remain unusually elastic and prone to sharp swings, so this contest is particularly difficult to handicap. In the end, there's a good chance Democrats will have the advantage, simply because the party has done well here in presidential election years. But there's far too much uncertainty this far out to make any predictions with confidence.
• North Carolina — Pat McCrory (R): McCrory pulled off a decisive win in 2012, but this time won't be so easy. McCrory and the GOP legislature have shepherded a radically conservative overhaul of the state government, inflaming liberals and turning off moderates. Democrats, meanwhile, landed by far their top recruit, state Attorney General Roy Cooper, and early polls show the two neck-and-neck.
This is likely to be the most-watched gubernatorial contest of 2016, and both sides are going to have plenty of money to spend. While North Carolina has become much more competitive over the last few cycles, the state still leans Republican in presidential races. That might give McCrory a small built-in edge, but Tar Heel voters have shown a little more willingness to vote Democratic in non-federal races.
What's more, McCrory's role as implementer-in-chief of scads of unpopular legislation, including major cuts to education, makes him vulnerable. Last year, Democrats hit then-state House Speaker Thom Tillis, McCrory's comrade-in-arms, along exactly these lines—while Tillis did unseat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, she still lost by less than 2 percent in what was a nasty GOP wave. Next year, Democrats will do their utmost to give McCrory the Tillis treatment, but this time the incumbent won't be able to count on a favorable political climate to protect him.
It's also unclear whether the Democrats' presidential nominee will contest North Carolina's 15 electoral votes. If Team Blue focuses elsewhere, it will make McCrory's job easier. But if Democrats just keep the Tar Heel State close even without winning it, McCrory's unpopularity could cost him just enough to deny him victory. Right now, though, we just don't know what will happen at the top of the ticket. This uncertainty, coupled with the fact that neither candidate appears to otherwise have a decided advantage, makes the outcome here an open question.
• Vermont — OPEN (D): Usually when an incumbent declines to run for re-election, that makes life harder for his or her party since now it has to defend an open seat instead. But given Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin's unpopularity—he barely scratched out a win last year in a race no one thought would be close—Team Blue may actually be better off running a replacement.
The flipside, though, is that now Democrats face a heavy-duty three-way primary between state House Speaker Shap Smith, ex-state Sen. Matt Dunne, and former state Transportation Secretary Sue Minter. Perhaps more importantly, the left-wing Vermont Progressive Party is also threatening to run a candidate in the general election, which could peel away critical votes from the Democratic nominee.
And while the Green Mountain State is safely Democratic in federal races, voters are much more amenable to sending a Republican to the governor's mansion. Indeed, GOP Gov. Jim Douglas held the job for four straight terms in the aughts, and Team Red has now landed their strongest possible candidate in Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who won re-election last year with 62 percent of the vote.
However, Scott has his own primary against former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman. It's unclear how much money Lisman can or will spend, but if he puts up a fight, he'll at least prevent Scott from being able to build up a warchest while the Democrats duke it out. What's more, the Democratic presidential nominee will easily carry Vermont, and Scott will need to find enough crossover voters to put him over the top.
It's the Progressives who are the real x-factor here, though. If they insist on going their own way, that would help Republicans tremendously. (In fact, in 2008, Democrats actually came in third, behind the Progressives.) So until we have a better read on what's going to happen here, this race has to be considered a Tossup.
• Montana — Steve Bullock (D): Bullock won this seat by a razor-thin margin in 2012, but he should be better-situated to hang on for a second term now that he's the incumbent. Montana's red lean makes this a tough task for any Democrat, but (in a recurring theme throughout this writeup) the fact that the state is one of just a handful to hold gubernatorial elections in presidential years gives the party a real boost. Indeed, Democrats have won the last three in a row, and since 1960, only twice have they lost by more than 4 points.
Two notable Republicans are planning to challenge Bullock. Public Service Commissioner Brad Johnson, a former Montana secretary of state, kicked off his bid in September, but he doesn't seem to be generating much excitement. A higher-risk, higher-reward option is rich guy Greg Gianforte. Gianforte is capable of spending whatever he needs to spend to win, but he may be too conservative even for a red state like this. Gianforte made headlines a few months ago when he assailed the very notion of retiring in old age, claiming the "concept of retirement is not biblical." Gianforte has not officially entered the race, but he's left little doubt about his intentions.
Bullock doesn't have much of a margin here, but for now, he has a small advantage.
• Washington — Jay Inslee (D): Republicans have come close to winning this seat several times in recent cycles, but they haven't been able to seal the deal since 1980. Inslee won a 52-48 victory in 2012, and most polls show voters are evenly divided on his performance. The state GOP has largely consolidated behind Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant, who is little-known but well-connected. Rep. Dave Reichert is expected to announce his plans soon, and he'd be a more formidable candidate, but there doesn't seem to be much optimism among Republicans that he'll jump in. It won't be easy for the GOP to unseat a Democratic incumbent in a blue state with presidential turnout, but it's conceivable if Inslee approval ratings were to slide.
• Indiana — Mike Pence (R): By all rights, this race shouldn't be nearly this competitive, but Pence did lasting damage to himself in early spring when he was completely unprepared for the firestorm that followed the passage of a piece of legislation known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law enraged liberals because it would have made it easier for businesses to turn away gay customers, but it also sparked sharp threats by major corporations both in Indiana and nationwide to boycott the state—the real reason why Pence ultimately backed down and signed a "clarification" that softened the law.
Polls taken immediately after the imbroglio showed Pence vulnerable to a Democratic opponent, and some Republicans started talking seriously about issuing a primary challenge. Still, though, this kind of debacle typically fades with time, but that doesn't seem to have happened here. Pence reportedly still sports ugly numbers in more recent polling, and several major Republicans have not ruled out bids.
Democrats, on the other hand, have consolidated around former state House Speaker John Gregg, who came just 3 points shy of upsetting Pence in 2012. Gregg was likely aided that year by general voter disgust toward Richard Mourdock, the GOP's infamous candidate for Senate, but this time, it's his own opponent who's wounded. Gregg has fundraised impressively so far, thanks heavily to labor coming in strong for him. He'll need a few more things to go right in order to buck the tide in this red state, but Pence has put this race on the table.
• West Virginia — OPEN (D): Until recently, West Virginians have been willing to vote Republican for president and Democratic for almost everything else, but the last few years have not been good for Mountain State Democrats. In 2014, Team Blue lost control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time since the 1930s, and longtime Rep. Nick Rahall lost the ancestrally Democratic 3rd Congressional District in the southern part of the state. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is reasonably popular but termed-out, and the state GOP has a good chance to win their first gubernatorial election since 1996.
Republicans have consolidated behind state Senate President Bill Cole, while the Democrats are dealing with a competitive primary between state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler and coal billionaire Jim Justice. Justice's wealth could give him a leg up against Kessler, but he has a history of late fines and safety violations at his coal mines. The GOP's presidential nominee will easily carry West Virginia's five electoral votes, and with voters now much more accustomed to voting a straight Republican ticket, it will be difficult for Democrats to pull off an upset.
• Delaware — OPEN (D): Though Gov. Jack Markell is termed out, Democrats shouldn't have much trouble holding this seat. Delaware's become a solidly blue state in recent decades, and Republicans haven't won a governor's race here since 1988. Rep. John Carney, who narrowly lost the 2008 gubernatorial primary to Markell, is the only declared Democrat in the race, and the establishment is gladly supporting him. State Sen. Colin Bonini is running for the GOP, but this one will probably wind up in the "Safe" column for Team Blue by the time the election rolls around.
• Oregon — Kate Brown (D): Oregon usually holds its gubernatorial elections in midterm years, but as a result of Gov. John Kitzhaber's shocking resignation in February, a special election for the final two years of his term will take place in 2016. Several top Democrats had an eye on running in 2018, but when Secretary of State Kate Brown was elevated to take Kitzhaber's spot, the calculus changed. A few thought about challenging her in next year's primary, but Brown settled in to her new job quickly and now everyone who might have gone up against her has decided on different plans.
The GOP, by contrast doesn't really have any credible candidates (unknown physician Bud Pierce is the only Republican running). The timing of special elections almost always hurts Democrats, but this is one case where the opposite is true.
• Louisiana — OPEN (R): Louisiana will host a jungle primary on Oct. 24, and the top two vote-getters will advance to a Nov. 21 runoff. Most polls show Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards and GOP Sen. David Vitter advancing, while Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne are getting left out in the cold by splitting the anti-Vitter vote. While Vitter and his two intra-party rivals have been attacking each other, Edwards had remained almost completely unscathed—though that just changed.
If Edwards and Vitter wind up in the runoff, Team Blue has an outside shot at victory. Vitter's 2007 prostitution scandal is back in the headlines, and it's taken a toll on his popularity. Gov. Bobby Jindal is also leaving office with terrible approval ratings, and Edwards is arguing that Vitter will continue the governor's legacy.
The problem for Edwards is that he's running in a very red state that has almost completely rejected Democrats. Edwards posted a narrow lead in one recent poll of a hypothetical runoff with Vitter, but that was before national Republicans started airing ads tying him to the unpopular Obama administration. If Edwards can remain competitive with Vitter after being hit with the first onslaught of Republican ads, we'll re-evaluate our outlook here. But right now, it's up to Edwards to prove that he do what so many red state Democrats couldn't do and hold on once the GOP nationalizes the race.
• North Dakota — OPEN (R): Gov. Jack Dalrymple easily would have won a second full term had he so desired, but he unexpectedly announced his retirement earlier this year. Republicans should still be a lock to win here, though, because the one Democrat who would have made this race competitive, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, took a pass. State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem should be the favorite for the GOP nomination if he runs, but we can expect a competitive primary. Democrats do have some other options, such as radio host Joel Heitkamp (brother of Heidi), but this is sort of their Delaware, as they haven't won the governorship since 1988.
• Mississippi — Phil Bryant (R): Democrats were never going to win this year's gubernatorial contest in Mississippi, but they extra-weren't after nominating a truck driver who didn't even tell his mother he was running for office—nor did he bother to vote for himself in the primary. He might be the most Some Dude candidate ever to win a major party nomination for a governor's race. We seriously can't even remember his name.
• Utah — Gary Herbert (R): Unless ex-Rep. Jim Matheson (who's now enjoying life as a lobbyist) runs for the Democrats, Herbert will cruise to re-election. Wealthy businessman Jonathan Johnson is challenging Herbert in the GOP primary, but he looks like he's going nowhere.