Daily Kos Elections is pleased to announce our first set of gubernatorial race ratings for the 2020 election cycle. In total, voters will choose their governors in 11 states, with Republicans defending seven seats and Democrats four. An additional 20 seats held by Democrats and 19 held by Republicans are not up for election this year.
The governorship most likely to change hands is Montana’s, which Democrats have held for an impressive 16 years straight despite the state’s red hue. Democrats will also face a competitive contest in North Carolina, a state they flipped in 2016 even as Donald Trump was carrying it. The remaining seats are, at the moment, likely to stay with the party that currently controls them.
Of course, the playing field can always change—and often does. These ratings represent our attempt to forecast the outcomes of this November’s elections, using the best information we have available at the moment. As circumstances warrant, we’ll issue changes in these ratings from time to time. To keep up with any changes, please subscribe to our free newsletter, the Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest, which we send out each weekday.
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. These ratings are also visualized in the map at the top of this post. To learn how we come up with these ratings, we invite you to explore our detailed statement of our methodology.
In brief, here’s how we define each of our ratings categories:
- Tossup: Both (or all) parties have a strong, though not necessarily perfectly equal, chance of winning.
- Lean Democrat or Lean Republican: One party has an identifiable advantage, but a win is possible for the other party.
- Likely Democrat or Likely Republican: One party has a strong advantage and is likely to win, though the race has the potential to become more competitive and an upset cannot be ruled out.
- Safe Democrat or Safe Republican: Barring unforeseeable developments, one party is certain to win.
Below are 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.
● North Carolina – Roy Cooper (D): Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has consistently enjoyed a positive approval rating in this highly competitive swing state, and polls have for months shown him prevailing over Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the likely GOP nominee. Cooper narrowly won his first term in 2016 thanks to Republicans angering well-educated suburban voters with transphobic legislation that alienated their traditional big business allies.
Forest could once more hurt the GOP with this critical voting bloc: He not only supported the notorious "bathroom bill," but he's a hard-line social conservative with a record of extreme statements. Cooper has been a strong fundraiser, and with the advantage of incumbency, he's a modest favorite to win a second term.
● Montana – OPEN (D): Republicans last won the governorship in Montana in 2000, but that losing streak may finally come to an end in 2020 thanks to Montana's increasingly red trend. Democrats have credible contenders in Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Williams, who is the daughter of former Rep. Pat Williams. Furthermore, the Republican frontrunner appears to be Rep. Greg Gianforte, who infamously pleaded guilty to having assaulted a journalist on the eve of his 2017 special election victory.
While Gianforte brings his own flaws to the race and narrowly lost when he was the GOP's nominee in 2016, he both is very wealthy and has access to lots of donor money, so resources won't be a problem for him. It's also possible that Republicans will nominate someone less flawed than Gianforte, such as state Attorney General Tim Fox. Democrats will need a lot of voters to split their tickets, an ever-rarer phenomenon in today's politics.
● Washington – Jay Inslee (D): Republicans haven't won a governor's race in Washington since 1980, their longest losing streak in the country, and that drought appears unlikely to end in 2020. Polls have found Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee with somewhat soft approval scores, but Republicans may fail to land a sufficiently formidable challenger needed to give Inslee a real race.
None of the Republicans running so far start out with a large base of support, and none had raised a significant amount of money by the end of January. The most credible option so far looks like former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed, but only because he's capable of self-funding. Inslee is the first Washington governor to seek a third term since Republican Daniel Evans did so (and won) in 1972. While such attempts are rare nationwide, most have been successful.
● New Hampshire (two-year term) – Chris Sununu (R): Despite holding office in a state that tilts slightly toward Democrats, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has maintained a high approval rating and comfortably turned back a vigorous challenge in 2018's blue wave. Democrats aren't preparing to let Sununu skate by without another hard-fought race, and they're fielding two notable candidates: state Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes and Andru Volinsky, one of the five members of New Hampshire's unique Executive Council.
But even though Trump may lose New Hampshire again, Granite State voters have long demonstrated an unusual willingness to split their tickets between state and federal offices. That should once again benefit Sununu, who first won office in 2016 even as Hillary Clinton was carrying his state. Democrats will need to make a compelling argument as to why voters should oust an incumbent most of them like.
● Vermont (two-year term) – Phil Scott (R): Although Vermont is solidly Democratic at the federal level, voters in the Green Mountain State have long backed moderate Republicans for governor. That allowed GOP Gov. Phil Scott to first win office in 2016 even though Hillary Clinton carried Vermont by a wide margin. He then easily secured re-election over an unheralded challenger in 2018 despite that year's Democratic wave.
Scott faces more formidable opposition in 2020, with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and former state Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe both seeking the Democratic nod. But with a high approval rating, the incumbent remains favored to win a third term if he runs again.
● West Virginia – Jim Justice (R): Ancestrally Democratic West Virginia is likely to remain one of Trump's strongest states, but this Appalachian state has shown signs of its Democratic roots down-ballot even in the current era. Republican Gov. Jim Justice won in 2016 as a Democrat, and his party switch the following year did not bring an end to his clashes with prominent state Republicans.
Justice faces a serious primary challenge from former state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, and his approval ratings have been middling. Democrats are hopeful that Justice's struggles to unite his party could offer an opening to one of their three top candidates: Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, state Sen. Ron Stollings, or community organizer Stephen Smith.
● Delaware – John Carney (D): Democratic Gov. John Carney easily won his 2016 election, and there's no sign that he faces any more difficulty in his quest for re-election. Although polling has been limited, what few surveys exist have shown Carney with a strong approval rating. Furthermore, Republicans have no noteworthy candidate in a state that last voted Republican for president or governor in 1988, a streak that's unlikely to end in November.
● Indiana – Eric Holcomb (R): Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has sported a high approval rating in the few polls that exist. Democrats also lack a top-tier challenger who could give Holcomb a run for his money in a state that has become increasingly inhospitable. The only Democrat running is former state Health Commissioner Woody Myers, but he'd raised very little money by the end of 2019. With Trump poised to comfortably win Indiana again and the incumbent's tenure largely free of controversy, it's Holcomb's race to lose.
● Missouri – Mike Parson (R): Republican Gov. Mike Parson was elevated to the governorship when his predecessor, Eric Greitens, resigned in disgrace over accusations of sexual abuse in 2018. However, that scandal hasn't tainted Parson, who'd been separately elected as lieutenant governor and whose tenure has proceeded with less controversy. Nevertheless, Democrats landed a top-tier candidate in state Auditor Nicole Galloway, who won her office in 2018 even as Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill went down in defeat.
Galloway was motivated to run by Parson signing a law that would ban abortion after eight weeks, which is before many people even know they're pregnant. However, it will be difficult for her to prevail in a state that backed Trump by 56-38 and only continues to trend to the right. Polls so far have shown Parson with a comfortable advantage.
● North Dakota – Doug Burgum (R): Fossil fuel-dependent North Dakota has zoomed hard to the right in the past decade, and that trend shows no sign of abating in 2020. Republican Gov. Doug Burgum faces no notable Democratic opponent, and he'll have little trouble cruising to victory in a state that will likely be one of Trump's very best in the country.
● Utah – OPEN (R): Although Trump's margin of victory was greatly reduced in 2016 compared to past Republican presidential candidates thanks in part to the candidacy of conservative independent Evan McMullin, Utah remains one of the reddest states in the country down-ballot. The state's heavily Mormon population continues to vote in large numbers for GOP candidates, and Democrats have no notable candidate running for governor. Republicans, meanwhile, are unlikely to produce a nominee who turns off usual GOP voters in the state as much as Trump does.