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Three Republican Governors Face Increasingly Tough Election Contests

A Commentary By Geoffrey Skelley

Ratings changes in Arizona, Illinois, and Iowa


— The Crystal Ball has three ratings changes in gubernatorial contests, all shifts in the Democrats’ direction: Arizona moves from Likely Republican to Leans Republican, Illinois moves from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic, and Iowa moves from Leans Republican to Toss-up.

New ratings in Arizona, Illinois, and Iowa

Arizona and Iowa have few obvious things in common, but they do both have incumbent Republican governors seeking election in November. Another commonality is that the Crystal Ball now views both states’ gubernatorial contests as increasingly competitive, prompting ratings changes that move the Arizona race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican and the Iowa race from Leans Republican to Toss-up. In addition to these two changes, we are also shifting Illinois’ gubernatorial contest from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic, another downgrade for Republicans.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes


Old Rating

New Rating

Doug Ducey (R-AZ)

Likely Republican

Leans Republican

Kim Reynolds (R-IA)

Leans Republican


Bruce Rauner (R-IL)

Leans Democratic

Likely Democratic

Map 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) is seeking his second term, having won a comfortable 12-point victory in 2014. Given the Grand Canyon State’s Republican lean and Ducey’s incumbency, he started the 2018 cycle as a relatively strong favorite to win reelection. However, that is no longer the case. In a state that President Donald Trump carried by only 3.5 points, there are signs that the gubernatorial race could be quite competitive, though Arizona’s late August primary means that we do not yet know who Ducey will face in November. This assumes that Ducey will defeat former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett (R) in the Aug. 28 Republican primary; Ducey easily dispatched Bennett (and others) to win the GOP nomination back in 2014, so this seems likely.

Back in April, the Republican Governors Association — tasked with supporting GOP governors — caught our attention by making a television ad buy on behalf of Ducey. The ad focused on Ducey’s efforts to strengthen education in Arizona, coinciding with a teacher strike in the state that led to a legislative deal to raise Arizona educators’ wages. The timing of the ad made sense, but the fact that Ducey might need outside help seemed notable. This development came on top of the fact that Arizona is set to have a very competitive race for U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket. Polls in that race suggest a Democratic-leaning environment, with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ-9) leading every nonpartisan general election survey testing her against three possible GOP contenders, led by Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2). Ducey’s incumbency should help him to some degree, but the first nonpartisan survey of the gubernatorial race found Ducey neck and neck with the two most notable Democrats trying for the governorship. Gravis’ recent survey, released in early July, found Arizona State University professor David Garcia (D) up 42%-41% on Ducey and state Sen. Steve Farley (D) trailing Ducey 42%-39%. While more polling obviously will be needed, these data and related information about the political environment suggest Ducey may find himself in a dogfight come the fall. The incumbent remains favored, and he will have a large financial edge in the race: Ducey had $3.5 million in his campaign account at the end of June compared to $490,000 for Farley and about $250,000 for Garcia. News broke on Tuesday that the RGA is spending $1 million on attack ads against Garcia, who lost a close race for state superintendent of public instruction in 2014, and Kelly Fryer, a nonprofit leader and activist also seeking the Democratic nomination. This buy both indicates the GOP’s concern for Ducey but also the resources the party can bring to bear to help Ducey and other Republican candidates. The race remains an uphill battle for Democrats, but our new Leans Republican rating reflects our view that the November contest could be quite competitive.

First elected in 2010 as lieutenant governor on a ticket with Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and reelected in 2014, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) succeeded to Iowa’s governorship in May 2017 following Branstad’s confirmation as ambassador to China. She is now seeking a full term as governor in her own right this November, having been unopposed in the GOP primary in June. Along with Govs. Jeff Colyer (R-KS), Kay Ivey (R-AL), and Henry McMaster (R-SC), Reynolds is one of four “successor incumbents” who took over governorships in 2017-2018 when the previous governor stepped down and now hope to win four more years this November (among that group, only Colyer has yet to win renomination — Kansas’ primary is on Aug. 7). In the general election, Reynolds will face businessman Fred Hubbell (D), who handily won the Democratic nomination.

Some fundamental factors play a role in our ratings change in Iowa. First, the overall environment continues to lean in Democrats’ direction, with Morning Consult finding the president’s approval underwater in Iowa in June (46% approved, 50% disapproved), which squares with other polling. A recent congressional poll, albeit a Democratic campaign internal, found incumbent Rep. David Young (R, IA-3) trailing Cindy Axne (D). While we always look at internals with great skepticism, the lack of GOP pushback in IA-3 and elsewhere may be another indicator of a favorable environment for Democrats. If the Democratic candidate might be ahead in a district Trump carried by 3.5 points, statewide races may be more competitive than in 2016, when the president carried Iowa by nine points against Hillary Clinton. Additionally, as mentioned above, Reynolds is a “successor incumbent,” a group that has a mixed record of electoral success in the post-World War II era. Of the 62 successor incumbents who sought elections for governor in that time, 39 went on to win the general election, a success rate of 63%, which is worse than the 74% reelection rate for elected incumbent governors since the Second World War. More specifically as it relates to Reynolds, successor incumbents who were not directly elected to their previous statewide post before becoming governor — Reynolds was on a ticket in Iowa as lieutenant governor, not elected separately from the governor — have performed worse than those who did have a prior statewide election track record. Whereas 69% of successor incumbents who had previously won a statewide office in their own right went on to win in November, just 54% of those who came by the gubernatorial office without winning in their own right eventually found success in the general election.

There is little horserace polling to go on in the Hawkeye State, though a January Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey conducted by noted Iowa pollster Ann Selzer found Reynolds ahead of Hubbell 42%-37% well before the June primary. As for her job performance numbers, Morning Consult data for the first quarter of 2018 showed Reynolds had a net positive approval (42% approved, 35% disapprove). While not spectacular, Reynolds’ numbers suggest that she will not be easy to beat. Moreover, she had $4 million cash on hand just prior to the June 5 primary compared to Hubbell’s $115,000. Still, Hubbell is personally wealthy, and he has given his campaign millions of dollars while raising a total of almost $7 million prior to the primary. Assuming Hubbell continues to spend his own money at a rate similar to how he did during the primary, Reynolds’ cash advantage may shrink or even cease to exist. All in all, we feel there is sufficient uncertainty in Iowa to make Toss-up a more appropriate rating for the gubernatorial contest.

To the east, the Illinois gubernatorial contest appears increasingly uncompetitive. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-IL) began the 2018 cycle as the most endangered incumbent Republican in the country and his position has really only worsened since then. Rauner only narrowly won renomination in the March primary against state Rep. Jeanne Ives (R), indicating the GOP base’s frustration with the incumbent. Following the primary, the Crystal Ball shifted its rating in Illinois from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. Since the primary, every general election poll has found billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker (D) comfortably ahead of Rauner. While Rauner has a great deal of personal wealth, Pritzker’s bank account has an extra zero in it, and the Democratic nominee outspent Rauner $20.1 million to $7.8 million in the second quarter of 2018. What’s more, because many Republicans are displeased with Rauner, political space has opened for the third-party bid by state Sen. Sam McCann (R). As the Conservative Party nominee, the state senator is running to the right of Rauner on fiscal and social issues, though McCann has a pro-union record. McCann seems likely to peel at least a few Republican votes away from the incumbent, making Rauner’s reelection path even more difficult. The Crystal Ball typically gives incumbents the benefit of the doubt, but there has been no good news for Rauner in 2018. The Land of Lincoln contest is now rated as Likely Democratic.

With the three ratings changes in Arizona, Illinois, and Iowa, the Crystal Ball now rates nine gubernatorial races as Toss-ups, with 18 others favoring Republicans to some degree and nine more favoring Democrats to some extent. We now view Illinois as the likeliest party flip among the 36 gubernatorial contests in 2018.

Despite the bad news for the GOP in our ratings, we will add an important caveat to close: The RGA continues to have a substantial money edge on its rival, the Democratic Governors Association. Granted, the RGA is defending a lot of ground — Republicans already control 26 of the 36 governorships on the ballot this year — but the committee has the financial wherewithal to move the needle and potentially snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in some close races. The RGA’s deep pockets are always a factor to consider in close gubernatorial races.

Geoffrey Skelley is the Associate Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Geoffrey Skelley

See Other Political Commentary

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