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Updating The Governors' Races

A Commentary By Larry Sabato & Kyle Kondik

Although the calendar for gubernatorial elections in the 2011-2012 cycle is relatively light since most of the action in statehouse races occurred last year, several notable contests are developing for this November and next. States such as Indiana, Missouri and North Carolina, which happen to have been the three closest states in the 2008 presidential election, could see competitive races for governor in 2012, and two off-year elections -- in West Virginia and Kentucky -- will test Democrats' strength in deeply Red states.

Analysis of each race begins after Chart 1:



Chart 1: 2011-2012 Governor ratings




Possible Primary Challengers

Major Party Opposition

Party Rating


Jack Markell



Safe D


Mitch Daniels

- Rep. Mike Pence
- Businessman Jim Wallace

- Ex-IN House Speaker John Gregg
- Businessman Thomas Lenfert

Likely R


Steve Beshear


- KY Senate Pres. David Williams

Likely D


Bobby Jindal


- State Sen. Rob Marionneaux?
- Teacher Tara Hollis

Solid R


Jay Nixon


- LG Peter Kinder

Likely D


Haley Barbour

- LG Phil Bryant
- Businessman Dave Dennis
- County Supervisor Hudson Holliday
- Tea Party activist James Broadwater
- Businessman Ron Williams

- Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree
- Attorney Bill Luckett
- Ex-County Assessor Guy Shaw
- 2007 Gov. candidate William Compton

Solid R


Brian Schweitzer

- AG Steve Bullock?
- State Sen. Larry Jent

- Ex-Rep. Rick Hill
- Ex-State Sen. Corey Stapleton
- Ex-State Sen. Ken Miller
- National security consultant Neil Livingstone
- County Commissioner Jim O'Hara

Leans R


Beverly Perdue
(Eligible for reelection)


- 2008 Gov nominee Pat McCrory



Jack Dalrymple

- 2010 Sen candidate Paul Sorum

- Ex-AG Heidi Heitkamp?

Solid R


John Lynch
(Eligible for reelection)

- Former Bureau of Securities Regulation Director Mark Connolly?

- State Sen. Maj. Leader Jeb Bradley?
- 2010 Sen. candidate Ovide Lamontagne?
- 2010 Gov. nominee John Stephen?
- Conservative activist Kevin Smith?

Likely D


Gary Herbert

- Ex-state Rep. Craig Frank?

- Rep. Jim Matheson?
- State Sen. Karen Morgan?

Solid R


Peter Shumlin


- Aud. Tom Salmon?

Solid D


Christine Gregoire

- Rep. Jay Inslee

- AG Rob McKenna



Earl Ray Tomblin


- Businessman Bill Maloney

Likely D



Delaware: Delaware Republicans have given no indication that they will produce a strong challenger to incumbent Jack Markell, and, even if they did, it's hard to imagine an incumbent governor being thrown out of office when Barack Obama is cruising to victory in the First State. Solid Democratic

Indiana: This race to succeed popular, term-limited incumbent Mitch Daniels might possibly become competitive but it almost certainly leans Republican -- perhaps strongly so -- to begin with. The nominees on both the Republican and Democratic sides appear to be set, barring another entry into the field or an unexpected primary upset. The Republicans' top contender is Rep. Mike Pence, who flirted with a presidential bid before turning his focus to the gubernatorial race. The Democrats' likely nominee is former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg. Indiana is normally a Republican state, and so Pence is unquestionably the favorite here. Gregg, who is relatively moderate (both candidates are anti-abortion, for instance), could give Pence some trouble, especially if Pence's strong and vocal social conservatism proves a bit too much for Indiana voters. Presidential coattails might play a large role in this state. President Obama narrowly won the Hoosier State in 2008, but even his campaign reportedly recognizes that the state is very likely to support the eventual Republican presidential nominee next year, assuming the GOP picks a mainstream standard-bearer. Republican Daniels is exceptionally popular, and that will assist Pence. It may be some comfort for Gregg that Indiana voters have been independent at times. For instance, while Obama won in 2008, Daniels swept to a second term, and four years earlier, in 2004, Republican George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh both won huge victories. So Indiana voters won't necessarily be afraid to split their tickets. Likely Republican

Kentucky: This is the first of four 2011 gubernatorial contests and the field is now set: Republican State Senate President David Williams won the right to challenge incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. Still, Williams did not perform all that well in the primary: He failed to get over 50% in a three-way field despite facing two relatively weak opponents, including Tea Party businessman Phil Moffett. Moffett tried to repeat now-Sen. Rand Paul's upset primary magic from last year, but he never became a serious threat. This is a deeply Red state in the Age of Obama, however, and Williams has a chance to win. Republicans at the national level are convinced they can elect Williams by tying Beshear to President Obama, who is deeply unpopular in the Bluegrass State. To beat any incumbent though, a challenger needs to be firing on all cylinders, and Williams has not shown much so far. Gov. Beshear has made the most of his incumbency, has a large war chest accumulated, and has tried his best to separate himself from Obama. Clearly, Beshear needs to be scheduled for an appearance in some other part of the world whenever Obama visits Kentucky. But without some extra steam provided by a major issue or scandal, it is hard to see how Williams manages an upset. Likely Democratic

Louisiana: Louisiana political giant Huey Long once called politics "the sport of kings." But an election isn't much of a sport if the game has only one king, as is the case on the bayou, where Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is preparing to romp to a second term this November. His possible Democratic opponents are mere serfs and court jesters by comparison. Solid Republican

Mississippi: Republican Haley Barbour, like Daniels in Indiana, is leaving the governor's office due to term limits and steering clear of the presidential race. The GOP primary will probably result in a win for Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant against businessman Dave Dennis. Democrats have no one of any consequence to nominate. Solid Republican

Missouri: Obama barely lost Missouri in 2008, but it would be a surprise if he captured the state in 2012, as it has trended more Republican in the last couple of years. Theoretically, that could be bad news for popular incumbent Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, but his likely opponent, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R), has so far been in the news for all the wrong reasons. A sampling of his 2011 gaffes must begin with unwise travel reimbursements. Kinder repaid about $54,000 for hundreds of hotel stays in the St. Louis area that he initially charged to taxpayers. Around the same time this embarrassment emerged, Kinder's car was stolen from outside his home and left in flaming ruin. Kinder had left the keys in the ignition. The burnt-out car might be a fitting symbol of Kinder's gubernatorial hopes if he doesn't get his campaign, and himself, back on track. Meanwhile, Nixon won widespread praise for his handling of the Joplin tornado disaster, which dominated the news for weeks in the Show Me State. A positive image like the one Nixon acquired as a caring leader and crisis manager can be long-lasting. Nixon is the early, solid favorite to win a second term. Likely Democratic

Montana: A prime gubernatorial pick-up opportunity for the Republicans in 2012, Montana is a Red state with a popular term-limited, two-term governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer. Ex-Rep. Rick Hill is the likely Republican nominee, and he is the November favorite at the moment, especially considering that any mainstream GOP presidential candidate will likely win Big Sky country by a wide margin. The Democrat who could probably give Hill the best race is Attorney General Steve Bullock, assuming he makes a final decision to run. Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, a one-time Republican who ran as Schweitzer's running mate on a fusion ticket, might also be a credible Democratic nominee. No doubt Bullock or Bohlinger would position himself as the natural successor to Schweitzer, who has handled the recent oil spill in Montana with aplomb. This contest is a late starter but could get interesting. For now, Leans Republican

New Hampshire: If Democratic Gov. John Lynch decides to run for a fifth, two-year term, he's a solid favorite for reelection. The consistently popular governor was held to a 7.5% margin of victory in 2010, but that was probably more of an aberration in a Republican year than anything else. At the same time, the 2010 GOP landslide in the Granite State is causing some potentially competitive Republicans to take a look. If Lynch surprises everyone and retires, this contest will start out as a toss-up but might well lean Republican in the long run. The nomination of Mitt Romney, former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, would strengthen the entire New Hampshire GOP ticket. Likely Democratic, as long as Lynch runs. Highly competitive, otherwise.

North Carolina: We were sorely tempted to change the rating in this race. Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue is likely to face a rematch with her 2008 opponent, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory. Opinion polls have consistently shown McCrory to be leading the unpopular Perdue, and if the election were being held tomorrow, we'd pick the Republican to win the seat. That said, President Obama is going to invest heavily in North Carolina to try to repeat his squeaker 2008 victory there. He has even gone so far as to schedule his 2012 re-nomination convention in Charlotte. The Democrats have consistently held the governor's office in North Carolina for the past two decades, and that streak has to come to an end sometime. In the midst of bad economic times, Perdue has been unable to bank any popularity capital, and incumbency may be more of a drag than an advantage. While Obama's coattails could theoretically save Perdue, assuming Obama can manage another victory in the Tar Heel State, it is still going to be difficult for Perdue to win. If Obama loses North Carolina, Perdue is certainly a goner. Out of an abundance of caution early in the election cycle, we'll keep this one as a Toss-up for now, but it is barely that.

North Dakota: Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple took over this seat when his predecessor, John Hoeven, won a Senate seat in 2010. Whatever little funding and energy the Democrats put into North Dakota will likely be at the House or Senate level, and the party is likely to lose the federal contests too. It is hard to imagine a strong Democratic candidate emerging to wade into the governor's race. Dalrymple therefore is a sturdy favorite to win his first full term in 2012. Solid Republican.

Utah: Democrats probably are not a threat to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert unless Rep. Jim Matheson*, son of the former governor, decides to run, and he may be more drawn to the Senate seat than the governorship. Potentially more worrisome to Herbert might be a challenge from the right. Tea Party activists knocked off former Republican Sen. Robert Bennett in a convention last year, and Herbert—even though deeply conservative—could still be a target. Ex-State Rep. Craig Frank, who had to give up his House seat earlier this year when it was discovered that he did not actually live in the district he represented, is making noises about challenging Herbert. Herbert is a reasonably popular governor and is likely to thwart any challenge. Solid Republican.

*U.Va. Center for Politics director Larry Sabato does not rate Utah races that involve members of the Matheson family; these ratings are left to other members of the Crystal Ball team. Sabato and the Mathesons have been close friends for 36 years, pre-dating the political careers of U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT) and 2004 gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson (D), now a United States appellate judge. In his only federal political donations ever, Sabato gave $500 to Jim Matheson on May 21, 1999, and donated two separate $500 (total $1,000) gifts to Scott Matheson on Aug. 18, 2003 and Sept. 9, 2004. This disclosure is in accordance with Crystal Ball policy.

Vermont: First-term Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, elected in a close race last year, is going to have a much easier time in 2012. Vermont voters haven't thrown out a first-term governor in half a century. Republican Auditor Tom Salmon is contemplating a challenge to either Shumlin or liberal Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, but he'd be a heavy underdog against either in a year when President Obama will be leading the top of the ticket in this liberal state. Solid Democratic.

Washington: Two-term Democratic incumbent Christine Gregoire is retiring, and the Democratic nominee will very likely be Rep. Jay Inslee. He may have a better chance of holding the governorship than the fairly unpopular Gregoire would have had. Washington is a reliably Blue state, and a Republican hasn't been elected governor there since 1980 -- an exceptionally long dry spell. However, the all-but-certain Republican nominee, Attorney General Rob McKenna, has performed strongly in his races for AG in 2004 and 2008 even while Democrats carried the state at the presidential level. Washington could finally be ready to hand the governor's seat to a Republican. But the early polls show a McKenna-Inslee match-up close, possibly with a slight Inslee edge. With Obama almost certain to win the state by a decent-to-comfortable margin, McKenna could never be considered a shoo-in. A year and a half in advance of the election, this is anybody's game, and it will perhaps be the most competitive gubernatorial election in the country. Toss-Up.

West Virginia: Earl Ray Tomblin is a pretty easy name to remember, and when it is attached to the title of governor, it's a potent combination. Already filling 10-plus months of now-Sen. Joe Manchin's gubernatorial term as "acting governor," Tomblin is seeking an additional year of Manchin's leftover term in an October 2011 special election. That election will be followed by a regular election for a four-year term in November 2012. In May 2011, Tomblin dominated a Democratic primary field composed of top Democratic officeholders, easily capturing the party's gubernatorial nomination. On the Republican side of the primary ballot, businessman Bill Maloney upset former Secretary of State Betty Ireland to win the right to challenge Tomblin. Coming off his strong primary victory, Tomblin is the favorite this November. Should Tomblin get a full year to drop the "acting" from his title, he may well be in a commanding position again in 2012. But let's see who the Republicans find to run against him -- assuming Maloney doesn't pull an upset in October 2011. The GOP dreams that Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore, will run, and a Tomblin-Moore match-up would be as fierce a political battle as the Mountain State's valleys have ever witnessed. Tomblin would possess incumbency and tradition, but Moore Capito would almost certainly have potentially long coattails from the eventual GOP presidential candidate. Barack Obama lost West Virginia by 13 percentage points in 2008, and he has been deeply unpopular there throughout his tenure. This is one state he can forget about carrying as long as the Republicans don't self-destruct in their nominating process. Likely Democratic in 2011. No rating yet for 2012.

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