Governors 2019-2020: Democrats try to hold the line in red-state battles


Editor’s Note: Last Thursday morning, the University of Virginia Center for Politics held its 20th annual American Democracy Conference in Washington, D.C. To watch a replay of the conference, visit our website.


— Following the 2018 election, Republicans now control 27 governorships to the Democrats’ 23, but a majority of the American public will live in states governed by Democrats starting next year.

— The 14 governorships at stake over the next two years feature some intriguing contests that will be held on mostly GOP-leaning turf.

— The most endangered governorship for either side is the open seat in Montana, which Democrats are defending.

Initial ratings for 2019-2020 gubernatorial races

When newly-elected Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia switched parties from Democratic to Republican in 2017, the Democratic Party held just 15 of the 50 state governorships. But after picking up New Jersey in 2017, Democrats netted seven more governorships in 2018: Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. So Democrats now hold 23 governorships, while the GOP holds 27; a majority of the population of the 50 states (about 53%) will live in states with Democratic governors, although that would be a significantly larger share if Democrats hadn’t come up short in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio, three big states where Republicans successfully played defense in 2018.

The party control of state governorships starting early next year is shown in Map 1.

Map 1: Party control of state governorships after 2018 elections

Midterm years are when a significant majority of the governorships are decided, so there aren’t a ton on the ballot over the next few years, especially when one considers that hardly any of the most populous states elect governors in presidential years. Only one of the 10 most populous states, North Carolina, elects its governor concurrently with the presidential race. Yet there are still many interesting contests during the next two years, and Republicans may have a better chance than Democrats to expand their total number of governorships this cycle.

For starters, the states being contested over the next two years generally lean right. The three states on the ballot in 2019, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi, are all reliably Republican at the federal level. In 2020, the Republican presidential candidate should easily carry at least Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia, while the Democratic nominee should easily win just Delaware, Vermont, and Washington. Two other states are very competitive at the presidential level, New Hampshire and North Carolina. New Hampshire and Vermont remain the only two states where governors are elected to two-year terms as opposed to four-year terms, like every other governorship.

Overall, Republicans control nine of the 14 governorships being contested over the next two years. However, the one race where we see the highest likelihood of a party switch comes in Montana, which Democrats currently hold. That’s the one state that starts as a Toss-up as shown in Map 2, our initial ratings of this cycle’s gubernatorial races.

Map 2: Initial Crystal Ball ratings for 2019-2020 gubernatorial races

Let’s start with the 2019 races, all of which seem like they will be hotly contested.

The top race comes in Louisiana, where Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA) is running for a second term. He owes his governorship in large part to his 2015 opponent, then-Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), who proved to be a weak candidate thanks in part to his 2007 admission that he used an escort service in Washington. Vitter survived his problems in an easy 2010 Senate reelection bid amidst a national GOP wave in a reddening state. But his personal weaknesses re-asserted themselves in a less-nationalized gubernatorial race where he also was weighed down by the troubles of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), a Vitter rival who had bad approval ratings by the end of his second term. Edwards, meanwhile, has generally enjoyed decent approval ratings, but he doesn’t appear to have the sky-high ratings that can insulate a member of a state’s minority party from a challenge from the majority party. For instance, Morning Consult pegged Edwards’ approval rating at 47% approve/34% disapprove in October, a perfectly respectable score. However, recently reelected Govs. Charlie Baker (R-MA) and Larry Hogan (R-MD) posted outstanding 70%-17% and 67%-17% splits respectively in the same polling, which is how Republicans can coast in very blue states, as both did last month. Edwards’ good-but-not great numbers combined with the nation’s increasing polarization means that his path to reelection remains perilous. Edwards caught a break earlier this week when Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) decided against a run. A survey from local pollster Bernie Pinsonat conducted prior to Kennedy passing on the race showed the senator leading Edwards 49%-45% in a hypothetical matchup, an indicator of Edwards’ vulnerability even though the same poll found that 60% of respondents said he was doing an excellent or good job. Businessman Eddie Rispone (R), a deep-pocketed, long-time GOP donor, is already running, and Rep. Ralph Abraham (R, LA-5), might. State Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) initially passed on a bid, but that was before Kennedy declined to run, so Landry could reconsider. Remember that Election Day, Oct. 12, 2019, will feature an all-party jungle primary; if no one gets over 50%, there will be a runoff between the top two finishers (likely Edwards and a Republican) on Nov. 16, 2019. So a big GOP field could benefit Edwards by leaving the eventual nominee with little time to pivot to the runoff, and Edwards could hypothetically win outright before a runoff. We’re going to start this race as Leans Democratic, owing to Edwards’ incumbency and relative lack of controversy. But this could become a Toss-up in a hurry given how red Louisiana is.

By the way, Kennedy’s decision not to run for governor is yet another instance of a sitting senator opting against a gubernatorial bid. Senators often flirt with going home to run for governor, but they don’t seem to follow through with it all that often. Vitter is a recent, rare example of one who did, and he ended up losing in embarrassing fashion.

In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin (R-KY) has sported weak approval ratings — a Morning Consult survey from October pegged him at 30% approve/55% disapprove — and he seems likely to draw a credible Democratic challenger. The list of possibilities is led by state Attorney General Andy Beshear (D), son of former Gov. Steve Beshear (D). Bevin and the younger Beshear have clashed often, and a November matchup would be explosive. Other possibilities include former state Auditor Adam Edelen (D), state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins (D), and Amy McGrath (D), a retired Marine pilot who narrowly lost a closely-watched congressional race to Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY-6) last month who would have to deal with some state-specific residency issues if she ran for the governorship. We’ll start this one as Leans Republican with a nod both to Bevin’s incumbency and Kentucky’s increasingly Republican statewide leanings.  

The third 2019 race, in Mississippi, will be an open-seat race as Gov. Phil Bryant (R) is prohibited by term limits from seeking a third term. Democrats are excited about their likely nominee, state Attorney General Jim Hood (D), although it appears he will face at least some primary opposition. Hood has won four straight terms as attorney general by double digits each time, and he has a path to victory if he can combine a strong performance with African Americans, who form a large majority of Democratic voters in the state, with his unique appeal to otherwise conservative Republican white voters. Hood, like Edwards in Louisiana, is not pro-choice on abortion, which is a good position to have in socially conservative Southern states. Despite Hood’s impressive history, we think we’d rather be the Republican nominee to start owing to the challenges Democrats face in that state, challenges that were made manifest once again in the Senate special election held last week, where Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) won by about eight points despite running a weak race marred by controversy down the stretch. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) leads the list of GOP possibilities for the Mississippi governorship, although he might not have a free ride to the nomination. Mississippi also has a strange, antiquated provision for gubernatorial elections: The winning gubernatorial candidate must receive a majority of both the statewide vote and win a majority of the state’s House districts to win outright. If no one does that, the state House of Representatives picks between the two highest vote getters. It will be hard for the Democratic nominee to carry a majority of the state House districts — the GOP currently holds a 74-47 majority — and it’s technically possible that the GOP-controlled House could install a Republican governor even if the Republican gets fewer votes than the Democrat. A system like this — basically a state-level Electoral College, for lack of a better way of describing it — might not survive a lawsuit, but just keep this in mind when assessing this race.

Ultimately, while we don’t have any of the three 2019 races as Toss-ups, Louisiana seems like it’s the one with the greatest likelihood of flipping parties. Remember, all of these states are very Republican. If Democrats hold Louisiana, they should be happy. If they hold Louisiana and pick off Kentucky or Mississippi, they should be ecstatic. Meanwhile, the GOP goal should be a sweep, although there wouldn’t be any embarrassment in maintaining the status quo either.

On to the 2020 races, where we’ll start with our only Toss-up, and the state where a party change seems the most likely this cycle: Montana. Gov. Steve Bullock (D) is prohibited by term limits from seeking a third term (he might run for president). Democrats have won the governorship four straight times, a streak that at first blush seems unsustainable in a state where the GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump or someone else, appears very likely to win by double digits. And yet Montana is also more Democratic down the ballot than it is at the presidential level, as indicated by Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-MT) close but clear victory last month and the Democratic gubernatorial streak. Leading the list of potential contenders is state Attorney General Tim Fox (R), who flirted with a challenge to Tester. If Fox runs and is nominated, he would enter the general election as a favorite. However, he could find himself facing a more conservative challenger, like Secretary of State Corey Stapleton (R). Other possibilities include Rep. Greg Gianforte (R, MT-AL), who lost to Bullock in 2016 and remains politically damaged after his attack on a reporter right before a 2017 special election, as well as state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R), who lost to Tester last month. The identity of the potential Democratic nominee remains hazier at this very early point, although some possibilities include Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney (D), businessman Ryan Busse (D), and businesswoman Whitney Williams (D), whose father is former Rep. Pat Williams (D, MT-AL).

The marquee race in 2020 is in the Tar Heel State, where Gov. Roy Cooper (D) will seek a second term. Cooper has not had obvious problems in his first two years in office, but North Carolina is a very competitive state that leans a little bit to the right of the nation, and one would expect Republicans to push him hard. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R) is a very likely candidate, and former Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who Cooper narrowly unseated in 2016, could also run again, among others. Again, we’ll give an incumbent the benefit of the doubt to start. Democrats also are defending Delaware and Washington state. There’s not much reason to think Gov. John Carney (D-DE) is in much trouble in a reliably blue state that hasn’t elected a Republican governor in three decades. In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) could legally seek a third term, but he may be eyeing a presidential bid. If the governorship becomes open, Democrats would remain significant favorites to hold it, and they have a deep bench of potential candidates. Republicans, meanwhile, might have a hard time nudging a first-rate contender to run: The Democratic presidential nominee is likely to win the state by double digits and Republicans haven’t won the governorship since 1980, though they have come very close on a couple of occasions. Still, the Republicans’ inability last month to defeat unpopular Gov. Kate Brown (D-OR) despite a strong challenger in neighboring Oregon, another Pacific Northwest state with a decades-long streak of electing Democrats to the governorship, illustrates Republican challenges in this part of the country.

Let’s move to the currently Republican-held states.

Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota all decided to vote out their incumbent Democratic senators last month, a sign of how all of these states have become more Republican lately. Each also has an incumbent GOP governor whose ascension to the top job in their respective states was at least a little surprising. In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum (R) came seemingly out of nowhere to overwhelm long-serving state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (R) in the 2016 primary and then easily win the general, demonstrating once again the appeal of outsider businessmen in GOP primary politics. In the Hoosier State, Gov. Eric Holcomb (R), a former Indiana Republican Party chairman, began the 2016 cycle trying to win the Republican Senate nomination. His campaign never got much traction and he left the race, but he ended up becoming lieutenant governor under then-Gov. Mike Pence (R) after the previous lieutenant governor resigned. Pence then dropped his bid for a second term when he became Trump’s running mate, and the state party replaced Pence with Holcomb, who then won by half a dozen points in November 2016. And in Missouri, now-former Gov. Eric Greitens (R) resigned under duress earlier this year amidst the fallout of various scandals, putting now-Gov. Mike Parson (R), the separately-elected lieutenant governor, in charge. Ultimately, all three of these governors start as significant favorites, although Parson may have the most to prove given that he was not elected to his current job in his own right.

Of the 2020 races, the Democrats’ best offensive opportunity may be in New Hampshire, a perpetually swingy state that reelected Gov. Chris Sununu (R) to a second two-year term but simultaneously flipped control of the state legislature from red to blue. Sununu won by seven points but could be vulnerable, particularly if the Democratic presidential candidate carries the Granite State (Hillary Clinton won it by less than a point in 2016). Vermont, a very Democratic state that has another popular New England GOP governor, Phil Scott (R), is a longer-shot Democratic target, although he has soft numbers with some Republicans owing to his support for some gun control legislation, and there are credible Democrats who could challenge him if they sense weakness.

On the other end of the spectrum, the open seat in Utah — Gov. Gary Herbert (R) has indicated he is not running again — is very Republican and seems like it should be a relatively comfortable Republican hold despite Trump’s soft support in the state.

We’ll end where we started: West Virginia. Presumably, Gov. Jim Justice (R) will seek a second term after switching parties, and while he could face primary opposition, support from President Donald Trump would be extremely valuable in a Mountain State GOP primary. Meanwhile, West Virginia hasn’t actually elected a Republican for governor since 1996 — Justice was elected as a Democrat and then switched parties while in office — but the state has become so red that 2020 very well could be the year when the GOP breaks that streak.