Sizing up the Statehouses


Nov. 4 is rapidly approaching but a large number of gubernatorial contests remain up in the air. In fact, despite having some ratings changes this week, the Crystal Ball still has seven Toss-up races on the board, and most appear to be headed right down to the wire.

The two new ratings this week are in Alaska and Georgia. In the Last Frontier, the unity ticket led by independent Bill Walker has led most polling against Gov. Sean Parnell (R). Alaska’s troubled economy is hurting the incumbent, with the struggles exacerbated by low oil prices in a state with a large dependency on petroleum revenues. Additionally, Parnell has suffered through a late-breaking scandal involving allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct in the state National Guard. Walker now leads the polling averages by three-to-four points, and in light of Parnell’s problems, we’re moving the Alaska gubernatorial race from Toss-up to Leans Independent. Another factor here: Because the state’s Senate race has dominated the airwaves, there’s effectively no television ad space left for the well-funded Republican Governors Association to buy to support Parnell.

Last week, the Crystal Ball moved the Georgia Senate contest to Toss-up/Leans Runoff because of the increasing likelihood that no one will win a majority on Nov. 4. The race for governor in the Peach State appears to be on a similar trajectory — the Libertarian candidate in the contest, Dr. Andrew Hunt, may well win enough of the vote to prevent Gov. Nathan Deal (R) or his challenger, state Sen. Jason Carter (D), from getting above 50% on Election Day. As in the Senate race, it’s easier to see the Republican winning the runoff than the Democrat, but enough uncertainty exists to lead us to shift the Georgia gubernatorial contest from Leans Republican to Toss-up/Leans Runoff. While the Senate runoff will take place Jan. 6, 2015, if no one wins a majority, the gubernatorial runoff would happen Dec. 2. This bizarre scheduling is the result of a federal court ruling that compelled Georgia to delay its Senate runoff date to allow absentee ballots to be sent out at least 45 days ahead of the runoff election. But the ruling only affects the state’s federal election schedule.

The final ratings change is in Arkansas, where former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R) is pulling away from former Rep. Mike Ross (D). The Democratic Governors Association is off the air here, and Republicans appear poised for a statewide sweep of both the gubernatorial and Senate races. We’re moving our rating from Leans Republican to Likely Republican.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes

Map 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

The big picture

With seven Toss-ups remaining, and with a number of other close races (the aforementioned Alaska, not to mention Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin), there’s still a great deal of uncertainty across the country in these gubernatorial battles. That said, here’s our best guess right now at the big picture:

The Republicans go into this election holding 29 of 50 governorships. Despite this being a good Republican environment nationally, they are overextended thanks in part to their 2010 successes. Our range of net gains is a GOP gain of one seat to a Democratic gain of two. At this point, it would be a surprise if the Republicans ended Election Night with more governorships than when they started it, but that’s not out of the question.

Based on our current ratings, Democrats are big favorites to flip Pennsylvania, and small favorites to defeat Gov. Paul LePage (R) in Maine. That would be a net gain of two for the Democrats. But because Republicans are now heavily favored to capture the open seat in Arkansas, that knocks the net Democratic gain down to one. As noted above, we now also favor independent Walker to defeat GOP incumbent Parnell in Alaska. That’s another net loss for the GOP, but not a net gain for the Democrats because Walker is not a Democrat (even though his running mate is, thanks to a fusion ticket). So that ends up being -2, net, for the Republicans, and +1, net, for the Democrats.

That brings us to the seven Toss-ups. Because we now expect overtime in Georgia, we are calling that race a Toss-up, but at the end of the day it would be surprising if the Democrats ultimately won that seat. Also, and while we are keeping these races as Toss-ups in our ratings, it appears that Govs. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Pat Quinn (D-IL) have stabilized their positions, and they seem to have better than even odds to win second, full terms. So that’s three of the seven Toss-ups where we think the incumbent party is positioned to hold on, though we have not made picks yet and we reserve the right to change our minds before the end. Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-CO) seeming decline, in particular, could really hurt Hickenlooper.

The remaining four Toss-ups, two currently held by Republicans and two currently held by Democrats, are harder to assess.

In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) appears legitimately tied with state House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D). The same is true of Gov. Rick Scott (R) and former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) in Florida, although Crist’s position has slightly improved over the last month, and we think it’s easier to imagine the party-switcher pulling out the race now than it was for much of this campaign. (Scott’s much-derided delay in coming on stage to debate Crist because Crist was using a fan to keep himself cool during a recent debate was a boneheaded move, but there’s not much indication that it will in and of itself cost Scott the race.) We wouldn’t be shocked if Republicans won both — or lost both.

Finally, two New England races where Democrats are trying to hold on — the open seat contest in Massachusetts between Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) and 2010 nominee Charlie Baker (R) and the rematch between Gov. Dan Malloy (D) and 2010 nominee Tom Foley (R) in Connecticut — appear to both be very close, with both sides arguing they have the upper hand. We think the Republicans will end up winning at least one of the two, with Connecticut the likelier opportunity, but we’re not ready to call either.

Ultimately, there should be quite a lot of drama in many of these races, but at the end of the day, there probably won’t be a big swing either way in the number of governor’s mansions each side controls.