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Governors 2016: Republicans to Make Further Gains?

Gubernatorial elections take something of a back seat during the presidential cycle. Over time, as most states moved to having four-year terms for their chief executives, most also opted to have their gubernatorial contests in non-presidential years. Just 11 states will choose governors in 2016, versus the 36 that did in 2014 (New Hampshire and Vermont only have two-year terms, placing them in both cycles).

Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t be following the 2016 contests closely, along with the three states that will hold gubernatorial elections in 2015 (Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi). Map 1 shows our first batch of gubernatorial ratings for the 2015-16 cycle, with discussion below.

Map 1: Crystal Ball 2015-16 gubernatorial ratings

Coming off of a successful 2014 cycle that saw them win two net governorships, Republicans now hold a 31-18 edge nationally (if we include Peter Shumlin of Vermont in the Democratic total; his situation is discussed below), with one independent in Alaska. The GOP could add further seats during the 2015-16 cycle in part because three red states (Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia) have Democratic incumbents who are term limited, producing open-seat races in places where the GOP may have a natural advantage, particularly in the Obama years.

The 2015 trio of states are all fairly to heavily Republican, meaning that Louisiana and Mississippi are likely to remain in GOP hands. Kentucky will probably feature a competitive contest, but after eight years of Democratic rule in the Bluegrass State, Republicans may benefit from a “time for change” sentiment among the electorate. However, it is worth noting that Democrats did surprisingly well in the 2014 Kentucky legislative elections, holding the line in the Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives even as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) was reelected in a landslide. Despite that, we’re inclined to view Republicans as slight favorites as the cycle begins.

While Democrats were partially pleased about Kentucky in 2014, the same could not be said about West Virginia. Republicans gained control of both chambers of the Mountain State legislature for the first time in eight decades, yet another signal of the state’s shift toward the GOP. With Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) term-limited, the GOP may be able to win the governorship as well in 2016. Much will depend on Sen. Joe Manchin (D), the former governor who is now the state’s only Democrat in Congress. Despite West Virginia’s Republican turn, Manchin has remained a strong force, easily winning his 2012 Senate race. Now in the minority in the Senate, Manchin is considering the idea of running for governor again. If he runs, Manchin may be tough to beat; if he doesn’t, the GOP will have better odds at winning back the governorship for the first time since 1996. As we wait for Manchin’s decision, the race starts as a Toss-up. If Manchin runs, he would start as a favorite despite the state’s growing GOP tilt.

In Missouri, term-limited Gov. Jay Nixon (D) hasn’t exactly been praised for his handling of the admittedly difficult series of events in Ferguson, almost certainly ending any presidential aspirations he may have once had. In recent years, Missouri has become a more Republican state outside of the major metropolitan areas of Kansas City and St. Louis, and after eight years with a Democrat ruling the roost in Jefferson City, Republicans start as slight favorites. This remains true even if Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) decides to make a run. Like Manchin in West Virginia, she may not want to stick around the Senate now that the GOP holds a majority. Having lost the state’s 2004 gubernatorial contest, McCaskill could be looking at another gubernatorial run. But while she might appear strong on paper, remember that McCaskill would have been an underdog to win reelection in her 2012 Senate race if not for Republican nominee Todd Akin’s commentary about “legitimate rape.” Attorney General Chris Koster is another Democratic possibility, and the leading Republican candidates are former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway and state Auditor Tom Schweich.

Depending on how things shake out, Republicans could also have a shot in Montana, a red state, as well as in New Hampshire and Vermont.

In Big Sky Country, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) will be running for reelection. While his incumbency makes him a slight favorite now, Montana’s conservative leanings won’t make it easy for him. However, Attorney General Tim Fox’s (R) decision to run for reelection rather than challenge Bullock is a good sign for the incumbent. In New Hampshire, it’s not at all clear what Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) will decide to do in 2016. She could run again for governor or possibly take a shot at Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in the Senate. An open-seat race in the Granite State would almost certainly start as a Toss-up, but Hassan will be at least a small favorite if she runs again. Next door, in Vermont, it’s plausible that Republicans could make a play for the Green Mountain State governorship. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has only won a majority of the vote in one of three elections. In fact, his 2014 race is still pending: Because no candidate won a majority — Shumlin only won a small plurality — the Democratic-controlled legislature will have to elect him, just as it did after the 2010 election. Shumlin, or another Democrat if he steps down, would benefit from the 2016 presidential race in deep blue Vermont. Nevertheless, unheralded Scott Milne (R) nearly pulled off a shocking upset in 2014 and might want to take another shot. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (R), the only elected statewide Republican, could also be a solid option. He easily won reelection in 2014.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) would be a safe bet to win reelection, but whether or not he will seek a return to Indianapolis remains an open question at this point. There have been plenty of rumblings that Pence might run for president, and he would be a strong player in the Republican field if he does. Should Pence take a shot at the White House, an open-seat race in Indiana would probably be competitive, just as it was in 2012 when Pence only defeated former state House Speaker John Gregg (D) by three percentage points. Gregg may run again, especially if Pence isn’t in the way. So might former Rep. Baron Hill (D).

Democrats may only be on the offensive in North Carolina, where Gov. Pat McCrory’s (R) controversial tenure makes him no sure thing to win reelection. Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) appears to be the likely Democratic nominee in the Tar Heel State, and he’s been gearing up to take on McCrory since 2013. With the state’s slight Republican lean and his incumbency, McCrory starts as a narrow favorite. Nonetheless, North Carolina will be a top-to-bottom battleground state in 2016, and this contest is a good bet to wind up being the most hard-fought and costly gubernatorial race in the nation. It’s hard to forget the just-concluded Tar Heel Senate race cost more than $100 million.

As for the unmentioned races, Democrats will start as strong favorites in Delaware and Washington, while Republicans will be overwhelming bets to hold onto North Dakota and Utah.

After state-level wipeouts in gubernatorial and state legislative races in both 2010 and 2014, Democrats are vowing to redouble their efforts in these contests in the upcoming election cycle. But the small number of governorships that will be contested over the next two years gives them few opportunities to cut into the Republicans’ big edge in state governorships, and the GOP has more credible targets this cycle, at least on paper.