Dems look for comeback in battle for governorships

Dems look for comeback in battle for governorships
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Democrats hope to launch a comeback this fall in the battle for governor’s mansions across the country.

Republicans have a huge lead after two strong midterm elections in a row, in which the party netted eight new governorships once held by Democrats. 

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Now, Republicans control 31 of the nation’s 50 governor’s mansions. Democrats hold only 18 (Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is an independent.

And unlike the favorable map Democrats see in the battle for the Senate, the fight for governorships isn’t on the best turf for Democrats. Only 12 states will hold gubernatorial elections this year, and Republicans are playing offense in several.

Still, Democrats think they can take the first step toward holding a majority of governor’s mansions this year as they look for more opportunities going forward.

In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) is beset by low poll numbers after controversies over a so-called “bathroom bill” and the conservative direction of the state legislature. He faces Attorney General Roy Cooper (D). Polls both public and private show Cooper maintaining a narrow lead, while McCrory’s favorable ratings remain weak.

In Indiana, former state House Speaker John Gregg (D) is making his second run for governor against Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb (R), whom state Republicans picked to replace Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump: House Judiciary should investigate Obama Netflix deal instead of his business Farm manager doubts story horse bit Pence: report Supreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration MORE, the GOP vice presidential nominee. Polls show the two contenders virtually tied as Holcomb begins introducing himself to voters.

Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping to pick off three Democratic incumbents and four governorships currently held by Democrats who are retiring at year’s end.

Republicans believe they have their best shot at picking up a Democratic-held seat in Missouri, where Gov. Jay Nixon is retiring. Most polls show a tight race between Attorney General Chris Koster, a Republican-turned-Democrat who has $11 million in the bank, and Eric Greitens, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who beat three more experienced politicians in his first run for office. 

The GOP also hopes to win West Virginia, where state Senate President Bill Cole (R) faces billionaire Jim Justice, a Democrat. But Cole’s chances have faded since an ugly fight over the state budget, and the floods that insiders on both sides say effectively froze the race with Justice on top.

Republicans’ most ambitious play is in Vermont, the heavily liberal state Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump's economic approval takes hit in battleground states: poll This is how Democrats will ensure Trump's re-election The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico MORE is almost certain to win by double digits in November. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott has crafted a centrist image as a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and atypical Republican, though Democrats who back former state Transportation Secretary Sue Minter (D) hope to paint Scott as a down-the-line conservative.

Perhaps the biggest tossup is in neighboring New Hampshire, where Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) is running for Senate. New Hampshire voters go to the polls on September 13 to pick their nominees. 

Republicans are likely to choose between Chris Sununu, a state executive councilor, son of former Gov. John H. Sununu and brother of former Sen. John E. Sununu, and Ted Gatsas, the mayor of Manchester. The Democratic race is competitive too, with state executive councilor Colin Van Ostern, former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand and former state Rep. Mark Connolly in the hunt. 

The winning candidate on both sides will start the eight-week sprint to the general election with little campaign cash in a state where both presidential candidates and candidates for a competitive Senate seat are spending millions.

Republicans once hoped to give Montana Gov. Steve Bullock a strong challenge. But Greg Gianforte, a wealthy technology businessman, has not invested as much money in his own race as some Republicans hoped, and Bullock remains very popular.

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee took 49 percent of the vote in August’s all-party primary, besting Republican nominee Bill Bryant by eleven points. Republicans have few illusions of their prospects for winning a seat they haven’t won since the 1980 elections. 

The GOP is cautiously optimistic about Bud Pierce, a physician, after some internal polling showed him running close to Gov. Kate Brown in Oregon, though Republicans haven’t won Oregon’s governorship since 1982 and Democrats believe Brown will win easily.

Three states are unlikely to be competitive come November: Rep. John Carney (D) is overwhelmingly likely to become Delaware’s next governor. Doug Burgum, a businessman who upset the sitting attorney general in North Dakota’s Republican primary, is likely to replace retiring Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R). Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), too, is likely to cruise to a new term.

At a time when the national political conversation is poisoned by partisanship and Senate candidates on both sides are distancing themselves from their own presidential candidates, many key gubernatorial contests will be won or lost on particularly local issues. 

“There will always be cross-pressures” between state and federal races, said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist guiding McCrory’s race in North Carolina this year. “But people know that a governor does things that are substantively different from what a president does. So people want to know what your record is and what your plan is.”

Those involved in both parties’ bids to win governor’s mansions say running for an executive position requires a different approach than campaigns for a seat in Congress.

“Senate races and congressional races are pretty much proxies for partisanship,” said Corey Platt, political director at the Democratic Governors Association. “Each governor’s race is different, and they advertise on different issues. Each Senate race, they all advertise on the same issues.”

In North Carolina, the two sides are fighting over the bathroom bill, which requires transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms that conform with their biological gender, and teacher pay. In Washington, Republicans are chastising Inslee for a scandal in the state corrections department. Montana’s Bullock is beating back criticisms of his use of a state aircraft.

And as most political fights this year break down along traditionally partisan lines, some candidates running for governor have good chances to buck the trends.

In West Virginia, Justice — a coal magnate who is the state’s richest resident — has said he will not support Hillary Clinton, his party’s presidential nominee. He appears likely to win on the same day Republican Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report US service member killed in Afghanistan Pro-Trump website edited British reality star's picture to show him wearing Trump hat MORE wins the state’s five electoral votes.

Vermont’s Scott has said he won’t back Trump. Though Clinton is likely to win the state by a huge margin, Vermonters have bucked partisan trends before: In 2008, then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBooker dismisses early surveys: 'If you're polling ahead right now, you should worry' Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy Mattis dodges toughest question MORE won the state with 68 percent of the vote, on the same day Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, won re-election with 53 percent.