Pandemic politics dominate competitive governor's races

Pandemic politics dominate competitive governor's races

Widely varying views of the severity of the coronavirus pandemic are dominating races for governor’s mansions in key states this year as Democrats and Republicans frame the health and economic crisis facing voters today.

Only eleven states will elect governors this year, and strategists in both parties agree that just three states — Montana, Missouri and North Carolina — feature competitive contests. In all three states, the pandemic has played a starring role.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) has won high marks for his handling of the virus, though cases continue to rise at a substantial clip. His rival, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R), has been critical of the extent to which restrictions have harmed small businesses.


“When I’m governor, I will never tell a business owner they can’t make a living. I will never tell a worker they’re non-essential,” Forest says in a recent ad. “It’s past time to move forward, before there’s nothing left to come back to.”

Voters do not seem to agree. Cooper has led every recent survey, by margins of four to 14 points, running well ahead of both former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden 64 percent of Iowans say 'time for someone else' to hold Grassley's Senate seat: poll Philadelphia shooting leaves 2 dead, injures toddler Ron Johnson booed at Juneteenth celebration in Wisconsin MORE and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D), the party’s nominee for a tightly contested Senate seat.

“North Carolinians seem to be cautious about COVID reopening,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College who studies North Carolina elections. “While the economic impact and the issues of schooling are certainly present for a lot of folks, the job approval and grade given to Cooper seem to support the approach he has taken in making a slow reopening for the state.”

Cooper has swamped Forest with advertising, and North Carolina Republicans are glum about their prospects for winning back the governor’s mansion.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) has moved faster to lift restrictions and reopen his state, even as cases continue to rise.


One of those cases was Parson himself, who tested positive in late September; Parson did not report suffering any symptoms, though his wife had a mild case of the virus. He has resumed a full schedule; on Monday, he attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at a personal protective equipment manufacturing facility in Overland.

Polls show Parson leading his challenger, state Auditor Nicole Galloway (D), by a small margin. Galloway has made the Parson administration’s response to the pandemic the cornerstone of her own campaign.

“We’re in a pandemic. The problems we face are big. We can’t have a governor who does so little. I’ll do things differently, with a sense of urgency,” she said in a recent ad.

But the race remains fluid because so few Missourians know either candidate. Parson, the incumbent, has never won the job; he ascended from the lieutenant governor’s office after his predecessor, Eric Greitens, resigned in the midst of a bizarre sex scandal. Galloway is serving her first full term in elected office after being appointed to her position in 2015.

“This is a race where both candidates had to introduce themselves to the electorate,” said John Hancock, a former chairman of the state Republican Party who is running an outside group on Parson’s behalf. “You don’t see it often where the incumbent is running for the first time.”

In Montana, polls show a tight contest between Rep. Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteWolf hunting rules being eased in Montana despite population decline Montana governor donates first-quarter salary to drug treatment center States push back against federal unemployment policies delaying economic recovery MORE (R) and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney (D), in a race to succeed term-limited Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockBiden 'allies' painting him into a corner Democratic Kansas City, Mo., mayor eyes Senate run Overnight Energy: Climate Summit Day 2 — Biden says US will work with other countries on climate innovation MORE (D).

Both nominees have framed the race as a referendum on Bullock’s administration. Cooney has pledged to be a steady hand in uncertain times, and to implement Medicaid expansion the legislature passed last year. Gianforte has promised to govern more in the mold of President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE, by cutting regulations and taxes.

Though reliably Republican at the presidential level, Montana voters have a long history of splitting tickets. Democratic governors have run the state for the last 16 years, and it has had at least one Democratic senator since 1911.

“People tend to classify us as a red state because we’re fairly predictable when it comes to the presidential race,” said Melissa Shannon, a Democratic lobbyist in Helena. “We have a lot of independents, and those independents split their tickets.”

Cooney, who trails most public polls by slim margins, hopes those independent voters are fiercely loyal to their state. He has attacked Gianforte as an outsider who hails from New Jersey — a state Gianforte left in 1995.

The winner in Montana won’t be the only new face among governors next year. Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (R) is likely to win election to replace term-limited Gov. Gary Herbert (R), after surviving a competitive primary against former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R).

But the other seven governors up this year are likely to cruise to re-election. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) and New Hampshire Gov. Chris SununuChris Sununu9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 Sununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate Overnight Health Care: Johnson & Johnson delay prompts criticism of CDC panel | Pfizer CEO says third dose of COVID-19 vaccine 'likely' needed within one year | CDC finds less than 1 percent of fully vaccinated people got COVID-19 MORE (R) both lead Democratic challengers by wide margins in states former Vice President Joe Biden is likely to carry, bolstered by strong approval ratings after their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Strong challenges never materialized against two other governors who might have expected backlash. In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice (R) enraged Democrats when he switched parties in 2017. In Washington, Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeBeyond California, a record year for recalls Seattle is first major US city to see 70 percent of residents fully vaccinated, mayor says Rivers, hydropower and climate resilience MORE (D) ran a brief campaign for president, which can open a politician to charges that their priorities lie somewhere other than their day job. Both men are cruising to reelection.

Republican governors in North Dakota and Indiana and the Democratic governor of Delaware all appear safely headed for second terms.