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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.

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“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 BidenMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Biden says staff has spoken with Fauci: 'He's been very, very helpful' 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.

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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 GianforteGOP holds line in state legislatures, dealing blow to Democrats GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wins Montana governor's race GOP's Rosendale wins Montana House seat MORE (R) and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney (D), in a race to succeed term-limited Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wins Montana governor's race Senate control in flux as counting goes forward in key states 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 John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race 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 SununuThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Pence, Biden wage tug of war over pandemic plans New Hampshire to issue statewide mask mandate GOP holds line in state legislatures, dealing blow to Democrats 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 InsleeWashington county warns of at least 17 positive tests after 300-person wedding The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by UAE - US records 1 million COVID-19 cases in a week; governors crack down Washington state issues sweeping restrictions to combat coronavirus surge 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.