Five months have passed since our last gubernatorial update in February. As such, Elections Daily is excited to release a July update reporting on the important developments in upcoming gubernatorial primaries. This report will also include five ratings changes, the first alterations of their kind since February. Unlike past releases, this article will discuss the three gubernatorial contests occurring this year.
New Jersey (Likely Democratic)
In the Garden State, incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy is seeking a second term. We currently rate this race as Likely Democratic. New Jersey is reliably Democratic at the federal level; it hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since Clifford Case in 1972 and it hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential nominee since George Bush Sr. in 1988. When it comes to downballot gubernatorial contests, though, the state is a different animal. In such races, it has in fact been the Democrats that have been at a disadvantage. The disadvantage has been so unbreakable that a Democratic Governor has not won reelection since Brendan Byrne in 1977.
If our expectations hold up and Governor Murphy manages to win this November, he will have officially broken the 44 year curse that has plagued each previous Democratic Governor. Governor Jim Florio was defeated by Christine Todd Whitman in 1993 following strong opposition to his tax policy. Jim McGreevey, the next Democratic Governor, resigned in scandal before the end of his term. And Jon Corzine, the most recent Democratic Governor before Murphy, was beaten for reelection by Chris Christie in 2009.
Murphy is set to face former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who secured the nomination over three Republicans last month. Ciattarelli has not yet chosen his nominee for Lieutenant Governor, though he is expected to make that decision soon. All polling thus far has shown Murphy leading Ciattarelli by wide margins, but the percentage of undecided respondents in each poll is still significant. Despite New Jersey’s reputation of being inelastic state, a Murphy victory could be a sign that the Democratic reliability associated with races at the federal level could finally be leaking into state-level races as well.
Virginia (Leans Democratic)
In Virginia, former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe easily won his primary last month. McAuliffe is now seeking a second non-consecutive term against Glenn Youngkin, a businessman who won the Republican Convention vote as an outsider. The state’s current governor is Ralph Northam, a Democrat who defeated Republican Ed Gillespie by a wider than expected margin four years ago.
While Virginia has certainly begun to shift toward the Democrats in recent years, it is not as Democratic as New Jersey. Both public polls conducted in the race – one from JMC and one from WPAi – show McAuliffe with narrow single-digit leads. As such, we consider it a safe bet to rate the contest as Leans Democratic.
California Recall (Likely No)
In California, incumbent Democrat Gavin Newsom is the first Governor to face a recall vote since Gray Davis in 2003. In that fateful contest, the state voted to recall Davis. His replacement was actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican frontrunner.
While history alone would imply that Newsom faces an uphill battle, it is critical to remember that California is a very different state today than it was in 2003. Its steady tread towards the Democrats has made any Republican statewide position increasingly untenable. Though the relatively-unpopular Newsom has received condemnation from both parties throughout the pandemic, he should be able to control the narrative of the recall campaign as long as a prominent Democratic challenger does not appear. If the Democrats can convince the state’s voters that the recall attempt is nothing more than a partisan Republican stunt, then the No vote should win off of the Democratic statewide registration advantage alone.
As such, we are rating the recall race Likely No. We do not consider a competitive vote impossible enough to merit a Safe rating, but we also see no realistic way in which the dwindling number of California Republicans can draw in enough Independent and Democratic votes to achieve a majority Yes vote like that of 2003.
How does the recall work? First, the equivalent of 12% of the total electorate from the last gubernatorial race must sign the recall petition. After that, a yes or no question pertaining to recalling the sitting Governor is put on the ballot. If the result is no, the incumbent retains his or her office. If the result is yes, then the incumbent is removed from office as soon as a the replacement is declared. Should Newsom be recalled successfully, the state would take about a month to certify the results of the concurrent vote to determine the new Governor. Since no credible Democrats are running in the recall election, such a position would go to the highest performing Republican in the race. 2018 Gubernatorial nominee John Cox is currently the frontrunner among his fellow Republicans.
2022 – Primary Developments
The race to replace two-term Republican Governor Doug Ducey is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested gubernatorial contests in the nation. With Ducey term-limited heading into 2022, Arizona Republicans are seeking to recover from a string of detrimental losses by holding the governorship. Ducey was easily reelected in 2018, but Democrats fared better in 2020, with Joe Biden becoming the first Democrat to win the state in a Presidential election since Bill Clinton in 1996. With credible primary frontrunners and Arizona’s swing state status, there is currently no better race rating than Tossup.
The Grand Canyon state’s race is unique compared to other gubernatorial contests because we already have a clear picture of the likely nominees for both parties months in advance. On the Republican side, State Treasurer Kimberly Yee has generally been considered the most prominent candidate in the race. However, her frontrunner status is not solidified. She faces credible primary opposition from Kari Lake, a former Phoenix news anchor, and Matt Salmon, a former US Representative who now works for Arizona State University. Former Chief of Staff to Governor Ducey Kirk Adams, US Representative Dave Schweikert, and Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward are also considering running.
In fact, a recent poll conducted by AZ HighGround and Public Integrity Alliance found Yee finishing behind both of her most credible opponents, taking just 4%. Lake led with 10% and Salmon came in second place with 8%. Salmon has also gathered more endorsements than Yee, including that of the conservative organization Club for Growth. Like in many of its counterpart states, Arizona’s Republican primary electorate is generally more conservative than its general election equivalent. This could bode badly for Yee if Salmon capitalizes on endorsements from notable conservatives like Ted Cruz to argue that his opponents are insufficiently conservative and therefore misrepresentative of the Republican party. In Biden territory that went from a Republican stronghold to a state represented by two Democratic Senators almost overnight, though, nominating an overzealously conservative candidate may not be a viable option, even if 2022 plays out well for Republicans.
The Democratic frontrunner is Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. Although she is new to her row office job like Yee, she has not yet drawn viable primary opposition. Other potential candidates include State House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, US Representatives Ruben Gallego and Tom O’Halleran, and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. If Hobbs solidifies her frontrunner status in the Democratic primary and the Republican primary victor remains uncertain, it could give her a significant headstart on the general election campaign. Nonetheless, Arizona is still a swing state and is certainly not out of reach for Republicans if the environment is better than it has been in the last two election cycles.
Florida (Leans Republican)
Republican Governor Ron DeSantis appears to be the frontrunner in his race for reelection. Since his narrow victory against Andrew Gillum in 2018, DeSantis has grown popular governing with a steadfast, conservative hand. Two Democrats are running against DeSantis: US Representative and former Republican Governor Charlie Crist and Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried. A three-time statewide candidate, Crist has accumulated strong statewide name recognition. We currently expect Crist to win the nomination based on his strong leads in primary polling. DeSantis remains popular and holds a wide lead over Crist in all hypothetical polling, and we rate this race as Leans Republican.
The recent Democratic sweep in Georgia has put every Peach State Republican on edge. By just 11,779 votes, Joe Biden became the first Democrat to win at the Presidential level here since Bill Clinton in 1992. Only two months later, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock defeated Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to completely flip Georgia’s Senate delegation. This sudden sweep proved that Democrats could break the glass ceiling to achieve statewide victory in Georgia, leaving Republicans painfully aware that the days of safe races and assured reelections were over. No Republican has realized the gravity of the state’s rapid shift more than Brian Kemp, who narrowly beat Stacey Abrams nearly four years ago.
But Kemp’s initial fears did not just surround the possibility of a general election loss, they also dealt with the threat of a strong primary challenge. When Kemp defeated Casey Cagle in the 2018 Republican primary runoff, he ran as the more conservative outsider candidate. He attempted to maintain that status throughout his first term in the Governor’s mansion, but the repercussions of former President Trump’s slim loss in Georgia threw his brand into jeopardy. Kemp had joined Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in refusing to heed Trump’s wishes with regards to overturning Biden’s victory in Georgia. This move drew the ire of the former President, who still holds sway over much of Georgia’s white electorate.
Raffensperger is already facing a reelection primary challenge from Jody Hice, a Congressman running with Trump’s endorsement claiming that unproven instances of fraud had cost Trump the win in Georgia. Governor Kemp has been much luckier, seemingly managing to catapult himself back into favor with the more conservative members of his party as a result of his advocacy for Georgia’s new Republican-backed voting reforms. Following a declination of candidacy from former Representative Doug Collins, Kemp only faces a primary challenge from the controversial ex-Democrat Vernon Jones.
While Kemp may be on solid ground ahead of the primary round, he would be far from secure in a general election contest. It is very likely that Kemp will face Stacey Abrams again, though she has not officially announced her second bid for Governor. We currently rate the race as a Tossup, but we do believe that Republicans stand a better chance of reelecting Kemp than they do of defeating Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock.
Democrat Laura Kelly pulled off a surprise victory in Kansas’s 2018 Gubernatorial race, defeating controversial Republican Kris Kobach. Kansas is a leftward-moving state, but it is still reliably Republican. Nevertheless, Kelly has been able to establish her own independent brand in the state and stands a viable chance at reelection.
Two prominent Republicans are seeking the office next year. The first is former Governor Jeff Colyer, who lost a primary challenge to Kris Kobach back in 2018. His challenger is Derek Schmidt, the state’s Attorney General. Republicans Wink Hartman, Mike Pompeo, and Susan Wagle may also jump into the race. The primary is expected to be competitive, but we have not seen much polling as of late. When it comes to endorsements, the field is evenly divided. Newcomers Roger Marshall and Tracey Mann have endorsed Colyer and the old guard of Pat Roberts and Bob Dole has decided to back Schmidt.
Both Schmidt and Colyer would be credible opposition for Kelly, even in an unfavorable year. If Republican hopes and aspirations pan out, 2022 will likely be a good environment for the GOP. Such a situation would not bode well for Governor Kelly given her state’s slowly-decreasing but still-strong Republican lean. For now, we consider this race a Tossup.
Maryland (Likely Democratic-Flip)
With popular Republican Governor Larry Hogan term-limited in one of the nation’s bluest states, the hotly-contested Democratic primary race to replace him is already running at full blast. The most formidable candidates are former Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker, Comptroller Peter Franchot, former DNC Chair Tom Perez, and former Attorney General Doug Gansler. Former Congressman and 2014 Gubernatorial nominee Anthony Brown is also considering running.
One poll conducted by Gonzales Research showed a close, highly-divided primary field. Baker finished first with 22%, followed by Franchot at 18%, Perez at 10%, and Gansler at 4%; among the voters questioned, 41% said they were undecided. Ultimately, we expect Franchot, who has served in statewide office since 2007, to become the frontrunner in the primary. More credible polling is needed before the state of the primary can be reevaluated. In the 2018 Gubernatorial primary, Baker only had strength in his native Prince George’s County, losing the rest of the state to Ben Jealous.
Without Hogan, Republicans are not optimistic about holding the Governorship of the Old Line State. Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford notably declined to run next year. Three candidates are currently in the race: state delegate Daniel Cox, and former delegates Robin Ficker and Kelly Schulz. The most credible potential candidate is Michael Steele, a former Lieutenant Governor and Senate candidate.
We are keeping our Likely Democratic rating in Maryland, currently the only state where we are predicting a flip in party control. Even in a good environment for the Republicans, it is unlikely that any Republican candidate, credible or not, will be able to win without the Hogan name.
Nevada (Leans Democratic)
In Nevada, Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak is seeking a second term with a modest approval rating of 48%. Sisolak is the Democratic-leaning swing state’s first Democratic Governor since Bob Miller in 1999. His incumbency has put off any true primary challengers, allowing him to devote his full attention to what is expected to be a close general election in a marginal state.
With Republicans hopeful that victory is possible in a good political environment, many candidates have entered into the primary. So far these include Attorney Joey Gilbert, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, Sheriff of Clark County Joe Lombardo, Fred Simon, and Tom Heck.
Ultimately, though, the big name in the race will be former Senator Dean Heller. Heller, who lost his Senate seat to Jacky Rosen in 2018, has reportedly met with RGA officials to show his interest in reentering the political arena. Though he has not officially announced his candidacy, it is expected that he will make a declaration soon. Despite his previous loss, Heller would be the best Republican recruit to take on Sisolak. His high name recognition and history of public service in Nevada are strong qualities that would likely give him solidified frontrunner status against his Republican opponents, none of whom has ever formed a statewide base.
Our rating remains Leans Democratic at the moment, but Nevada is certainly not blue enough to be immune to a strong Republican campaign, especially if the political dynamics of the environment benefit a candidate like Heller.
New York (Safe Democratic)
Despite his bevy of controversies over the last few months, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo currently has no opposition in the Democratic primary. With the coronavirus pandemic seemingly decreasing in political significance, scandals surrounding Cuomo’s response to the virus will likely blow over until the general election campaign begins next summer. Potential candidates include New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and New York Comptroller Scott Stringer. Neither of them would be likely to beat Cuomo. DeBlasio is unpopular and Stringer’s recent mayoral campaign was sunk by allegations of sexual assault.
As such, most attention is currently drawn to the competitive Republican primary. The three main candidates as of this writing are Congressman Lee Zeldin, 2014 Gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino, and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s son Andrew Giuliani. Zeldin has received all of the establishment endorsements, including that of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and four Republican members of New York’s Congressional delegation. The only poll conducted up to this point showed Giuliani leading Zeldin by 8 points with much of the electorate undecided. Since this poll was an internal undertaking released by the Giuliani campaign, its results should not be taken too seriously. While the Giuliani name might help Andrew in a Republican primary against Zeldin, little known outside of his Long Island region, it is simply too early to make a large scale primary prediction with any form of certainty.
Regardless of the Republican nominee and Cuomo’s popularity, the Democrats maintain a firm hold on the state of New York. As such, Cuomo stands a good chance of winning reelection to an unprecedented fourth term as Governor. Whether or not he would survive that term unscathed remains to be seen. Unless polling shows otherwise, we are keeping this race at Safe Democratic; the Democratic strength of the greater New York area, coupled with the upstate Democratic bastions, is simply too much for an increasingly-Republican, heavily-Anti Cuomo Republican base to overcome.
Ohio (Leans Republican)
In the Buckeye State, Republican Governor Mike DeWine is facing a credible primary challenge from former US Representative and 2018 GOP Senate nominee Jim Renacci. DeWine has been an Ohio public servant for decades, serving as a State Legislator, US Representative, US Senator, Attorney General, and Governor. During his time as Governor he has attempted to cultivate a moderate leadership style similar to that of his forecomer John Kasich. Renacci is running to DeWine’s right on the message that DeWine is insufficiently conservative and therefore does not represent the values of the party in increasingly Republican Ohio. There has been a dearth of reliable polling thus far, with both questionable polls showing Renacci with stable leads. While it is too early to make any reliable predictions about the upcoming primary, it might be important to remember that DeWine defeated Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor, his more conservative challenger, in his 2018 primary. If DeWine does manage to dispatch Renacci in a competitive primary, he will be a strong favorite for reelection against any Democrat.
The Democratic primary is being contested between two Mayors. They are Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley. Whaley is currently the frontrunner between the two individuals. Ultimately, we believe that Democrats have a better chance at winning the Senate race than the Gubernatorial race, even if Renacci beats DeWine in the primary election.
2022 – Ratings Changes
Iowa (Lean Republican to Likely Republican)
Despite her relative unpopularity, Iowa Republican Kim Reynolds seems on track for a stable reelection in the increasingly-Republican Hawkeye State. At the moment, the Democratic field is simply too weak to unseat Reynolds. The situation may change if US Representative Cindy Axne decides to enter the race, but the signs of a Lean Republican race simply aren’t currently there. History is also on Reynolds’s side, especially if 2022 follows the traditional midterm trend and yields a good environment for Republicans; even in the 2018 blue wave, when Democrats otherwise had success in Iowa, their gubernatorial nominee Fred Hubbell failed to defeat Reynolds. For now, we are switching the rating to Likely Republican.
Ohio (Lean Republican to Likely Republican)
Regardless of the eventual Republican nominee in Ohio, we view the race as Likely Republican. Despite the lack of polling and the similar lack of certainty surrounding the winner of the Republican primary, Ohio’s general tread to the right in recent years will make winning the Governorship an uphill battle for any Democrat, including Nan Whaley. Like in Iowa, Democrats failed to win the Ohio Governorship back in 2018.
Connecticut (Lean Democratic to Likely Democratic)
While Connecticut usually has hotly-contested gubernatorial races regardless of the national environment, 2022 might prove to be an exception. Why? Like a reverse Iowa, Governor Lamont really does not have any credible Republican opponents yet. Until we have a better idea of the Republican field, Likely Democratic appears to be the safest course of action. Former Connecticut House Minority Leader Themis Klarides is considering running. 2018 nominee Bob Stefanowski could certainly make it a close race if he opts to run again, but his current intentions remain unclear.
Vermont (Likely Republican to Safe Republican)
Although popular Republican Governor Phil Scott has not officially announced his next reelection bid, we currently expect him to do so. Given his fascinating ability to appeal to both major parties while utilizing impressive ticket splitting to deliver victory in hostile environments, we view Scott as an indefatigable favorite going into 2022. Safe Republican is the only sensible course of action unless Scott decides to retire, which would throw the race into jeopardy for his party.