The Governors' Races: What To Watch

Nov 4, 2016

Voters in 11 states will be casting ballots for governor on Election Day, but the contests are close in only two of them.

The two squeakers are in North Carolina and Washington. In both states, Democratic women are running against Republican men. And in both states, the Republican is touting himself as the agent of change because of the Democrats' ties to current state government.

Democrats currently control four other statehouses in play this year and likely will keep control of all of them. Republicans are likely to lose one of the five governorships they hold.

The races for governor may be affected by the presidential race and other contests on the ballot, but the impact is likely to be indirect.

"I would be skeptical that the substance of a national trend is going to make much of a difference in a gubernatorial race," says G. Calvin Mackenzie, professor of government at Colby College. In gubernatorial races, he says, it's a much more local contest.

On the other hand, Mackenzie says, watch for a big turnout, especially for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. "A big thrust of voters could make a difference," he says.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, where Gov. Mike Easley is stepping down because of term limits, Democrats have held the statehouse for 16 straight years — and for all but a dozen of the past hundred years.

That virtual lock is in jeopardy this year given Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue's extremely tight race with Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory.

Despite her long tenure in the state Legislature and eight years in her current post, Perdue has been trying to position herself as an outsider. McCrory, of course, disagrees with her on that. He's been running on his 14-year record as mayor of North Carolina's largest city and focusing on transportation and what he calls the "culture of corruption" in Raleigh.

North Carolina has seen a large increase in Democratic voter registration this year, which works in Perdue's favor. But McCrory is well-liked in his hometown and may win a larger proportion of the votes there than Republicans have in the past.

The tightness of the race mirrors the presidential contest in North Carolina.


In 2004, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire beat former state Sen. Dino Rossi by a mere 133 votes out of more than 2.7 million ballots cast — and only after three recounts and multiple court challenges.

Their rematch could be just as close.

The campaign has been hard-fought and costly. One estimate puts total campaign expenditures at $40 million, with out-of-state money coming in for both candidates.

With the economy the main issue, Gregoire gained some traction when she accused Rossi of supporting a reduction in the minimum wage. Rossi, in turn, has attacked Gregoire for what he calls her desire for a state income tax. Washington currently does not have one.

Gregoire has campaigned mostly on her record, and she is generally seen as competent, though not particularly inspiring. Rossi, who presents himself as the agent of change, is widely considered a better salesman.

If Rossi wins in this solidly blue state in terms of presidential politics, he will be the first Republican governor there in 28 years.


Missouri is the one Republican governorship that's likely to change hands this year, after Gov. Matt Blunt decided not to seek re-election. Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon has a double-digit lead over Republican Kenny Hulshof, a six-term congressman from Columbia.

On the presidential front, Missouri is a toss-up.

Other States Holding Gubernatorial Races

Delaware: The state will remain blue for president and governor. State Treasurer Jack Markell won an upset primary victory over the lieutenant governor and is on a safe road to victory over the Republican candidate, retired state Supreme Court Justice Bill Lee.

Indiana: Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is set to hold onto his office against Democrat Jill Long Thompson, even though the usually solid red state is a toss-up for president. Long Thompson is a former congresswoman and undersecretary of agriculture.

Montana: This state, which is leaning toward Republican John McCain for president, is set to re-elect popular Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. His opponent is state Sen. Roy Brown.

New Hampshire: Leaning toward Obama for president, the state is solidly behind re-electing Democratic Gov. John Lynch. His opponent is state Sen. Joe Kenney.

North Dakota: Republican Gov. John Hoeven is likely to win a third term in office. He's running against state Sen. Tim Mathern. On the presidential front, North Dakota has been leaning Republican, but several political analysts now call it a toss-up.

Vermont: The state is likely to keep its Republican governor, but looks to favor Obama for president. Gov. Jim Douglas seems well ahead of his Democratic challenger, state House Speaker Gaye Symington. But a third candidate, independent Anthony Pollina, may complicate matters. In Vermont, which elects its governor every two years, if a candidate doesn't receive a majority of the vote, the race goes to the Legislature.

West Virginia: This state, which is tilting toward McCain for president, is squarely behind Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin's re-election. His Republican opponent is former state Sen. Russ Weeks.

Utah: The state is solidly Republican for president and governor. Gov. Jon Huntsman is a shoo-in against his Democratic challenger, businessman Bob Springmeyer. Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.