By Jim Ellis
May 2, 2018 — Now just a week away from the major primaries beginning, it’s a good time to set the stage for the important 36 gubernatorial campaigns that will be settled in November. Beginning May 8, voters in a total of 29 states will participate in primary elections to choose party nominees throughout May and June.
Term limits are mostly responsible for creating open races in 16 states, or almost half of the places hosting gubernatorial elections this year. Four more feature incumbent governors running for the first time, each being lieutenant governors who ascended to the position when their predecessors left office before the current term expired.
Looking at the total picture, 15 Republicans and four Democrats look to be either safe or probable winners in November. Three appear to be pure toss-up contests. Below is a synopsis of the states yielding the most competitive races:
• Alaska: Independent Gov. Bill Walker runs for a second term with polls finding him leading by small single-digit margins. Should former Sen. Mark Begich (D) enter the race, this contest completely changes. Though Begich continues to say he is considering the race, he appears to be doing little to organize a campaign. Without Begich, Gov. Walker becomes the de facto Democratic nominee.
• Colorado: Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) is term-limited. Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton appears to be the leading candidate in his party as the contenders move toward the June 26 nomination vote. Democrats feature a primary largely between US Rep. Jared Polis (D-Boulder) and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy.
• Connecticut: Gov. Dan Malloy (D) chose not to seek a third term in office. Both parties feature highly competitive primaries that won’t be decided until Aug. 14. Republicans are surprisingly competitive in what is typically a reliably Democratic state.
• Florida: Gov. Rick Scott (R) is ineligible to seek a third term, and now is running for the US Senate. Both parties feature highly competitive primaries that will lead to a tough general election. Leading Democrats are former US Rep. Gwen Graham (D-Tallahassee) and wealthy Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine. Republican Agriculture Commissioner and former Congressman Adam Putnam and US Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Palm Coast/Daytona Beach) are the major contenders fighting for the Republican nod. The late primary is scheduled for Aug. 28.
• Illinois: Primaries are complete, and this race is shaping up to be the Democrats’ best conversion opportunity. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) is in deep trouble against venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker (D).
• Kansas: Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) ascended to the position when incumbent Sam Brownback (R) accepted a federal appointment. Major Aug. 7 primaries are featured on both sides that will lead to a surprisingly competitive general election.
• Maine: Gov. Paul LePage (R) is ineligible to run for a third term. Hard-fought competition in both parties is on tap for the June 12 primary. Democrats will begin the general election as at least slight favorites to convert the office.
• Maryland: Gov. Larry Hogan (R) maintains solid approval ratings and polling, but in this most reliable of Democratic states, we can expect a competitive general election, nonetheless. Democrats will choose their nominee on June 26.
• Michigan: In what is a highly important redistricting state, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) cannot succeed himself. Therefore, we see two Aug. 7 primaries emerging. Attorney General Bill Schuette leads Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in all Republican polls. An interesting Democratic battle is forming with former state House Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit businessman Shri Thanedar. A recent poll found Thanedar creeping into the lead against Whitmer, even though the Democratic establishment is backing the latter candidate.
• Minnesota: The return of Republican former Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made the Minnesota race even more interesting. Nominees will be chosen on Aug. 14, and both parties will likely have post-convention elections. US Rep. Tim Walz (D-Mankato) appears to be the Democratic favorite. Assuming Pawlenty becomes the Republican nominee, the Republicans have a strong conversion opportunity.
• Nevada: Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is term-limited. It appears Attorney General Adam Laxalt is in line for the Republican nomination. Democrats feature a contest between two Clark County Commissioners, Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani. The Nevada primary is June 12. The general election is projected as a toss-up.
• New Mexico: With Gov. Susana Martinez (R) ineligible to run again, the general election appears to be offering a battle between two US House members: Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-Albuquerque) and Steve Pearce (R-Hobbs). New Mexico statewide voting patterns suggest that Rep. Grisham begins with the lead to convert this state to the Democratic column.
• Ohio: Though both parties have multi-candidate primaries that will be decided next week on May 8, the general election is shaping up as a re-match of the 2010 attorney general’s race. In that contest former US Senator Mike DeWine (R) unseated incumbent Richard Cordray (D). DeWine appears to be the stronger candidate as the battle begins in earnest to succeed term-limited Gov. John Kasich (R).
• Pennsylvania: Gov. Tom Wolf (D) seeks re-election and appears on much stronger political footing than he did a year ago. The May 15 primary is likely to produce state Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York) as the GOP nominee. Gov. Wolf is favored in the general election.
• Rhode Island: Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) is plagued with poor approval ratings and faces a Sept. 12 Democratic primary with former Secretary of State Matt Brown. Republican 2014 nominee Allan Fung, the mayor of Cranston, returns for a re-match. This race is in doubt despite the Ocean State’s strong Democratic nature.
• Vermont: First-term Gov. Phil Scott (R) is from one of two states that still has two-year gubernatorial terms. Despite being a Republican in one of the most liberal political domains, Gov. Scott is in good shape for re-election. Democrats won’t produce a nominee until Aug. 14.
• Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker (R) seeks a third term in the face of signs pointing to a Democratic resurgence. Still, Democrats see no less than 16 candidates vying for the party nomination that won’t conclude until Aug. 14. The field may grow even larger as others may join before the June 1st filing deadline passes.