In the first week of April, we debuted a set of power rankings for the three dozen U.S. Senate races in the 2014 cycle. It was a fun and different way to assess the "races that matter" in the tight battle to claim the balance of power in the Senate. Last week, the second round of those power rankings were posted, with North Carolina (Hagan vs. Tillis) gracing the top step of the ladder, but a ton of movement elsewhere.
This week, the idea of the DKE power rankings gets an expansion. Today, we look at the three dozen states that will make the call in November whether to keep the governors that they already have, or bring a fresh face into the governor's mansion. Though dozens of primaries remain to identify all the specific players, some of them are already basically locked in, though we are still six months out from Election Day 2014.
Thus, without further introduction, we invite you to explore the states where all eyes will land in November, and not just for all matters congressional. Past the jump, you will find the first edition of the Daily Kos Elections gubernatorial power rankings. The leader of the pack will probably surprise no one, but I suspect that some of the races in the top 10 will be somewhat surprising.
(For those curious about the criteria for determining the rankings, feel free to jump to the end of the piece to peruse the methodology.)
As was the case in our Senate rankings, the vast majority of gubernatorial elections received at least one point under the criteria. However, there were eight that were completely pointless (if you'll pardon the pun). And, as I did in the first edition of the Senate rankings, if anyone wants to get their electoral nerd on, I invite you to take the DKE election nerd quiz du jour, by guessing which eight governors (state and name if you want advanced-level electoral junkie credit) did not receive a single point under this month's criteria. The answer is at the end of the rankings.
With eight races garnering precisely jack squat in terms of attention, that means that a total of 18 states managed to receive at least one point for the month of April, though they failed to crack the top 10. They were (in order from closest to the top 10 on down): Colorado (Hickenlooper—D); South Carolina (Haley—R); Maryland (OPEN—D); Kansas (Brownback—R); Massachusetts (OPEN—D); Minnesota (Dayton—D); Rhode Island (OPEN—I/D); Texas (OPEN—R); California (Brown—D); New Hampshire (Hassan—D); Arizona (OPEN—R); Connecticut (Malloy—D); Oregon (Kitzhaber—D); New Mexico (Martinez—R); Nebraska (OPEN—R); Hawaii (Abercrombie—D); New York (Cuomo—D); Alaska (Parnell—R).
Looking at the whole picture, the map of high-profile gubernatorial battles looks markedly different than the Senate map. Here, it is the GOP that is playing the disproportionate amount of defense. Of the 10 races for governor that grace our initial list, only two are offices presently held by Democrats (Arkansas and Illinois). Of course, gubernatorial race are far more individualized than ... say ... congressional races, so having a critical mass of races at the top of the pyramid doesn't necessarily portend any kind of nationalized trend.
Now that we've established the general lay of the land, let's kick off the list, because national bellwethers or not, there are plenty of races here that have the potential to be an electoral junkie's dream:
#9 (tie)—MAINE (25 points)—DKE Rating: Leans Democratic
As events of this past month have conclusively proven yet again, Republican Gov. Paul LePage is a bit of a disgrace (cue irate Maine readers screaming in unison: "A BIT?!?!). But, as was the case when he was first elected in 2010, LePage is the beneficiary of split opposition, which is keeping his Democratic challenger (veteran Rep. Mike Michaud) from absolutely blasting LePage into oblivion. The state is nowhere near red enough to embrace an arch-conservative governor like LePage, but as long as he can keep winning with roughly 40 percent of the vote, he has more than a puncher's chance at survival. Democrats are pinning their hopes on the notion that, this time around, voters may wise up and not give Democratic-leaning Independent Eliot Cutler the support he needs to act as a spoiler.
#9 (tie)—IOWA (25 points)—DKE Rating: Likely Republican
Last month, I extolled the virtues of Iowa as a state to watch in November. This rapidly developing gubernatorial race is yet another good reason to cast your eyes to the midwest. Incumbent Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is running for an almost improbable sixth term in office, but an ethical cloud had descended upon him, driven by a handful of events that have tarnished his star somewhat. Democratic state legislator Jack Hatch is underfunded, and he'll absolutely need to build name recognition. But even a handful of GOP polls have said this is a tightening battle, despite the initial early conventional wisdom that Branstad's sixth term was virtually a foregone conclusion.
#7 (tie)—WISCONSIN (26 points)—DKE Rating: Leans Republican
It was, on balance, a pretty quiet month in the Badger State, but I'd expect this re-election showdown for Gov. Scott Walker to grace the top 10 from now until November. Polls show his contest with likely Democratic nominee Mary Burke is quite close, but the question now is whether or not Walker's highly polarizing tenure in office has automatically guaranteed him a built-in reservoir of opposition and support, leaving few undecided voters to be had. Available polling, more or less, concurs with that: The critical mass of data throughout his reign as governor suggests that his opposition lives in a solid, yet very narrow, range—usually no less than 42 percent, but no more than 47 percent. The key for Democrats is to chip away to get from 47 percent up to a majority of the vote. There is no question it will not take a big shift in support. The only question is what proportion of the electorate there is still persuadable enough to get that done.
#7—GEORGIA (26 points)—DKE Rating: Likely Republican
I would never speak for my DKE colleagues, but I will say for myself: If this were any state (even any southern state, save for Louisiana) besides Georgia, I'd be persuaded to be more optimistic about bumping up the chances for Democrat Jason Carter. He is going to have resources, his campaign thus far looks promising and Republican Nathan Deal's poll numbers have still failed to recover sufficiently from his post-ice storm days. But Georgia has two things working against it. One is that, demographically, Carter is going to be relying on voting blocs that don't always show up in midterms (I actually wrote on that exact subject back in January). The second reason, which also could be a factor in the open Senate race, is the presence of the general election runoff. Democrats, in the last two high-profile Georgia general election runoffs (1992 and 2008) did markedly worse in December than they did in November. I can see Carter outpolling Deal in November. But that isn't going to be enough—he has to break 50 percent in November, with two third-party candidates already likely to be in the mix. That could prove to be a much bigger challenge.
#6—OHIO (27 points)—DKE Rating: Leans Republican
Lately, there seems to be a developing conventional wisdom that first-term GOP Gov. John Kasich has put himself into the driver's seat in terms of his re-election. His Democratic rival, Cuyahoga County executive Ed FitzGerald, got off to bit of a rocky start when he had to change running mates midstream following losing his initial choice for lieutenant governor becoming enmeshed in persistent drama involving the candidate's business ventures. Polling has varied, but much of it has staked Kasich to a modest edge. That said, Ohio seems to be a stubbornly competitive state, and one would suspect that Kasich is not breathing completely easily, despite that modest polling edge and a huge cash advantage. This race, actually, could be a little test of that long-debated (but somewhat discredited) "incumbents under 50 percent test." In the quartet of polls conducted this year, Kasich has averaged exactly 45 percent of the vote when paired with FitzGerald (who, for what it is worth, averaged just a shade under 40 percent).
#5—PENNSYLVANIA (30 points)—DKE Rating: Leans Democratic
If there is a slowly hardening conventional wisdom that Ohio might be trending in the favor of the incumbent, there is an even stronger general sense that Pennsylvania has long ago trended away from the incumbent. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is doing so poorly that it has actually been over two months since pollsters have even bothered to poll the general election. For what it's worth, in that poll, Corbett trailed the Democratic frontrunner (businessman Tom Wolf) by 19 points. The big emphasis, for now, is on the four-way battle for the Democratic nomination. In that primary, the big question is whether the Democratic pack (which includes Rep. Allyson Schwartz, former state environmental chief Katie McGinty and state Treasurer Rob McCord) can knock Wolf off of his longtime perch as frontrunner. We'll get that answer soon enough—the primary is on May 20.
#4—ILLINOIS (33 points)—DKE Rating: Tossup
Without question, the most embattled incumbent Democratic governor in the nation is Pat Quinn of Illinois. His poll numbers, in terms of his approval ratings, are pretty awful. But what makes this race a coin flip, and what may yet save Quinn, is the state's natural blue terrain. Here is a fascinating case in point: A local conservative political analyst in the Land of Lincoln (Rich Miller of CapitolFax) polled the race recently, but found that, in writing the instrument, he had neglected to include party affiliations. In that poll, the Republican nominee (wealthy businessman Bruce Rauner) led Quinn by a healthy 49-38 margin. However, when the poll was put back into the field with the party affiliations included, the race became a 44-44 tie. As Miller noted:
"It’s now crystal clear that a large number of likely voters cast their ballots based on partisanship. And as a result, the Republican Party faces a gigantic hurdle in Illinois. That’s probably not news to most of us, but at least now it’s somewhat quantifiable."#3—MICHIGAN (39 points)—DKE Rating: Tossup
It could be fair to argue that Michigan, at the gubernatorial level, is something of a midpoint between its cohorts in the industrial Midwest. It is less amenable to a Democratic takeover than Pennsylvania, but it looks like a better prospect for takeover than Ohio. The near-certain Democratic nominee, former Rep. Mark Schauer, will try to deny a second term to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. In assessing this race, there is one stubborn complicating factor, a factor that DKE electoral geeks know all too well: Michigan polling has a funny tendency to (a) understate Democratic prospects and (b) suck, in that they tend to be wildly inconsistent. Alas, this race is no different. In the last four weeks, we have seen polls ranging from a Snyder lead of three points (and well below 50 percent) to a Snyder lead of 12 points (where he is just a tick below 50 percent). If it is the former, this one will go down to the wire. If it is the latter, Democrats should be alarmed. Michigan has a well-earned tendency of giving Republicans moments of data-based false hope, but sometimes, those polls are legit. Ask Rick Snyder—in 2010, polls actually were right on point in forecasting his sizable victory over Democrat Virg Bernero.
#2—ARKANSAS (40 points)—DKE Rating: Tossup
For the past several cycles, Arkansas has been a dead zone in terms of electoral interest, unless you got deep into the weeds (their battles for control of the state legislature in 2012 were incredibly interesting, for example). This year? Arkansas has big races all over the map. The Senate showdown between incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and GOP freshman Rep. Tom Cotton looks fascinating, and was Number 2 in our power rankings this month. The state has two potentially interesting House races. The state House may well be interesting yet again, with the GOP defending their narrowly won majority. And last but certainly not least, the battle to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe could be a real barnburner. Polls have shown that former Democratic Rep. Mike Ross and former Republican Rep. Asa Hutchinson could be in line for a real coin flip. Polls this month in the Natural State had a Michigan-esque lack of consistency—depending on whose data you preferred, the Democrat was either up by six points or trailing by eight points.
#1—FLORIDA (57 points)—DKE Rating: Tossup
Had I been forced to put cash on it, I'd have bet the farm before the process began that Florida would land in the top spot in our first gubernatorial power rankings. How could it not? Florida is, after all: (a) one of the "big four" states in terms of population; (b) a state that is arguably the "swingiest" of the more populous states (though Ohio might quibble with that); (c) a state with a controversial first-term governor, and (d) a state where the former governor (and a party switcher, to boot!) stands to serve as the opponent to the aforementioned controversial incumbent. What more can one ask for?
Polls in the Sunshine State have taken a fairly intriguing direction as of late. It might be too early to call it a "surge" for incumbent Republican Rick Scott, but for the first time during the past four weeks, we have seen multiple polls with him either tied or leading when paired with the near-certain Democratic nominee (former Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the GOP in 2010). This one is going to go down to the wire, and it is going to, without question, be in the top tier of electoral battles that America will be watching come November.
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With the rankings in the books, here, as promised for those interested, is the statement about the rubric for determining the power rankings:
THE RUBRIC: Three criteria were used to generate our top 10 list. One is competitiveness. This was done rather easily, utilizing our DKE Gubernatorial race ratings. If a race had been designated by the Daily Kos Elections crew as a "toss-up," that netted that race 15 points. If the race was designated as a "lean" D/R race, it was worth 10 points. If the race was designated as a "likely" D/R contest, it was worth five points.Finally, my fellow electoral nerds in good standing, here is the moment you have been waiting for. The eight races that appear so hopeless at this point that no one is polling them, nor are they talking about them, are: Robert Bentley (Alabama), Butch Otter (Idaho), Brian Sandoval (Nevada), Mary Fallin (Oklahoma—though she might not be so lucky this month), Dennis Daugaard (South Dakota), Bill Haslam (Tennessee), Peter Shumlin (Vermont) and Matt Mead (Wyoming). If you knew all eight—hell, if you even knew who Matt Mead was—congrats to you!
The second criteria is newsworthiness. Some races, for lack of a more elegant way of putting it, have more going on than others. The criteria here was also objective: a gubernatorial race received a single point for every day in the past month in which it was mentioned in a Daily Kos Elections Daily Digest. (For those who are curious, top spot in April went to Pennsylvania, which was mentioned a total of 12 times.)
The final criteria is "pollworthiness". Media outlets, campaigns, and polling firms are not going to poll a race for nothing. The more intriguing races are going to get more data points, typically. So, four points were awarded for each poll conducted (primary or general) in a given state's gubernatorial race, as logged in our comprehensive DKE polling database.