2020 Governors Overview: Governors Will Be Judged for Their Handling of Coronavirus Crisis
April 3, 2020 | Jessica Taylor
Governors often get overlooked in national news coverage and can get lost in the electoral shuffle, especially during presidential years. But as the COVID19 pandemic has spread across the U.S. and the world — and threatens to get much worse before things even start to get better — it's governors who have been at the forefront of efforts to curb its spread, especially in contrast to the White House's delayed actions.
Both Republican and Democratic governors have stood out for enforcing early stay-at-home orders and school closures to slow community spread and for sometimes sparring with President Trump over getting more personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical personnel, additional ventilators and expedited coronavirus test kits.
Ohio Republican Governor Mike DeWine won plaudits for his early actions in taking the deadly virus seriously, as did Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Briefings by New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who was just elected last November, have also become must-see events for state residents.
Some of those more aggressive efforts have stood in stark contrast to other governors, primarily Southern Republicans, who have been slow to act. Florida's Ron DeSantis finally acquiesced to a 30-day shelter-in-place on Wednesday. Mississippi's newly-elected Tate Reeves gave into a stay-at-home order after first trying to override local efforts to do so. On Thursday, Georgia's Brian Kemp shockingly admitted he didn't realize until now that the virus could be transmitted from asymptomatic people. Some of these governors didn't act until late this week, when the White House and Trump finally began to drill down on how serious this health crisis is, urging people to stay at home until the end of April amid estimates that the death toll in the U.S. could reach as high as 240,000.
"Way too many Republicans waited for the smoke signal from the White House," one GOP strategist who works throughout the South told me. "Keeping people safe isn't a partisan issue. But the White House had a different tone and timeline, and the president himself sent mixed messages. But you had a lot of governors, particularly Southern governors, who didn't move swiftly at all because they don't want to be crosswinds with Trump."
Most of those governors, though, won't be judged for their actions for another two or three years at the ballot box. Still, this Republican consultant estimated that 2022 re-election bids for both Kemp and DeSantis could be in jeopardy if they don't face a strong primary challenge first. Other term-limited Republicans, like Hogan, who has performed well could certainly be in the national conversation for 2024.
"A unique thing about being a governor is that governors' terms are often defined by how they respond to major crises. That is a huge separation between being a governor and a senator or a member of Congress. You are an executive, and people look to you to lead in times of crisis," said Jared Leopold, a past communications director for the Democratic Governors Association and a former senior aide on Jay Inslee's presidential bid. "You'll see re-elections made and re-elections lost based on how they respond to the major crisis of their term. For many governors in office today, this is going to be the biggest crisis of their term."
And so far, governors across the board are getting far better marks than Trump. A Monmouth University poll conducted March 18-22 found that 72% of Americans say their state's governor has done a good job handling the coronavirus crisis, compared to just 50% who said the same thing about the president. Another poll conducted for the Associated Press by the National Opinion Research Center found that 57% of Americans approve of their state government's response, while just 38% approve of how the federal government has handled and responded to the pandemic. A Grinnell College poll conducted by Iowa pollster Ann Selzer also found that 72% of Americans trust their governor as a source of credible information on COVID; just 46% saw Trump the same way.
Presidential election years mean that only a fraction of the country's 50 state leaders are on the ballot — 11 in total, including 4 Democratic-held seats and 7 GOP-held ones. Each party also has one open state seat they're defending, though for Democrats, the Montana open seat is far more difficult than Utah's Republican opening.
But incumbent governors that are running for re-election this year will be judged in likely outsized ways by their handling of the coronavirus crisis. Most of them appear to have risen to the occasion and polls bear out strong public approval of the jobs they've been doing. North Carolina's Roy Cooper, the lone Democratic incumbent in a competitive race, along with Vermont's Phil Scott and New Hampshire's Chris Sununu, two Northeastern Republicans with two-year terms and remain in stronger-than-expected positions for re-election despite the increasing Democratic tilts of their states.
Democrats, overall, have nearly pulled even with Republicans in governorships, after falling far behind in overall state control during the Obama administration, with a low point of just 16 Democratic governors after the 2016 election, down from 28 in 2008. But then Democrats flipped seven governor's mansions in 2018, followed by one in 2019. Currently, Republicans have 26 governors nationwide, while Democrats have 24.
A good election night for Democrats might even be keeping that margin, which would mean holding onto the Montana open seat. Some other contests don't look as ripe for the taking as they may down the line, particularly in the Northeast, but they could develop. For Republicans, adding even Montana would be a positive evening, though they would, of course, like to flip North Carolina as well.
Because so much of the world — especially the political one — is in flux, and with campaigns essentially frozen, we aren't moving the ratings of most of these races, given that we still don't know how this crisis will be resolved and what impact it could have in November. And most of these governors have gotten high marks across the board for how they've risen to the task — at least for now.
The lone exception of governors up in 2020 seems to be Missouri's Mike Parson, who has resisted a statewide stay-at-home order, even as medical professionals and mayors of major metro areas have pleaded for more action. As we will explain more below, we are moving Missouri from the Solid Republican column to Likely Republican.
Montana: The GOP's Best Takeover Opportunity
Montana is the only competitive open-seat race this year. Democrats have held the governorship here for 16 years, even as the state as a whole has remained reliably Republican. Brian Schweitzer enjoyed two terms, as did Steve Bullock, who was re-elected by about 4 points even as Trump carried the state by 20.
While Trump is expected to carry it again easily, Montana is emerging as both a critical Senate and gubernatorial battleground, with Gov. Bullock now having decided to challenge GOP Sen. Steve Daines. Democrats hope that Bullock on the ballot again could boost their chances of keeping the governorship in their hands too.
The man who Daines beat four years ago, now-Rep. Greg Gianforte, is likely to be the Republican nominee this time again. In 2016, Gianforte got 46% of the vote to Bullock's 50%, despite putting $5.8 million of his own money into the race.
Then in 2017, he won a special election to replace Ryan Zinke, who had left Congress to become Trump's Interior Secretary. That race was marred by assault charges against Gianforte when he bodyslammed a reporter just days before the election. He won that race by just over 5.5 points, and in 2018 was elected to a full term by just under 5 points.
Even Republicans admit privately that Gianforte has plenty of baggage, but he's heavily outspending his other main competitor at this point, Attorney General Tim Fox, with $563,000 on TV ads already. Both Democrats and Republicans expect Gianforte to be the nominee, even though it's Fox who might be the better general election candidate. Four years ago, Bullock and Democrats attacked Gianforte over public lands, and Democrats believe that this, coupled with his past and his time in Washington, will work in their favor.
Democrats' primary is more unsettled, with voters set to choose on June 2 between Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and businesswoman Whitney Williams. Cooney has the financial advantage and better name ID, and has been endorsed by Bullock, which helps him in the primary. But Williams — whose father, Pat, served in Congress for nearly two decades and whose mother, Carol, was president of the state Senate, can't be counted out, and she recently got former Gov. Schweitzer's endorsement.
This race remains in the Toss Up column, and probably will through Election Day.
North Carolina: Cooper Retains A Slight Edge
Cooper's favorability ratings have remained strong in the wake of the coronavirus crisis: a poll for the conservative Civitas Institute by Harper Polling (March 15-17) gave the governor a 62% job approval rating, while Trump clocked in at 52%, and a Public Policy Polling survey (March 22-23) showed Cooper's overall approval at 56%, while 63% said they approved of how he's handling the health crisis. On March 17, Cooper ordered all restaurants to cease in-person service, limiting it just to delivery or carry-out, and on March 27, he issued a stay-at-home order.
Following the order to close restaurants, his GOP opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest — who Republicans and Democrats alike say comes off as an affable guy — made the puzzling move to criticize Cooper's decision, citing the harm it would do to the economy and to small businesses. Forest also argued that Cooper was not going through the proper channels and didn't have the authority to order such a shutdown, but in times of crises process arguments aren't winning ones. Even GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, who faces his own tough re-election bid, tweeted out Cooper's order with the note that "The health and well-being of North Carolinians must come first" and later praised Cooper's actions.
Forest also remains at a distinct financial disadvantage compared to Cooper, who ran about 3 points and nearly 120,000 votes ahead of Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016 even as she lost it. But Republicans point out that Forest also won that year and garnered about 45,000 more votes than Cooper.
Still, this is the only gubernatorial race that is playing out in not only a presidential battleground but also a Senate one too. Of the three Democrats though in those races — Joe Biden for president and Senate nominee Cal Cunningham — Cooper remains the best positioned and likely to run ahead again. The onus is on Forest to turn it into a referendum on Cooper, and even top Republicans in the state admit that it will be harder to do than they first expected. This race remains in Lean Democrat for now.
New Hampshire and Vermont: Northeastern Republican Governors Endure
These two neighboring states not only are the last ones in the country whose governors are elected every two years — but they also feature a duo of two-term Republican governors who are poised yet again to overcome their state's Democratic tilt come November. At the end of 2019, Morning Consult found Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu to be the fourth and fifth most popular governors, respectively, in the country.
Of these two neighboring states, Democrats will even admit it's Scott who is in the far better position despite that being the more blue. Scott has built an independent brand and separated himself from Trump often, even going as far as to suggest he supported the president's removal following his impeachment and also endorsing former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld in his short-lived GOP primary challenge to Trump.
Democrats have an August 11 primary, with the two leading contenders being Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and former state Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. Most Democrats expect Zuckerman, an acolyte of Bernie Sanders who's also running on the Progressive Party line, to win. But a recent Politico article highlighted an issue Holcombe is hitting him on that could also become a headache for him in the general election — Zuckerman has opposed government-mandated vaccines, and that's a stance that could be even more harmful given the current COVID crisis.
Much of the New Hampshire contest won't come into focus until after Democratic pick a nominee, and they have a late primary that isn't until September 8, when voters will choose between Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes and Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky. Such a late, protracted race will only drain Democratic coffers, while Sununu can look toward November. National Democrats believe Feltes has a slight edge in the primary.
Sununu is the scion of one of the state's most famous families, with his father serving as governor and his brother as a senator. Democrats argue though that he's been too cozy with Trump at times and plan to weaponize that against him, along with a legislative session where he feuded with the Democratic-controlled legislature.
And Sununu, so far, has gotten high marks for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, especially when compared with Trump. A University of New Hampshire Granite State Panel survey (3/17-25) found that 73% of residents approved of Sununu's handling of the situation while just 15% disapproved, compared to 57% in the state who disapproved of Trump's handling of it, with only 41% approving.
If one of these races is going to move to the Lean Republican column, it's most likely going to be New Hampshire, with Vermont becoming a less plausible pickup opportunity for Democrats. But for now, both of these races remain in Likely Republican.
Missouri: Parson Lags Behind Other Governors In Coronavirus Response
As we detailed earlier, there are several examples of Republican governors who acted early and forcefully to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson is not one of those.
As of March 17, Parson was one of just four governors (all Republicans, including in Texas, Nebraska and Idaho) who had taken no public statewide actions or issued little guidance in efforts to mitigate the pandemic, according to data from the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute. As of April 3, he has still resisted such urges but has banned gatherings of 10 or more.
Parson is an accidental governor in many ways, taking over in June 2018 after Gov. Eric Greitens resigned following the scandalous revelations of an extramarital affair with his hairdresser that resulted in felony invasion of privacy charges, which were later dropped. While Greitens was seen as a young GOP rising star and a bombastic personality, the low-key Parson — a 64-year-old former state legislator and sheriff — is the polar opposite.
There was a threat, until Tuesday's filing deadline, that Greitens could run in the primary and try and make a political comeback, and Uniting Missouri, a super-PAC supporting Parson, has already spent $1.7 million on TV and radio ads trying to strengthen the governor for such a fight. But a bigger threat is now in the general election, where his handling of the corona crisis could harm him even in a red state.
Democrats landed State Auditor Nicole Galloway to run, and have signaled they intend to make this race a top priority. She has criticized Parson in recent weeks and has called on him to issue a stay at home order, which Republicans and Parsons rebut as playing politics in a time of crisis. A Remington Research poll conducted 3/11-12 gave Parson a 52%-39% lead, with a 54% approval rating on par with Trump. But at that point, the state only had two confirmed coronavirus cases; it now has 1,581 and 18 deaths, as of Thursday evening.
Still, Galloway has a long way to go to make this a truly competitive race, and we're skeptical it can fully get there in a presidential year in a state Trump carried by 18 points in 2016, even though those margins may well decrease this year. Many of the state's metro areas are growing and, along with them, seeing suburban shifts away from the GOP, especially in and around St. Louis and Kansas City.
However, Parson's missteps over the past week combined with a strong candidate in Galloway can't be ignored, and this is more of a race than others in the Solid Republican column. So we are shifting it into the Likely Republican category.
Utah: A Crowded Republican Primary
With Republican Gov. Gary Herbert deciding not to run for a third term, the crowded race to succeed him features some major GOP heavy hitters in the state — along with some late drama.
Several recent polls show it's increasingly a two-man race between Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who was elected in 2004 and re-elected four years later before resigning in August 2009 to become President Obama's Ambassador to China. Huntsman came back to the U.S. to make an unsuccessful bid for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, and then in October 2017 became Trump's Ambassador to Russia. Huntsman stepped down last fall to try and regain his old seat.
However, that effort may be more difficult than expected for Huntsman. Last week, more than half the signatures he submitted to get on the ballot were thrown out. Herbert relaxed signature requirements to minimize in-person contact due to coronavirus precautions but didn't allow for online gathering of signatures like the former governor wanted. Huntsman is still 11,500 signatures short and staring down an April 10 deadline.
Both Cox and former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright have already qualified for the ballot via signatures. The other way onto the June 30 primary ballot is at the April 25 party convention, which will now be held virtually. But qualifying that way could be harder for Huntsman, since those gatherings are of course typically more tilted toward the conservative, activist wing of the party in recent years. Huntsman took first place at the 2004 convention, but other establishment politicians have struggled in such a setting. If no candidate reaches 60% there, the eventual top two vote-getters following multiple ballots if needed as decided by the state party would advance to get on the primary ballot.
Whoever ends up winning the GOP nomination will be the prohibitive favorite in November, and this race remains Solid Republican.
Democratic Safe Seats: Delaware and Washington
There's little expectation that either of these races will be a problem for Democrats, with Delaware's John Carney expected to easily win a second term while Washington's Jay Inslee is the heavy favorite to win a third term.
Inslee, of course, made a short-lived run for president in which he pressed for more action to combat climate change. Most recently, he's made headlines for clashing with Trump over the coronavirus response, as Washington has had the third most number of cases in the U.S., behind New York and California, and Seattle has become a major hotspot.
Republicans still mention this as a longshot opportunity if they get the right candidate, but they haven't yet, and it's doubtful they could with Inslee likely coming out on top in local views over his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Both of these should be easy wins for Democrats.
Republican Safe Seats: Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia
Two of these states -- Indiana and West Virginia -- started out the cycle as somewhat wishful pickup opportunities for Democrats. But they are no longer realistic opportunities. Meanwhile, North Dakota's Doug Burgum should easily win a second term.
In Indiana, Democrat Eddie Melton had been the favorite for the nomination until he dropped out in early January. Now former state Health Commission Woody Myers was the only Democrat who filed to run, and there's little indication he has made the race competitive. Gov. Eric Holcomb, who had to hurriedly put together a campaign when Trump tapped Mike Pence as his running mate in 2016, should have a much easier race this time around.
West Virginia is the lone state in this category that does have some intrigue. Gov. Jim Justice was elected in 2016 as a Democrat but switched parties less than 7 months into his term, announcing his decision at a Trump rally in the state. That about face left some Republicans skeptical and drew several GOP primary challengers, chief among them former state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, who Justice had fired. The previously-scheduled May 12 primary has now been moved to June 9, but Justice is expected to win.
The general election would have been a lot more interesting if Democrats had convinced Sen. Joe Manchin to go back home and run for his old spot as governor, but he passed and has endorsed Ben Salango, an attorney and Kanawha County commissioner, instead. Salango probably has the inside track on the nomination. Justice's approval ratings have never been stellar — he's ranked the 8th most unpopular governor in the most recent Morning Consult survey — but with an endorsement from Trump in a year where the president will clean up big in the state should be plenty to help him win.