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Governors: Rating Changes Four States

If political geography is helping Senate Republicans, it isn’t doing much for the party’s quest to hold their losses in gubernatorial contests to a minimum. There are a handful of races in very red states that have inched from the Likely or Solid Republican columns to Lean Republican or Toss Up. It is remarkable to see Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio and now South Dakota in the Toss Up column. It’s difficult to remember a time when a Governor’s race in Oklahoma was competitive. That race is now in the Lean Republican column.

As Republicans struggle with their own seats, the number of Democratic seats that they might be able to flip is dwindling. Only the open seat in Connecticut remains in play, although Democrats would argue that they have the upper hand. At its root, this race is turning into a proxy fight over who is more unpopular: outgoing Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy or President Trump. Of the three races in the Lean Democratic column, it would seem that Oregon where Gov. Kate Brown is seeking a full term is the most competitive. In a year in which the political landscape favors Democrats, the open seat in Colorado isn’t as competitive as it could be. In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo has seen her prospects improve over the past 10 days, making that a more difficult target for Republicans.

When looking at the Republican side of the ledger, there are three races that already appear to be Democratic pick ups. In Illinois, GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner is trailing Democratic billionaire J.B. Pritzker by anywhere from 16 to 22 points. This race has been in the Lean Democratic column, and while we are loathe to kick an incumbent when he’s down, it’s hard to justify such a rating at this point. The race moves to the Likely Democratic column. The open seats in Michigan and New Mexico also lean in Democrats’ favor. There are now nine GOP-held seats in the Toss Up column: Govs. Kim Reynolds in Iowa and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, plus the open seats in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Nevada, Ohio and South Dakota. The open seat in Oklahoma is now in the Lean Republican column. This means that Republicans go into the final month of the campaign with half of their 26 seats at risk.

One bright spot for Republicans is Alaska where independent Gov. Bill Walker is seeking a second term. This is a three-way race between Walker, Republican Mike Dunleavey, and Democrat Mark Begich. By all accounts, Dunleavey is leading the field, followed by Walker and Begich. The race is in the Lean Republican column.

Generally, this cycle’s gubernatorial races are being fought on the issues that are the bread and butter of contests for a state’s chief executive: jobs, economic growth, taxes, health care and infrastructure (potholes have a starring role in the ads in a number of races this cycle). The addition is education. Yes, education often has a place in gubernatorial races, but this year feels and looks different. Education is placing higher on voters’ list of priorities. Moreover, voters seem angry about the state of education in their respective states. It is front and center in Arizona, Kansas and Oklahoma. In Kansas and Oklahoma, voters appear to be rebelling over the price the state’s schools paid in exchange for deep tax cuts. This explains why some very red states are in Toss Up.

There are four new rating changes and we suspect they will not be the last in the remaining weeks of this cycle.
 

Ratings Changes:

Illinois (R - Rauner): Lean Democrat to Likely Democrat 
Minnesota (D - Open): Lean Democrat to Likely Democrat 
Oklahoma (R - Open): Likely Republican to Lean Republican 
South Dakota (R - Open): Likely Republican to Toss Up 

ILLINOIS:

The race between GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and entrepreneur J.B. Pritzker that was billed as the Battle of the Billionaires has fizzled. It’s not that the candidates aren’t spending record sums of money, it’s simply that there doesn’t seem to be a lot to see here. As a Republican in a very blue state who spent most of the first three years of his term locked in an ugly battle with House Speaker Mike Madigan and the Democratic-controlled state legislature over the budget, Rauner has been an underdog since the start of this race. He then faced an unexpectedly competitive primary that he eked out with a 51-percent victory.

Pritzker has been on a roll since the March primary and isn’t content to sit on his lead. The campaign has launched a barrage of negative ads at Rauner. Rauner has hit back, but his attacks haven’t landed the same punch. Despite this, Pritzker is having the worst week of the campaign and it won’t matter. An investigation by Cook County revealed that Pritzker defrauded the county by having all the toilets removed from his home in an effort to lower his property taxes. Illinois voters have a pretty high tolerance for scandal and this one doesn’t appear to clear the bar. Rauner was also hit with another problem this week as questions have arisen as to whether his office sat on information about a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires Disease at a veterans home. Attention quickly shifted from missing toilets to fatalities. In other words, Rauner can’t catch a break.

At this point in the race, there is no path to victory for Rauner. The contest is in the Likely Democrat column.
 

MINNESOTA:

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s loss in the Republican primary was the defining event in this race as it went from a competitive target for Republicans to more of a long shot and finally to game over. The GOP nominee is Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the party’s nominee in 2014. Despite that loss, Johnson doesn’t appear to have learned anything and isn’t raising the kind of money he needs or running the kind of n campaign it takes to be competitive here. As a result, the Republican Governors Association has canceled nearly all of the substantial television advertising effort it had planned.

The Democratic nominee is U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who won a five-way primary with 47 percent of the vote. Walz, who spent much of his career as an educator and as an officer in the National Guard, was elected to the U.S. House in 2006, representing the 1st congressional district, which covers the southern part of the state from its border with South Dakota to its border with Wisconsin and includes Rochester and Mankato. It will be difficult to portray Walz as a liberal; he didn’t support Nancy Pelosi’s bid for Democratic leader after the 2016 election and has amassed a relatively moderate voting record. Republicans had been arguing that a Walz administration will simply be a continuation of the Dayton administration. But, voters aren’t unhappy with Dayton, and at least stylistically; Walz and Dayton are very different. This race is now entirely uphill for Republicans and thus moves to the Likely Democratic column.
 

OKLAHOMA:

Democrats believe that they have a first-tier nominee in this open-seat contest in former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who won the June 26 primary with 61 percent of the vote. Edmondson served as the District Attorney in Muskogee County from 1983 through 1994 when he was elected Attorney General. He held that position until 2010 when he made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. He also made an unsuccessful for a U.S. House seat in 1992. Edmondson now practices law in Oklahoma City.

On the Republican side, a 10-way primary field meant that no candidate was able to get the 50 percent needed to avoid an August 28 run-off. Gateway Mortgage CEO Kevin Stitt won that contest with 55 percent to 45 percent for Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. Outgoing GOP Gov. Mary Fallin is very unpopular and a majority of voters aren’t happy with the direction of the state. In Stitt, they opted for a conservative political outsider with a business background. But, the fact that Stitt is an outsider has made it difficult for him to rally the party behind him and generate enthusiasm. It’s Stitt’s business that will provide Democrats with fodder in the general election. Gateway Mortgage has 1,200 employees and operates in 41 states, but it has a very mixed reputation; Business Insider described the company “shady.”

What’s been interesting about this race is how quiet it’s been since the late August run-off. The Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association have just gone on the air in recent days and Edmondson has yet to air a general election ad. This may mean it will be a very intense October. This is one state in which tax cuts resulted in cuts to education and subsequent teacher strikes. After eight years of a GOP Governor, voters might be ready for a change. Even Democrats who are heavily invested in the race aren’t sure it’s a toss up yet but believe it will be soon. The contest is in the Lean Republican column.
 

SOUTH DAKOTA:

A confluence of factors has made this race far more competitive than an open-seat contest in a solidly Republican state would suggest. Republicans nominated At-Large U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem. Given that she has won four statewide elections, Noem should be something of a slam dunk to be the state’s next Governor. But, Noem is a member of an unpopular majority in an even more unpopular Congress running in a year in which the political environment is less than favorable for her party. After winning the primary, Noem‘s campaign seemed to take its foot off the gas, seemingly taking the race granted. It hasn’t helped that Noem has spent much of her time in Washington tending to her congressional duties. GOP strategists say that now that the House is out of session until after the election, Noem is completely focused on the race and is aggressively campaigning.

The second set of factors is on the Democratic side. The Democrats nominee is 34-year-old state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton.  Sutton, who became a paraplegic after injuries suffered in a rodeo accident, is a moderate with a strong personal narrative who an appealing presence on television. He is campaigning on a plan to end corruption in the state capital. According to Democratic strategists, as a member of Congress, voters don’t see Noem as a credible messenger on an issue they see as a priority. Noem and Republicans are trying to morph Sutton into Hillary Clinton, who he supported in 2016, but his moderate record might make that a hard sell.

While Republicans acknowledge that the race is very close today, they believe that the overwhelmingly Republican nature of the state will carry Noem across the finish line. Democrats are cautiously optimistic that they might pull off the upset of the cycle. The contest is now in the Toss Up column.

Image: Billie Sutton | Credit: Jay Pickthorn/Argus Leader via AP, File