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Governors' Races Could Be A Bright Spot For GOP On Election Night

(Left to right) Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, and Indiana Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb.
Jim Cole, Wilson Ring, AJ Mast
(Left to right) Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, and Indiana Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb.

In what could be a tough election night for Republicans, governors' races may offer a rare bright spot.

Unlike in House and Senate races, Democrats are largely playing defense in the 12 gubernatorial races on the ballot Tuesday. Democrats are defending eight seats to the GOP's four. Two states — North Dakota and Utah — will safely stay in the Republicans' column, while Democrats will keep Oregon, Washington and an open Delaware seat on their side.

There are seven competitive races to watch, and six of those are firmly in the toss-up column. The presidential race will have an impact in the battleground states of New Hampshire and North Carolina, and if Hillary Clinton wins in those places she could carry Democratic candidates for governor over the finish line. But Republican nominee Donald Trump could help boost candidates in Missouri, Indiana and West Virginia. And then there's a surprising Vermont race that could see a Republican actually win the governor's mansion in what's typically a very liberal state.

Why do these governor's races matter so much? Some of the biggest policy battles in the country this year have originated on a state, not a federal, level. From environmental concerns to religious freedom laws to school choice to social issues and more, governors will be the on those frontlines.

Longer term, both parties are also casting an eye ahead to 2020 and subsequent redistricting two years later. Republicans and Democrats hope their incumbents would be in a better place in four years if they win now.

A good night for Democrats would be breaking even or losing just a net of one state. But Republicans think they could pick up one or two states. With the GOP already holding a total of 31 governorships, they only need one pick-up to match their modern-day record of controlling the governor's mansion in 32 states, set in 1998.

Here's a snapshot of each of the most competitive races:

North Carolina: R-Pat McCrory

NPR rating: Toss-Up

No governor in America may have been under more scrutiny than the once-popular McCrory over the past year. Earlier this spring, the state legislature passed, and the governor signed, the controversial HB2, or "bathroom bill," which prohibited transgender persons from using bathrooms of the gender they now identify as. There were mass protests and the state endured boycotts from businesses, sports leagues and musicians over the new law, including the NCAA, which announced last month they were relocating several championship events.

Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper has a slight edge in most polls, and hopes he'll be boosted by Democrats' intense get-out-the-vote operation across the state for the presidential and Senate race as well. Republicans have tried to discredit him over his handling of state crime labs and the State Bureau of Investigation, including rape kit backlogs and a mishandling of criminal evidence.

Republicans note that McCrory's standing has improved in the final weeks and that his approval ratings have improved because of his administration's response to flooding due to Hurricane Matthew. Democrats are still encouraged by the fact Cooper's fundraising advantage over McCrory. However, GOP turnout efforts till lag badly behind Democrats here, and that could make a big difference in all the statewide races. Although Cooper likely has a slight advantage, the race is far from a sure thing for Democrats.

Indiana: R-Open, Mike Pence running for vice president

NPR rating: Toss-Up

Pence's decision to join Trump's ticket saved him from a tough re-election race back home. Democrats were pounding him for his handling of the state's religious freedom law, but he still had the edge. Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb was chosen as the GOP replacement, but he had little time to make up ground against former Democratic state House Speaker John Gregg, who lost to Pence in 2012.

Gregg never really stopped running and Democrats say he's a better candidate this go-around. Republicans are painting Gregg as a lobbyist and political insider and for choosing "Hillary over Hoosiers," as one ad from the Republican Governors Association put it. Democrats have argued Holcomb would be Pence 2.0.

Gregg had led in polls for most of this race, but what once seemed like a tighter race on the presidential level shows movement toward the GOP in the final days — helping boost Holcomb, along with Rep. Todd Young over former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh in the Senate race. A WTHR/Howey Politics poll released Friday showed the race was a tie, and even Democrats admit undecided voters will likely break for Holcomb.

Missouri: D-Open, Jay Nixon term-limited

NPR rating: Toss-Up

Democrats' candidate here, state Attorney General Chris Koster, has bolstered his crossover appeal with endorsements from the National Rifle Association and the Missouri Farm Bureau, becoming the first statewide Democratic candidate the incredibly influential state agriculture group has ever backed.

Koster was a Republican until 2007. The GOP nominee, retired Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who was once a Democrat. He won a bruising primary over other elected officials. Democrats have hit him over questionable campaign contributions.

But while Koster led in polls for the past few months, that advantage has entirely evaporated, and the latest surveys show the race is a statistical dead heat. Rising Obamacare premiums and new emails on Clinton's private server have helped Republicans across the country, and especially in Missouri, which has a tightening Senate race the GOP once conceded was likely lost. Republicans have been hammering Koster over that, and it seems to have taken a toll. This could be a photo-finish on Tuesday night, but Greitens has the momentum in the final days.

New Hampshire: D-Open, Hassan running for Senate

NPR Rating: Toss-Up

Republican state Executive Councilor Chris Sununu narrowly won a late GOP primary, and is armed with one of the most famous last names in the state, as the brother of former Sen. John E. Sununu and former Gov. John H. Sununu. But the younger Sununu's favorability ratings have taken a hit after Democrats have criticized him for employment practices at a ski resort he owns. Democrats hammered him with ads portraying him as rich and privileged who had things handed to him.

Democratic nominee Colin Van Ostern, also a state executive councilor, started with considerably less name ID than Sununu, and polls earlier this month had him closing the gap and even taking a very slim lead. But the Granite State is one place where Trump and Republicans have seen a resurgence in the final week of the race, and this race is knotted up again. Even Republicans think that undecided voters will probably wind up choosing Democrats, and if the state goes for Democrats in both the presidential and Senate races, Van Ostern probably wins, too. But if Trump carries this state or if Sen. Kelly Ayotte can win, Sununu could squeak in, as well. New Hampshire and Vermont are the only two state with two year terms for governors, so both parties will get a crack at this one again in 2018.

Vermont: D-Open, Peter Shumlin not running for re-election

NPR Rating: Toss-up

Here's a surprising development that's been overlooked — Republicans may very well pick up the governor's race in Vermont. That may seem shocking, given the state's heavy Democratic bent, but GOP Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is very popular and has the typical Northeastern Republican profile — socially liberal but fiscally conservative. Even Democrats expect he'll probably beat former state transportation secretary Sue Minter. There's been scant public polling here, but those surveys have Scott leading and that mirrors private polling.

Democrats are hoping that painting Scott as too conservative for the liberal state and an expected big Hillary Clinton win atop the ticket will help Minter on Election Day. But they privately grumble she hasn't run a great race against a very strong GOP candidate. She's also been hurt by sour approval ratings of outgoing Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. In fact, a Republican governor isn't actually that unusual in the state — before Shumlin, Republican Jim Douglas served for eight years.

One thing to watch here is the if neither candidate gets a 50% plus one majority, the Vermont General Assembly picks the winner, which is how Shumlin won in 2014. Both candidates have said the legislature should pick whoever gets the most votes.

West Virginia: D-Open, Earl Ray Tomblin is term-limited

NPR Rating: Toss-up

Hillary Clinton will lose here big — possibly by as much as 30 points — so that's already a hurdle for Democrats hoping to keep this seat in their column. But Democrats in the state are used to splitting their tickets, especially for governor. Their nominee is wealthy coal executive Jim Justice, who owns the famous Greenbrier Resort. Justice has had the edge over Republican nominee Bill Cole, the state senate president, for most of the race, but is now getting criticism following anNPR investigation that showed the billionaire failed to pay millions in mine safety penalties and federal and state taxes.

Still, Democrats argue that voters like his business savvy in the same way that they like Trump. And given his background in the coal industry, Republicans have struggled to tar him on economic policy the way they do with national Democrats. Republicans hope a big Trump victory in the state will boost Cole to victory. While Justice will likely outperform Clinton significantly, his independence from the national Democratic party may not be enough. Republican ads have painted Justice as a Clinton crony, a potentially effective line of attack in this election. This one will be very close, but Republicans could finally get their first governor here in 16 years.

Montana: D-Steve Bullock

NPR Rating: Lean Democratic

Bullock has the advantage in the race for re-election over GOP nominee Greg Gianforte, a wealthy tech executive. Republicans hope Trump's expected win in Montana could push their candidate over the finish line, but Bullock will get plenty of crossover voters, and even Republicans admit Gianforte hasn't run the race he needs to in order to pull off an upset.

Democrats are painting Gianforte as too conservative for the state, tarring him as a "millionaire from New Jersey" (he moved to Montana 20 years ago) and have hit him on his positions on land access, a big issue in the state. Gianforte has argued his business background would help him bring jobs to the state, and Bullock has had to deal with his own email issues. Still, Bullock remains popular and should win.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.