DDHQ Governors Races Ratings – Part IV: Western States

Well guys, we’re at the fourth day of our series rating next year’s Governor’s races. As I was trying to distribute the 38 states (somewhat) evenly between, the states I’m covering today don’t fit neatly into one region. We have the Great Plains states, some in the Rocky Mountains, and a few in the southwest – please forgive me if I’ve offended anyone with my grouping here. Tomorrow we’ll wrap things up with the west coast.

KANSAS

For another cycle, despite its typical GOP lean, Kansas is looking like a decent pickup opportunity for Democrats. Outgoing Gov. Sam Brownback (R) remains highly unpopular, due in part to his battles with the more moderate faction of his party, and the budgetary ramifications of the large tax cuts he’s presided over.

The two Republicans who were first to enter were ex-State Rep. Ed O’Malley (R) and businessman Wink Hartman (R). However, in earlier this month, Secretary of State Chris Kobach (R) announced his candidacy. Koback is a controversial figure – as SOS, he oversaw strict voter ID rules, which his critics have equated to voter suppression. Kobach is also known for his hard line, Trump-ish rhetoric on immigration. Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) may run, but his connections to Brownback wouldn’t be an asset. The GOP was dealt a recruiting setback here when Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R) declined to run. Jenkins was one the few candidates who could truly unite the party.

The first Democrat to enter was Wichita mayor Carl Brewer (D), a relatively mainstream Democrat. A more recent entrant was ex-Sate Agriculture Secretary Josh Svaty (D). Svaty looks better positioned for the general election, as he’s pro-life and pro-gun.

A lot will depend on the nominees, but we’ll rate Kansas as LEANING REPUBLICAN.

NEBRASKA

The race for the Cornhusker State’s Governorship is looking very sleepy. So far, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) has no opposition for a second term. In 2014, Ricketts squeaked through a crowded Republican primary, winning the nomination with 26.5% of the vote. He went on to win the general election by a comfortable, but not overwhelming, 18%.

Ricketts has had some fights with with the (officially) non-partisan legislature; a recent example was his defense of the death penalty when the legislature tried to abolish it. Still, these quarrels certainly aren’t enough to ruin his tenure.

Until we have other candidates, this has to be STRONG REPUBLICAN.

SOUTH DAKOTA

South Dakota will have an open seat contest, as Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) is term-limited. Daugaard was reelected in 2014 with 71% of the vote, and remains popular. The last time Democrats won the Governor’s Mansion in Pierre was all the way back in 1974, in the wake of Watergate. Since then, they’ve only come within single-digits of winning it back once, in 1986.

The Republican primary will is looking to be a barnburner. Two-term State AG Marty Jackley (R) will be in a contest with Rep. Kristi Noem (R), who has served in the House since 2011. Both are raising funds quickly, so the race should be tight.

Democrats seemed to have coalesced behind State House minority Leader Billie Sutton (D). At 33, Sutton has an inspirational life story, as he overcame a rodeo accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether (I) could make things interesting. He’s been discussed as either running as a Democrat or Independent, and could significant self-fund.

The possibility of a tough GOP primary could give Democrats a chance to competitive, but until then, we feel South Dakota is LIKELY REPUBLICAN.

WYOMING

Like Nebraska, this is a solidly red state with a slowly developing race. So far, no candidates have gotten in the contest to replace termed-out Matt Mead (R). Though Wyoming was the President’s best state, its small population is conducive to retail politics. That may be why Democrats have actually been competitive here in past decades – over the last 50 years, the Governorship here has been about equally split between the parties.

Any number of Republicans could run here. Two of the most viable options may be State House Speaker Ed Buchanan (R), of Torrington, and State Treasurer Mark Gordon (R), who is from the rural north. Ex-Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R), who served in the House from 2009 to 2017, may also consider coming out of retirement.

Democrats who are mentioned include State Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D), of Laramie, and ex-State Rep. Mary Throne (D), who was narrowly bounced from her Cheyenne-area seat last year.

Overall, the candidate picture is not clear at all, so we’re sort of defaulting to STRONG REPUBLICAN.

IDAHO

In dark red Idaho, most of the action will be on the GOP side. The Republican primary in Idaho actually looks very much like Democratic primary for Virginia Governor. The sitting Governor, Butch Otter (R) is supporting his Lieutenant, Brad Little (R). A later in entrant into the race was Rep. Raul Labrador (R), who represents Idaho’s western district. Like Tom Perriello in Virginia, Labrador is, arguably, closer to his party’s grassroots factor than his more established opponent. Two other Republicans, former State Sen. Russ Fulcher (R), and businessman Tommy Ahlquist (R), both from the Boise area are running.

As the only Democrat running is doing so from a prison cell, we’d call whoever wins the GOP primary a pretty easy favorite in the general. STRONG REPUBLICAN is an easy call.

COLORADO

Despite being a competitive state, Democrats have held the Governorship of Colorado for 36 of the last 44 years. There are four Democrats running to succeed the term-limited John Hicklenlooper (D).

Cary Kennedy (D), no relation to the dynasty, has won statewide before, as Treasurer in 2006, though was narrowly defeated in 2010. State Sen. Michael Johnson (D) resigned his seat, in Denver, earlier this year to run. At 42, Johnson was seen as something of a rising star. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D) is considered a high-caliber candidate. He’s represented the mildly, blue 7th District since 2007. As it spans the northern Denver area, he has strong name recognition in the state’s biggest metro area. Perlmutter was looking the clear frontrunner until last weekend, when fellow Rep. Jared Polis (D), surprisingly got in. Polis represents the adjacent 2nd District, which includes liberal Boulder, as well as the state’s swingiest county, Larimer (which contains Fort Collins). Polis, at 42, is a millionaire and will likely self-fund. 

Republicans have two serious candidates running. George Brauchler (R) is the current District Attorney of blue-trending Arapahoe County, which is a major suburban county south of Denver. Second, Victor Mitchell (R) represented a solidly red State House seat in Colorado Springs for a single term last decade.

As the Democratic field is, altogether, higher quality, we’ll call this race TILTING DEMOCRATIC.

NEW MEXICO

Of all the Republican-held seats up in 2018, New Mexico looks by far to be Democrat’s best chance at a pickup.

No Republicans are currently running to replace the term-out Gov. Susana Martinez (R). One of the GOP’s possible names is Mayor Richard Berry (R), of the state’s largest city, Albuquerque. Another candidate could be Lt. Gov. John Sanchez (R), however New Mexico has tended not to promote its LGs in recent decades. Rep. Steve Pearce (R), from the state’s southern 2nd District, is considering. Pearce is well-known his district, but the last time he ran statewide, in 2008 for Senate, he lost to now-Sen. Tom Udall (D) by a punishing 23%.

The Democratic primary is much clearer. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) is a the clear frontrunner. She’s held the Albequerque-area 1st District since 2012, and has routinely overperformed the Democratic baseline her seat. A second candidate, aiming to take the outsider mantle is Jeff Apodaca (D). Apodaca has no experience in office himself, though his dad served as Governor in the 1970s. A potentially bruising primary was averted when State AG Hector Balderas (D), rather unexpectedly, decided to run. At 44, Balderas has held statewide office since 2006, and would have been a strong candidate.

Going forward, Lujan Grisham looks to be in the driver’s seat in the primary and the general. We see this race LEANING DEMOCRATIC.

ARIZONA

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) is running for a second term. Compared to his predecessor, Jan Brewer, Ducy has kept a relatively lower profile. One of his biggest accomplishments was signing a major expansion of the state’s school voucher program.

The first Democratic candidate to announce a run was David Garcia (R). Garcia ran for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, as first-time candidate, in 2014. He lost by just 16,000 votes out of almost 1.5 million cast, and carried the state’s largest county, Maricopa (it usually votes right of the state). A second candidate, who has legislative experience, is State Sen. Steve Farley (D). First elected to the legislature in 2006, Farley has base in the blue-trending Tucson area.

Overall, Arizona’s red lean favors Ducey. Another dynamic benefiting Ducey is that Senator Jeff Flake, is seen as a more vulnerable target for Democrats, thus the Governor’s race could take something of a backseat. Arizona is starting of as LIKELY REPUBLICAN, though we can see things becoming more competitive here soon.