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Gubernatorial Races to Watch in 2016

Democrats in North Carolina are hoping McCrory has overplayed his hand. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images File Photo)
Democrats in North Carolina are hoping McCrory has overplayed his hand. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images File Photo)

Despite Democrats’ surprising victory last week in Louisiana — where state Rep. John Bel Edwards beat Republican Sen. David Vitter in the runoff –  they hold only 18 gubernatorial seats, compared to the 31 held by Republican governors.  

Next year, Democrats will defend eight seats, including ones in targeted U.S. Senate battle grounds such as Missouri and New Hampshire, while Republicans will defend four.  Missouri: With incumbent Democrat Jay Nixon on his way out,  Republicans believe one of their top pickup opportunities is in Missouri, where the chief executive’s office has been held by Democrats for all but four of the past 22 years.  

Democrats have mostly solidified behind Attorney General Chris Koster, but for Republicans, the race has already been brutal. State Auditor Tom Schweich, killed himself in February, just weeks after announcing his campaign in what was already a nasty primary fight between him and Catherine Hanaway, a former federal prosecutor.  

Hanaway was joined in the race this summer by Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, wealthy St. Louis businessman John Brunner and ex-Navy SEAL Eric Greitens. While Greitens, a former Democrat, holds the cash advantage, Kinder, the only statewide elected Republican, is perhaps best known among conservative primary voters.  

The race has heated up between Greitens and Brunner, both trying to run as political outsiders, over allegations that Brunner has pushed anti-Greitens messaging about his past affiliation with Democrats. It came to blows recently, when Brunner recorded and subsequently released a phone call between him an an angry Greitens.  

Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call Rating: Tossup

West Virginia:  After serving two consecutive terms, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is term-limited, giving Republicans another open race to try turn one more office in this state red, which they have done only once in the past 26 years.  

Republicans have mostly settled behind state Senate President Bill Cole, a prominent auto dealer in the Mountain State who, when he was elected to the Senate in 2012, beat a sitting Democrat.  

On the Democratic side, two candidates have lined up to lead the state ticket in the coming presidential election year: state Sen. Jeff Kessler, who was replaced by Cole as Senate president when Democrats lost control of the chamber in in 2014, and businessmen Jim Justice.  

In Justice, some Democrats say they could have the chance to do what Republicans did to them when businessman Matt Bevin beat Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway in the 2015 election. Justice, one of the richest men in the state who has earned his wealth in the coal business, Republicans might have a harder time painting the picture of him conniving with President Barack Obama to tear down the industry, as they did Conway with in Kentucky.  

Despite the compelling business story, it does not come without its challenges. A news report found that companies operated by the billionaire owe about $3.5 million in back taxes, and has faced criticism for a verbal altercation with a police officer in which he appeared to pull rank, saying, “You can explain it to your boss.”  

Rating: Tossup

North Carolina:  In this state, where Democrats have tried to paint the picture of the GOP overplaying its hand — from tax policies that have caused trouble for the state budget to a controversial voter identification bill — the party is looking to knock out Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in this state Mitt Romney won with 51 percent of the vote in 2012.  

The party is mostly rallying behind Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat who has been elected to his job four times in a row. While North Carolina has flipped from supporting President Barack Obama in 2008 to Romney in 2012, Democrats believe they could turn McCrory’s upside down popularity rating into their own gain.  

Rating: Tilts Republican

New Hampshire:  With New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, not seeking a second term to instead challenge Sen. Kelly Ayotte next year, Republicans are cautiously eyeing an opportunity for a win in the Granite State for the first time since 2002.  

Their top candidate is Chris Sununu, one of the five members of the New Hampshire Executive Council. Sununu, whose father John Sununu was once governor before he joined George H.W. Bush’s administration as White House chief of staff, is viewed as the establishment favorite, but state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, a vocal conservative who showed up at the recent meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Las Vegas, is also eyeing a run.  

Colin Van Ostern, a Democrat who serves on the executive council with Sununu, has emerged as a strong early contender to carry the party’s torch next year to hold on to Hassan’s seat, but he might face a challenge by Stefany Shaheen, the daughter of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.  

Rating: Tilts Democratic

Indiana:  Former U.S. Sen. Mike Pence was elected Indiana’s governor with 49.5 percent of the vote in 2012, beating out Democrat John Gregg by just 75,000 votes. Four years later, Gregg is readying a rematch.  

Pence has been criticized by Democrats and even some of the moderate, pro-business members of his own party for his support of the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act earlier this year. Still, Indiana — where the legislature is dominated by Republicans and where Romney won by 11 points in 2012 — poses an uphill climb for Democrats.  

Rating: Leans Republican

Montana:  Despite Obama’s 13-point loss here, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, pulled out a win in 2012 with fewer than 8,000 votes to spare. Four years later in another presidential election year, Republicans see an opportunity to add another governor to the party’s ranks.  

Greg Gianforte, a wealthy Republican businessman, is likely to seek the party’s nomination, and Brad Johnson, a public service commissioner there, is already running.  

Rating: Leans Democratic

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