11 Governors' Races Are On the Ballot. Here Are the Ones to Watch.

Voters fill out their ballots in Helena, Mont, on Election Day in 2018. This year, the state has a close race for governor.

Voters fill out their ballots in Helena, Mont, on Election Day in 2018. This year, the state has a close race for governor. AP Photo/Matt Volz


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Only a couple of the races are considered highly contested this year, with a toss-up in Montana and a competitive race in Missouri between a GOP incumbent and a Democratic challenger.

Governors' offices are up for grabs in 11 states this election season, but with just a couple races that are considered competitive. The most closely watched is in Montana, where Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney is locked in a tight battle with Congressman Greg Gianforte. 

The governor's race in Missouri grew more competitive in recent months, but incumbent Republican Mike Parson has retained an edge in polls over Democratic state auditor Nicole Galloway heading towards Election Day. 

Despite other close races in North Carolina, incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, looks to have a comfortable path to reelection over Republican challenger Lt. Gov. Dan Forest based on polls and the views of political observers in the state. Cooper narrowly defeated then-incumbent Republican Pat McCrory for the job back in 2016. 

While the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and its effects on the economy hang heavy over this year’s contests, other issues, like health care, the environment and policing are coming up as well.

Montana: Mike Cooney (D) vs. Greg Gianforte (R)

This is the most hotly contested governor’s race of 2020. A Montana State University Billings poll conducted from Oct. 19 to 24 showed the contest effectively tied, with each candidate polling 45% and 9% of voters undecided. 

Gianforte, an ally of President Trump who currently represents Montana in the U.S. House, is a successful businessman and one of the wealthiest members of Congress. He’s vying to become the state’s first Republican governor in 16 years. If Gianforte wins, it would set up a situation where Republicans hold a “trifecta” in Montana and control both the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature. Nationally, Gianforte is probably best known for an incident where he assaulted a reporter during his 2017 House bid. 

Cooney since 2016 has served as lieutenant governor alongside Montana’s current Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, who is term-limited and now running for a U.S. Senate seat. Cooney has held a number of elected positions and jobs in government over the years, including as Montana secretary of state during the 1990s and serving in the state Senate, where he was Senate president from 2007 to 2009. Prior to becoming lieutenant governor, he held leadership posts at the state’s department of labor and earlier in the 2000s he directed a nonprofit focused on child healthcare issues.

Montana, like other states in the Mountain West, has seen coronavirus cases swell heading into the fall. Cooney has indicated that he will carry on and possibly strengthen public health restrictions imposed under Bullock, including mask requirements. Gianforte has emphasized the importance of “personal responsibility” when it comes to combating the virus. But his campaign has generally avoided offering specifics on whether and how he might roll back policies Bullock has put in place, suggesting it would depend on the circumstances when he took office.

In addition to the virus, public lands and the state economy have been central topics in the race. Debate for the most part has broken along predictable party lines. Both candidates say they support access to public lands. But Cooney has assailed Gianforte for his positions in this area, such as proposing bills in Congress that would have removed Wilderness Study Area designations for nearly 700,000 acres in Montana—a move conservationists opposed and described as stripping those lands of protections. A voter guide from the group Wild Montana Action Fund shows that while Gianforte supports shifting federal public lands management to the state, Cooney does not. 

Gianforte, meanwhile, has referred to Montana’s departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources and Conservation as “the project prevention departments” and has said that the state has been too heavy handed in denying approvals for coal, oil, gas and timber projects. If elected governor, he says he’ll replace the leadership at those two departments and seek to speed up permitting. This fits with his campaign theme of highlighting his business credentials as helpful for finding ways to boost the state economy. Gianforte also argues that state taxes on property, income and business equipment are too burdensome, stifling business in the state, and says Montana’s tax code should be overhauled. 

During a debate in early October, Gianforte voiced support for cutting property and income taxes. In contrast, Cooney is floating the idea of increasing taxes on wealthier residents. Cooney also says that he’ll oppose efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and will veto any legislation aimed at weakening the state’s Medicaid expansion program under that law. Gianforte has toed the Republican line of opposing the ACA overall, but also said recently that he will not seek to eliminate the state’s expansion of Medicaid.

Missouri: Nicole Galloway (D) vs. Mike Parson (R)

This race pits incumbent Gov. Mike Parson, 65, against Nicole Galloway, 38, who’s Missouri’s auditor and the only Democrat in the state to currently hold a statewide elected office. 

Parson stepped into the governor’s role in 2018 from his post as lieutenant governor after Republican Eric Greitens resigned amid a scandal. Parson had a career in law enforcement, including 12 years as the sheriff of Polk County, Missouri. He also served previously in the state legislature and says he owns and operates a cow farm near his hometown of Bolivar. Galloway, with a background as a certified public accountant and a fraud examiner, served previously as the treasurer of Boone County before moving into her current role as state auditor. Galloway was appointed to the job in 2015 after the death of the previous auditor, and was elected as auditor in 2018. She makes a case that she’ll use her experience ferreting out wasteful and illegal spending to bring greater transparency and efficiency to the state government. Before Greitens was elected in 2016, Jay Nixon, a Democrat, was governor of Missouri. Republicans currently hold wide majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

Galloway has hammered Parson for not taking an aggressive enough statewide approach to handling the pandemic. The state has so far recorded at least 3,031 deaths from the virus and the number of hospitalizations and coronavirus patients in intensive care climbed from the summer into the fall—the seven day average for the number of virus patients in ICU care was above 400 per day for much of October. Galloway supports adopting a statewide mask rule, a step Parson hasn’t taken so far. She’s also outlined other plans to address the virus, like working with surrounding states to buy rapid testing supplies and setting clearer state guidelines based on local infection rates for when schools can reopen for in-person instruction. Parson, who along with his wife contracted the virus earlier this year, has largely favored an approach where local governments have control over public health regulations meant to slow its spread.

Parson, in line with other Republican candidates this election cycle, has emphasized his support for law enforcement and has keyed in on so-called “law and order” themes, with his campaign pointing to increased homicides in St. Louis and Kansas City as cause for concern. The governor has spoken out against calls to “defund” the police (Galloway says that she doesn’t support defunding the police either). Over the summer, Parson called a special session focused on violent crime. The session culminated in two bills that he signed, one that eliminated local residency requirements for St. Louis police officers and another that establishes a “pretrial witness protection services fund,” intended to provide support for people willing to testify in court cases involving violent crime. A bill Parson backed that would’ve given the state’s attorney general power to prosecute murders in St. Louis failed. Galloway’s public safety platform focuses on issues such as curbing opioid misuse, allowing local governments more leeway to set gun control and crime laws and expanding intervention programs that have been shown to reduce violence and addiction. 

Missouri voters in August approved a constitutional amendment to expand eligibility for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Lawmakers still need to work out details for how to move ahead with that plan. Parson, despite his opposition to the expansion, has indicated that he’ll work to implement it. Galloway supports the Medicaid expansion. 

Elsewhere: In other states around the country, five Republican incumbent governors are running for reelection in races that The Cook Political Report ranks “solid Republican.” 

In Indiana, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is running against Democrat Woody Myers, a doctor and a former state health commissioner. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is competing against Shelley Lenz, a veterinarian and businesswoman. In New Hampshire, Republican incumbent Chris Sununu is favored in his reelection bid over state Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott is up against Democratic Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. And in West Virginia, Republican governor and coal tycoon Jim Justice faces a challenge from Democrat Ben Salango, an attorney and county commissioner.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican who took office in 2009 and is currently the nation’s longest-serving governor, is not running for reelection. In the race to replace Herbert, Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is strongly favored to beat out Democratic opponent Chris Peterson, a professor of business law at the University of Utah.

Two Democratic incumbents are also up for reelection in races that The Cook Political Report ranks “solid Democrat.” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee faces a challenge from Loren Culp, a police chief in the small town of Republic, who drew attention back in 2018 for saying he wouldn’t enforce a state gun law. Culp has opposed Inslee’s coronavirus restrictions and argued they intrude on people’s rights. In Delaware, Democratic Gov. John Carney is up against Republican contender Julianne Murray, an attorney.

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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