11 State Races To Watch In 2016


By John Celock

North Carolina Governor

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) has been a top target for Democrats since he took office in 2013. McCrory and the GOP Legislature have pushed through conservative bills, bringing about protests in Raleigh. Four-term Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) has stepped up to challenge McCrory in what polls are showing to be the closest governor’s race on the ballot this year. Both parties are expected to spend heavily on this race that will decide the future North Carolina wants to take.

New Hampshire Governor

With Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) deciding to run for U.S. Senate this year instead of a third term in Concord, all eyes are on the Granite State as they pick their next leader. Both sides have primaries shaping up with several younger officials stepping up, including potentially two children of former governors. On the Republican side, state Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, the son of former Gov. John Sununu, is considered the frontrunner, but he faces a primary challenge from state Rep. Frank Edelblut. On the Democratic side, Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern is facing off against businessman Mark Connelly. The wild card factor for Democrats, Portsmouth Councilwoman Stefany Shaheen, the daughter of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a former governor, is considering entering the race as well.

Indiana Governor

When he left Congress for Indianapolis four years ago, many thought the governor’s mansion was a rest stop for Gov. Mike Pence (R) on the way to a White House run. Following national attention and controversy over the state’s 2014 religious freedom law, Pence is suddenly in the fight of his political life for another four years as governor. Pence faces a rematch with Democrat former state House Speaker John Gregg this year.

Vermont Governor

With Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) not seeking a fourth term, the top job in the Green Mountain State is up for grabs. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (R) is the presumptive GOP nominee, while on the Democratic side former state Transportation Secretary Sue Minter faces former state Sen. Matt Dunne in a primary. While known as a liberal state, Vermonters have historically alternated the governorship between the parties since the 1960s.

West Virginia Governor

Democrats have held the West Virginia governorship since 2000 and want to continue their dominance in light of the GOP rise in the state. With Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) term limited this year, three Democrats and one Republican have emerged. On the GOP side, state Senate President Bill Cole is looking like the likely nominee. On the Democratic side, coal executive Jim Justice, one of the state’s richest men, is facing off against former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler for the job. Goodwin is a scion of the powerful Goodwin family, which has been prominent in West Virginia Democratic politics for decades. His father is Federal Judge Joseph Goodwin and his mother is longtime state Education and the Arts Secretary Kay Goodwin. Goodwin’s wife, Amy, is the state tourism commissioner and was spokeswoman for both Tomblin and former Gov. Bob Wise (D). His cousin, Carte Goodwin, served briefly as one of the state’s U.S. senators in 2010.

Kansas Legislature

With conservative Republicans controlling the Kansas Legislature and governorship, moderate Republicans and Democrats are seeking to regain control in this year’s races for the state House and Senate. Primary and general election challengers are coming to light, many of them retired teachers or education advocates with ties to the state teacher’s union and education groups. School funding has been a top issue in Kansas with Democrats and moderate Republicans upset over conservative lawmakers replacing the state’s school aid formula last year with block grants and seeking to write a new aid formula. Education was a top issue in 2014 for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis who lost to Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and in the 2012 battle for control of the state Senate between conservative and moderate Republicans.

New York Senate

The New York State Senate has become a perennial fighting ground between Republicans and Democrats for the last decade. The GOP has controlled the chamber for since 1966 except for a two-year period of Democratic control in 2009 and 2010. The GOP control though has rested on an alliance with the Independent Democratic Caucus – a breakaway faction of Democrats. The IDC formed a majority coalition with the GOP for control in 2013 and 2014 and have bolstered the GOP numbers in other years. Democrats believe they have a shot to regain the Senate, thus taking full control of state government. The fight will likely commence in April during a special state Senate election on Long Island for a GOP held seat and continue through November. Though, whatever happens on election day might not be the end as a coalition could again emerge.

Pennsylvania Legislature

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has been at odds with the Republican-controlled state Legislature since he took office last year. The Legislature did not pass a state budget, leaving lawmakers and Wolf feuding over the issue. With legislative elections coming this year, look to Wolf to try to pick up Democratic seats in Harrisburg to help his agenda. At the same time though, the current legislative map limits his pick-up options.

Illinois Comptroller

Illinois’ comptroller pays the state’s bills, conducts audits and regulates cemeteries and funeral homes, not exactly an office you’d expect to be a hotbed for political action but it will be this year. Former Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka (R) died in December 2014 just weeks after defeating former Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon (D) for her second term. Topinka’s death set off a debate over how exactly to fill her office, with outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn (D) naming a top aide to assume the comptroller’s job until Topinka’s first term expired in January and new Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) tapping business executive Leslie Munger (R) to take over in January. During the time between Topinka’s death and Rauner’s inauguration, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Quinn changed state law to give Munger the office for two years and calling a November 2016 special election for the remaining two years of Topinka’s second term. Munger is facing off against Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza (D) in what will be a highly competitive race for the down ballot office.

New Hampshire Executive Council

This little known but extremely powerful body helps New Hampshire’s governor run the Granite State. The panel approves a large variety of state contracts and gubernatorial appointments and makes decisions with regards to infrastructure and other issues. The Executive Council helped block funding for Planned Parenthood and other issues in the past. While the governorship is up this year, so are these seats which could dictate what direction the next governor takes.

Vermont Lieutenant Governor

Vermont’s lieutenant governor is only responsible under the state Constitution for presiding over the state Senate and taking over if there is a vacancy in the governorship. Many of Vermont’s lieutenant governors have focused on their Senate duties but also have positioned themselves for the governorship. Every lieutenant governor since former Gov. Madeleine Kunin (D) was elected to the post in 1978 has run for governor – or in the case of former Gov. Howard Dean (D), succeeded to the governorship first. While Kunin is the only lieutenant governor to move up via election the seat remains a testing ground for future candidates for governor, Congress or the U.S. Senate. This year’s open seat race features two announced Democrats – state Rep. Kesha Ram and businessman Brandon Riker – and one Republican, former state Auditor Randy Brock. In addition, Democrat Garrett Graff, who has lived in Washington, D.C. editing several political and society related publications, has moved back to the state with the intention of seeking the post. Graff though may face the hurdle of proving that he is a Vermont resident under the state Constitution.