State Races To Watch

New Hampshire GovernorFullSizeRender

By John Celock

Granite State voters are going to decide several tight elections Tuesday including the open seat governorship, with Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) foregoing a third term bid to run for U.S. Senate. The gubernatorial race pits two young members of the state Executive Council, Democrat Colin Van Ostern and Republican Chris Sununu, against each other. Sununu comes to the race as the son of a former governor and brother of a former U.S. senator. Van Ostern is a longtime Democratic Party operative with ties to U.S. Sen. Jeanine Shaheen (D), herself a former governor.

The race has become very much symbolic of the state of New Hampshire politics with Van Ostern and Sununu focusing on hot button ideological issues and trying to paint the other as ideologically extreme. New Hampshire has seen voters elect Democrats to the governorship every two years since 2004 but has put conservative Republicans in charge of one or both houses of the state Legislature several times in the same period. The race has also shined the spotlight on the little known Executive Council, which functions as a board of directors for state government.

With New Hampshire the epitome of a purple state, this race will come down to the wire.

Vermont Governor

Vermont may be one of the most liberal states in the country, but the governorship has alternated between the parties for over four decades. With Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) retiring, Green Mountain State voters are being asked to pick between Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (R) and Democrat Sue Minter, a former state transportation secretary. Voters in the state have been swinging towards Scott in the wake up rising taxes under Shumlin’s health care plan. Minter has been campaigning hard, winning a recent endorsement from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and highlighting her background in state government. Minter is also playing up that she’d be the state’s second female governor, including the endorsement of former Gov. Madeleine Kunin (D), who was the state’s first female governor in the 1980s. Scott has been highlighting his background as a state legislator and lieutenant governor and his frequent travels around the state.

Missouri Governor

Both parties are fighting hard for the Show Me State’s governorship, with the stakes high for either side. For Democrats, a win would allow the party to keep a foothold at the top of state government and provide a way to attempt to block conservative legislation. For Republicans, a win would give the party the governorship to compliment control of the state Legislature. Gov. Jay Nixon (D) is term-limited after two terms, which saw Republicans frequently override his vetoes during his second term.

The Democratic nominee is state Attorney General Chris Koster, a former Republican, is running as a moderate in the mold of Nixon, who says that he’ll prevent conservative legislation from taking hold in the state. The Republican nominee is former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, a political newcomer who is playing up his outsider credentials. Greitens defeated several better-known Republicans in the GOP primary, while Koster has long been the presumptive Democratic nominee this year.

The race has been close and will come down to the wire.

North Carolina Governor

North Carolina’s gubernatorial race has been the nation’s most competitive all year with Democrats viewing it as their best chance to retake a place of power in state government. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) has been a top target for progressives nationwide since his 2012 election ushered in the state’s first all Republican government. McCrory and lawmakers have been under fire from the left since, including weekly protests in front of the state capitol in Raleigh. McCrory’s decision earlier this year to sign the state’s transgender bathroom bill has increased the Democrats’ desire to oust the first term Republican.

Democratic nominee Roy Cooper, a four-term state attorney general, has been the presumptive Democratic candidate to oppose McCrory for four years. Cooper has campaigned on a return to more moderate government in the state, noting that he’d work to repeal the bathroom bill. McCrory has also changed his stance on the legislation. McCrory has seen a slight upswing with his work post Hurricane Matthew, but the race remains close and will be until the votes are counted.

Indiana Governor

Indiana Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) has had a pretty interesting 2016. He started off the year running for the U.S. Senate but then dropped out and was soon appointed lieutenant governor to fill a vacancy. Then over the summer, Holcomb’s planned run for a full term in the state’s second highest office, turned into a gubernatorial run after Gov. Mike Pence (R) became a vice presidential candidate. Holcomb is now locked in a competitive race with former state House Speaker John Gregg, a Democrat making his second bid for governor. Gregg, who narrowly lost to Pence in 2012, has led or been tied with Holcomb all year. Indiana is likely to go Republican for president, but also has a competitive Senate race on the ballot, and the governor’s race will be tight.

Kansas Legislature

2016 is shaping up as the year that moderate Republicans and Democrats are trying to retake control of the Kansas Legislature. In the August primary, a number of conservative Republican state legislators were ousted in favor of moderates. Going into the November election, Democrats are fighting hard in a number of districts, including combating moderate Republicans, who they’ve teamed with in the past. The state’s conservative bent in the last few years, including large tax cuts has played a central role, along with the perennial fights over school funding and declining revenues in the state. Democrats have made Gov. Sam Brownback (R), the nation’s least popular governor, a central focus, including tying moderate Republicans who normally oppose Brownback to the governor. Moderate Republicans have focused on schools, healthcare and fixing the tax structure, while conservatives focus on public safety.

Kansas Supreme Court

Judicial retention elections are normally boring under the radar affairs with voters being asked to vote yes or no to retain a judge. Most voters don’t notice that they are on the ballot and most judges are retained easily. This year, however, the growing fight over the Kansas Supreme Court has turned the retention vote on five justices into a statewide battle.

The Supreme Court has found itself in the center of the state’s school finance litigation, including a decision earlier this year to require the closure of state schools if lawmakers did not put more money into the school system by June 30. In addition, death penalty issues have been at the center of the debate, including the court’s controversial ruling to remove the death penalty sentences of the Carr Brothers, who were convicted in a series of gruesome murders in Wichita over a decade ago. Relatives of the victims in the Carr Brothers massacre are leading a charge to remove Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Justices Maria Luckart, Carol Beier and Dan Biles from the Supreme Court. Moderates and Democrats are saying that the four, along with Justice Caleb Stegell should be retained this year, saying that it would promote judicial independence. Stegell is an appointee of Gov. Sam Brownback (R), while the other four are appointees of former Gov. Bill Graves (R) and Kathleen Sebelius (D). Graves, a moderate Republican, and Sebelius, along with former Govs. Mike Hayden (R) and John Carlin (D) have pushed for the retention of all five justices.

Vacancies for any of the judgeships would be filled by the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission presenting three nominees to Brownback, who would then make an appointment. Any Brownback appointee would then face voters in a 2018 retention election.

New York Senate

Republicans have controlled the New York Senate since the 1920s except for three years, 1965, 2009 and 2010. Republican control has included forming coalitions with the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democrats, and Democrats who want to caucus with Republicans to keep control. Democrats have been fighting for years to gain control of the Senate, which would mean total control of state government. Republicans have said that they should keep control to avoid one party rule and said that Democrats, mainly from New York City, would ignore Upstate New York in a Democratic Senate. The final numbers on election night may not matter, since control of the New York Senate normally turns into an algebraic equation with various coalitions coming together after the voting is done.

New Hampshire House of Representatives

New Hampshire’s House of Representatives has 400 members and is one of the largest parliamentary bodies in the world. The members of this legislative chamber come from many backgrounds and communities and have been known for interesting statements in the past. New Hampshire has been alternating who has been in charge of the chamber between Democrats and tea party Republicans. In 2015, Democrats teamed up with moderate Republicans to award the speakership to a moderate Republican over a more conservative alternative. Eyes will be on who captures the control of the House this year and the impact it could have going forward in the Granite State for the next two years. The Senate is likely to remain Republican and the governorship is up in the air, so the House could decide if the state will have divided government or single party control.

Missouri Attorney General

Current Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster (D) is running for governor and outgoing Gov. Jay Nixon (D) is a former four-term attorney general. The office can be a springboard to higher office and nationwide activist attorneys general in both parties are generating headlines. The battle for the job focuses on two contrasting visions for the office. Democrat Teresa Hensley, a former Cass County prosecutor, has focused on her background as a prosecutor and says that she will focus on legal issues helping children, families, the environment and consumers. Republican Josh Hawley, a law professor, has said he’ll be an activist conservative attorney general, working to end Obamacare and engaging in a variety of lawsuits relating to religious liberty, federal government regulations and the Second Amendment.

Illinois Comptroller

The Illinois comptroller is normally a low key office, paying the state’s bills, conducting audits, regulating cemeteries, that rarely receives much attention in elections. In fact, politicians routinely discuss merging the office with that of state treasurer. But the death of Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka (R) shortly after winning a second term in 2014 and the subsequent budget battles have turned all eyes on the job. Legislative Democrats and outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn (D) quickly changed state law to require incoming Gov. Bruce Rauner’s (R) appointee to serve a two-year term until a 2016 election to complete the remaining two years of Topinka’s term. Rauner named business executive Leslie Munger (R), who had recently lost a state legislative race, to the comptroller’s office.

Munger now faces off with Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza (D) in the special election, which is more of a shadow race between Rauner and state House Speaker Michael Madigan (D) over the budget than a battle for chief fiscal officer. Rauner and Madigan have fought over tax cuts, pensions and budget numbers for two years, delaying the passage of a spending plan and causing issues with payments from the state. With the comptroller serving as the chief fiscal officer, Munger and Mendoza have debated budget issues and sought to declare their independence from Rauner and Madigan. Munger says that she has been independent from Rauner during her two years in office. Mendoza, known for changing Chicago’s parking permit process, has said that she was independent of Madigan, while a state legislator.

Pennsylvania Attorney General

The saga of former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane (D) has dominated Keystone State politics for several years, including Kane’s criminal trial that resulted in her conviction earlier this year. In August, Bruce Beemer, a long time prosecutor and former Kane deputy, was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf (D) to complete the remainder of Kane’s term through January. Pennsylvania voters are being asked to choose between Democratic Montgomery County Commission Chairman Josh Shapiro and Republican state Sen. John Rafferty to be the next attorney general.

Rafferty has focused on his record in the state Legislature, including as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also notes his tenure as a deputy attorney general in the state. Shapiro, long viewed as a rising star in Pennsylvania politics, has focused on his tenure as the first Democrat to lead Montgomery County in suburban Philadelphia and as a state legislator. He also notes his tenure chairing a state crime panel, an appointment he received from Wolf.

Pennsylvania’s next attorney general will be tasked with leading the office through the post Kane era. In addition, with three of the five elected attorneys general since the office became elective in 1980, eventually running for governor, whoever wins the job this year could end up a candidate for governor in the future.