Montana leads list of gubernatorial races to watch this year

·4 min read

(Reuters) - Only a handful of this year's U.S. gubernatorial races are expected to be competitive with either Democratic and Republican candidates enjoying commanding leads in most of the 11 states and two territories where voters will cast ballots for governor.

The outcome in most states will likely reflect how voters see the current leadership handling the pandemic. In the absence of strict federal policy, states have largely developed their own approaches and seen wide differences in infection rates.

Here is a look at five of the most prominent races and what they say about the partisan divide in state-level politics as the November U.S. election approaches.

MONTANA

Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte faces Democrat Mike Cooney, the state's Lieutenant Governor, in the race for Montana governor, perhaps the most competitive gubernatorial election this year.

Cooney has positioned himself as the natural successor to the state's popular Democratic Governor Steve Bullock, who is leaving office due to term limits and running for the U.S. Senate.

Cooney points to accomplishments under Bullock that included a major expansion of the state's Medicaid program and protections for Montana's public lands, saying that he will work with the state's Republican-led legislature.

Gianforte is a U.S. congressman and businessman who has frequently aligned himself with President Donald Trump. He is perhaps best known for body-slamming a reporter in 2017 during his campaign for the state's sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Gianforte has pumped $7.5 million of his own money into the governor's race, outspending Cooney but remaining tied with the Democrat in a state that Trump won in 2016 by 20 points.

A poll released Wednesday by Montana State University, Billings, showed Gianforte and Cooney each receiving support from 45% of likely voters.

NORTH CAROLINA

Democratic incumbent Roy Cooper faces a challenge from Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest in North Carolina. (North Carolina elects governors and their lieutenants independently of each other, not on a single ticket.)

Cooper, who narrowly won in 2016 and has clashed with the Republican-controlled state legislature, is leading his opponent in most polls, though the margin has fluctuated. An Emerson College poll from Oct. 13 to 14 showed him up by four points and a New York Times and Siena College poll from Oct. 9 to 13 showed him up by 14 points.

Democrats are hopeful that Cooper's lead is an indication that North Carolina, a crucial swing state, will turn blue in the general election.

Cooper took a hard stance on coronavirus restrictions, shutting down much of North Carolina business.

MISSOURI

Democrat Nicole Galloway is running against Republican incumbent Mike Parson in Missouri. Parson became governor in 2018 after the resignation of Governor Eric Greitens. Galloway, currently the Missouri state auditor, has focused her campaign on what the Democrats have characterized as the governor's weak response to the pandemic.

Galloway has garnered support from former Democratic Governor Jay Nixon and other former state officeholders. But that may not be enough to flip deep-red Missouri, which Trump won by more than 18 points. Still, the race is narrow enough to be competitive, with an October poll from Saint Louis University and YouGov showing Parson leading Galloway by six points.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Polls show incumbent Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, leading Democratic challenger Dan Feltes by more than 20 points. A University of New Hampshire poll from October 9 to 12 put Sununu 25 points ahead of his opponent.

Feltes, a former Legal Aid attorney and current state senator, has sought to align Sununu with Trump in his campaign messaging. But Sununu has distanced himself from the president in recent weeks, criticizing Trump's failure to condemn white supremacy and his downplaying of the pandemic.

Trump narrowly lost New Hampshire in 2016, but Democrat Joe Biden leads him by a wider margin in polls for the 2020 election.

On the gubernatorial level, however, Sununu is well-liked and presently looks poised to win reelection.

VERMONT

Republican Governor Phil Scott and Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, a Vermont Progressive Party member who is the Democratic nominee, are vying for governor in a race in which the incumbent holds a double-digit lead.

Scott, a moderate Republican, has criticized Trump, and said this summer that he would not vote for him in the general election. The governor also appears to have managed the pandemic well in the eyes of state voters.

A mid-September poll by Vermont Public Radio showed Scott leading Zuckerman by 31 points.

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer, with additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Alistair Bell, Bill Tarrant and Sam Holmes)