Governor rankings: Top four races get more interesting

Presidential years are not the most active in terms of gubernatorial races, and 2008 is no exception, with only 11 states holding elections, only 5 of which are not entirely safe for the incumbent party. But there has been some movement within those 5 races, as many of them have gotten considerably (and unexpectedly) more competitive in the past few months.

The retirement of Gov. Blunt in Missouri, the heated Democratic primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, the candidacy of Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, and Dino Rossi's attempts to rouse passions in Washington all guarantee that these 4 states will remain competitive to November and keep things interesting on the gubernatorial front. And since both parties control 2 of these 4 most contested governorships, Republicans can at least be relieved that things look more even-handed here than in the Senate and the House.

The previous gubernatorial ratings, written in December, are available here.

Toss-up (2 R, 1 D)

1. Missouri (Open)

Missouri's gubernatorial race made a lot of news comparatively to other gubernatorial races. The showdown between Republican Gov. Blunt and Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon had started as early as 2004, and the incumbent's growing unpopularity had given the early lead to Nixon. But Blunt unexpectedly announced his retirement in late January.

Republicans hurried to find a nominee and they will now have to decide between two strong candidates, congressman Kenny Hulshof and state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. Either would keep the race competitive but Nixon undoubtedly has a head start given that he has been preparing his campaign for so long -- and that the state's voters have turned sour on their Republican administration.

2. North Carolina (Open; Previous ranking: 4)

Republican at the federal level, North Carolina remains blue at the state level, and Democrats looked favored to keep the governor's mansion next year with two strong candidates -- Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and state Treasurer Richard Moore -- battling for the Democratic nomination. But two factors have made the race more competitive.

(1) The Democratic primary is staying very competitive and now going negative, with Moore needing to shake up the race to contest Perdue's early edge. (2) Republicans got a potentially very competitive candidate in the race with with the entry of Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory. Polls show McCrory in toss-ups against both Perdue and Moore, with the Democrats holding the slightest of edges.

The GOP primary is also contested, however, and it remains unclear who will emerge to claim the party's nod. We will now more about the state of play in North Carolina after the May 6th primary.

3. Indiana (Gov. Daniels; Previous ranking: 2)

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is certainly unpopular and vulnerable, but it is difficult to precisely assess the general election before Democrats settle their nomination race on May 6th. Architect Jim Schellinger has been the establishment's favored candidate and has far outraised his opposition, but former Rep. Jill Long Thompson could emerge the winner due to higher name recognition. The Indianapolis Star reports that Schellinger's campaign has been a disappointment while Thompson has been very active and that his fundraising edge could be drowned amidst the presidential race if Clinton and Obama spend millions in ads here in the next few weeks.

Lean Retention (2 D)

4. Washington (Gov. Gregoire; Previous ranking: 3)

The 2004 campaign never really stopped in Washington, where Republican Dino Rossi lost by 129 votes on the third count after leading the first two ballot counts. Christine Gregoire started off a controversial term and has done her best to overcome the partisan rancor of her first election. Rossi announced his second gubernatorial candidacy in late 2007, and he has been campaigning hard since then, hoping to rouse the passions of 2004, bringing up the recount on the trail to undermine the legitimacy of Gregoire's incumbency. This race will be tight (and bitter) to the end but Gregoire has been able to somewhat regain her footing over the past few years and built some good will which give her a slight edge to start with.

Check the full rankings with all 11 races here.

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