The National Mood and the Seats in Play: Understanding the 2016 Gubernatorial Elections

With a national anti-establishment mood and 12 gubernatorial elections—eight in states with a Democrat as sitting governor—the Republicans were optimistic that they would strengthen their hand as they headed into the November elections. Republicans already held 31 governorships to the Democrats’ 18—Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is an Independent—and with about half the gubernatorial elections considered competitive, Republicans had the potential to increase their control to 36 governors’ mansions. For their part, Democrats had a realistic chance to convert only a couple of Republican governorships to their party. Given the party’s win-loss potential, Republicans were optimistic, in a good position.

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About the Authors
ennifer M. Jensen is deputy provost for academic affairs and associate professor of political science at Lehigh University. She earned her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked in the U.S. House of Representatives and in governmental relations. She is the author of The Governors’ Lobbyists: Federal-State Relations Offices and Governors Associations in Washington (University of Michigan Press, 2016).

Thad Beyle is professor emeritus of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Syracuse University and his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. The author or editor of numerous books on the American governor, he has also worked in the North Carolina governor’s office and on Terry Sanford’s “A Study of American States” project at Duke University. He has also worked with the National Governors Association in several capacities on gubernatorial transitions.

The Safe Races
Races in Delaware, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah and Washington were widely considered safe for the incumbent party.

Popular Democratic incumbent Jack Markell was term-limited after fulfilling his second term in office. Former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, eldest son of former Vice President Joe Biden, was once considered a shoo-in to succeed Markell before a 2014 recurrence of brain cancer led him to stay out of the race. (Beau Biden died in May of 2015.)

U.S. Representative John Carney, a former Delaware lieutenant governor, ran unopposed in the Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign. Carney, a former aide to Joe Biden when Biden served in the U.S. Senate, had lost to Markell in a tight race in the 2008 Democratic primary for governor.

State Sen. Colin Bonini handily won nearly 70 percent of the vote in the Republican primary race against Lacey Lafferty, a retired state trooper who did not have electoral experience. Bonini recognized that he would have an uphill battle to beat Carney, but stated that he believed that “Delawareans deserve an election, not a coronation.”Carney had a far easier time raising funds in a state where 60 percent of registered voters are Democrats, and had not had a Republican governor since Mike Castle served from 1985–1992. Carney was criticized for not staking out specific policy positions for much of the campaign, a tactic he could afford given his front-runner status.2 Carney won the general election with 58 percent of the vote to Bonini’s 39 percent. The Libertarian and Green Party candidates each received under 2 percent of the vote.

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North Dakota
Republican incumbent Jack Dalrymple announced he would not run for another term as governor, opening the seat up for a competitive Republican primary. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem received his party’s endorsement at the Republican Party convention, but multimillionaire Doug Burgum challenged Stenehjem in the primary despite losing the party endorsement. Lifelong North Dakota resident Burgum had founded a software company, Great Plains Software, that was eventually purchased by Microsoft four years after it went public; Burgum subsequently worked as a Microsoft executive until 2007. Burgum was well known for his efforts to revitalize downtown Fargo as well as his ventures with several technology firms. Burgum and Stenehjem both spent over $1 million in the primary campaign, but Burgum supplemented his campaign with his own contributions.3 An early supporter of Donald Trump, Burgum attacked Stenehjem as being a supporter of the Affordable Care Act and used his own and his donors’ campaign contributions to dominate the media. Burgum defeated Stenehjem in the Republican primary by a margin of 59 to 38 percent. Burgum received nearly $1.6 million in contributions between declaring for governor in January 2016 and the general election in November.4

Republicans have held the governorship in North Dakota since 1993, and Republicans have held the governorship and both houses of the Legislature since 1995. After winning the Republican primary, Burgum had an easy road to a general election win over Democrat Marvin Nelson, a state representative who was unopposed for his party’s nomination.

Oregon held a special election in 2016 to determine who would complete the last two years of former Gov. John Kitzhaber (D). Kitzhaber resigned in February 2015, shortly after beginning his fourth, and second consecutive term, following allegations of influence peddling tied to his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. Kitzhaber’s lieutenant governor, Kate Brown, became governor when Kitzhaber stepped down. By April 2016, she had raised more money for her 2016 campaign—over $1.6 million—than any other candidate running for governor.Brown defeated five other candidates in the Democratic primary, winning nearly 84 percent of the vote. The next biggest vote getter in that primary was Julian Bell, a physician who took 7 percent of the vote. Bell had framed Brown as weak on environmental and climate change issues.6 As governor, Brown had signaled that she would consider repealing a recently passed clean fuels law as part of a deal to pass a transportation budget.7 Brown subsequently beat oncologist Bud Pearce in the general election with 50.6 percent of the vote. Pearce had defeated four other candidates in the Republican primary. Democrats have held the governorship in Oregon since 1983.

Gary Herbert, Utah’s popular incumbent governor, had a surprise loss to chairman Jonathan Johnson at the Republican state party convention. Johnson’s 55 to 45 percent win over Herbert was short of the 60 percent threshold he needed to win the nomination, but it forced Herbert into a primary. Johnson attacked Herbert for raising taxes and supporting Utah’s adoption of the Common Core education standards.8 Johnson also said he would sue the federal government for control of federal lands located in Utah. This libertarian orientation worked well with Republican delegates to the convention, who tend to be conservative Republican primary voters.9 In the primary, however, Herbert trounced Johnson, winning 72 to 28 percent.

The Democrats did not have a party primary for governor, as businessman Mike Weinholtz, beat former state Democratic party chair Vaughan Cook at the state party convention. Weinholtz is the former CEO of CHG Healthcare, the nation’s largest physician staffing company, and largely self-funded his campaign.10 Though he had never run for public office, Weinholtz had served on the boards of the United Way of Salt Lake, the Salt Lake Chamber, the Women’s Institute of Utah, and the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Herbert beat Weinholtz in the general election by 38 points. The last Democrat to serve as governor of Utah was Scott Matheson, who served from 1977–1985.

The state of Washington holds a single primary election for the office of governor. The top two vote getters in the primary—which since 2011 has been conducted entirely by mail—face off in the general election, which is also conducted exclusively by mail. The primary ballot had 11 candidates, including four Democrats and three Republicans. The only candidates to crack four percent of the vote were Democrat Jay Inslee, the incumbent, and Republican Bill Bryant, who took 49 percent and 38 percent of the primary vote, respectively.

Inslee, a former congressman, had relatively low approval ratings for much of his term. He had won his first gubernatorial election for an open seat in 2012 by a very close margin. Washington has had a Democratic governor ever since Booth Gardner took office in 1985, and as the 2016 campaign moved forward, Inslee secured a fairly consistent lead over Bryant, an international-trade consultant who had been elected Seattle port commissioner in 2007. Inslee beat Bryant in the general election 54 percent to 46 percent.

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The Competitive Races
A year prior to the election, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont and West Virginia had governors’ races that were expected to be competitive. Two weeks before the election, Governing magazine labeled six of the 12 gubernatorial races toss-ups, with the seventh—Missouri—leaning Democratic.

Incumbent governor Mike Pence, a Republican first elected in 2012, was expected to have a tough rematch against his 2012 Democratic opponent, former Indiana Speaker of the House John Gregg. Pence and Gregg were both endorsed as their party’s candidate at their respective state political conventions, and each ran unopposed in the subsequent primary election, setting up this rematch for the general election. Pence’s signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, seen by some as a law created to allow business owners to discriminate against gay and lesbian customers, drew anger from moderate and liberal voters as well as the business community.11 His flip-flop to first support and then oppose a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage—already illegal by Indiana statute—hurt him with social conservatives.12 By focusing on conservative social issues, Pence left himself open to Gregg’s claims that Pence was ignoring the real issues critical to Indiana voters, such as jobs and the economy. The race was tight when Pence was selected by Donald Trump as his vice-presidential running mate.

The Republican state committee selected Indiana Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb over two other candidates to replace Pence on the ballot for governor. Lieutenant governor only since March 2016, Holcomb had previously served on the staffs of prominent Hoosier officeholders, and had served as chair of the state Republican Party.13 He was running to succeed Dan Coats in the U.S. Senate, which would have been his first electoral win, when the slot to replace Pence as the Republican gubernatorial candidate became open. Though polls consistently showed Gregg with a modest lead over Holcomb, this traditionally Republican state gave Holcomb a 51-45 percent victory over Gregg.14

A red state comfortable with electing Democrats to statewide office, and a state with an 80 percent white population still reeling from fallout of the 2014 Ferguson police shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, Missouri saw an especially bitter gubernatorial race in 2016. Governor Jay Nixon was term-limited, leaving an open seat. As expected, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster had no serious competition in the Democratic primary, where he far outspent his opponents. Early 2015 polls showed Koster with more support than two of the likely possibilities for the Republican nominee, state Auditor Tom Schweich and former Speaker of the House Catherine Hanaway.15 Schweich committed suicide in February 2015, and political newcomer and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens beat Hanaway, businessman John Brunner and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder in a divisive Republican primary filled with attack ads.

Koster, a conservative Democrat who until 2007 was a Republican, had 20 years of experience in public office and received a large number of political endorsements from newspapers and advocacy groups, including some accustomed to endorsing Republicans.16 Greitens, a combat veteran and former Rhodes Scholar—and a Democrat until shortly before the campaign—drew on his considerable media recognition as the founder of a charity to help veterans and author of several best-selling books that highlighted his background as a Navy SEAL. Both campaigns spent heavily in the primary and general elections, and the Republican Governors Association put substantial funding behind Greitens in the final weeks before the election. Greitens’ Trump-like outsider status played well in Missouri, and in the days before the election, polls showed him edging past Koster. He took the governorship with a healthier margin than anyone expected, 51-46 percent, mirroring Donald Trump’s surge.

Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat with strong approval ratings, had a tough re-election, as even popular Democrats have challenging races in a state that typically elects Republicans to statewide office. In the end Bullock pulled out a win with 50.25% of the vote.

Bullock and his Republican challenger, businessman Greg Gianforte, each had an opponent in the primary election, and each won his primary handily. The fact that one Democrat, a former state representative, and one Republican, the head of a county planning office, entered the gubernatorial primaries in March—very late entries to a campaign—can be explained by Montana election law.17 If a candidate runs unopposed in a primary, he or she must return all funds raised for the primary campaign. Since contributors routinely donate the maximum allowed for both the primary and the general campaign, running unopposed leads to the return of substantial funds. For example, if Bullock had run unopposed, he would have had to return hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.18

Gianforte, a Bozeman software entrepreneur who sold his company to Oracle, focused on jobs and the economy, and framed himself as a political reformer, while framing Bullock as a political insider—an attractive approach in a year with Donald Trump surging on the Republican presidential ticket. The race was a toss-up until the end.

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New Hampshire
Gov. Maggie Hassan chose to run for the U.S. Senate rather than for a third term as governor, leaving an open seat for the 2016 election. Both the Democrats and the Republicans had competitive primary races for their party’s gubernatorial nomination. In the Republican primary, state Rep. Frank Edelblut and Executive Councilor Chris Sununu won the lion’s share of the vote among five contenders. The vote was close enough to qualify for a recount under New Hampshire law, but Edelblut—a businessman and relative newcomer to electoral politics who contributed $750,000 to his campaign, though ultimately he did not spend that sum, conceded to Sununu, son of former governor and White House chief of staff John Sununu.19 In the Democratic primary, New Hampshire Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern handily beat four other contenders.

The general election was a tight race throughout the campaign season. Though Sununu led most polls in the early stages of the general election campaign, Van Ostern maintained a small lead in most polls in October; he spent heavily on the race, ultimately outspending Sununu.20 In the final days before the election, however, Sununu regained his lead, and won the election by a two percent margin. Aside from the typical election issues such as the economy, more state-specific issues such as the proposed Northern Pass project to run electricity transmission lines from Canada, the possibility of commuter rail from Boston to Nashua, and the opioid crisis—which hit New Hampshire particularly hard—dominated the election.21

North Carolina
North Carolina saw a bitter race between Gov. Pat McCrory, the Republican incumbent, and state Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democrat. Each had won his party’s primary handily; Cooper ran against two candidates for the primary, winning well over 40 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff primary to earn the Democratic spot in the general election. Though North Carolina tends to send Republicans to Congress, only three Republicans have been elected governor since 1901. The race between McCrory and Roy Cooper was heated. Considered one of the most hotly contested seats in the 2016 election, the race also took the national spotlight because of the visibility of the so-called “bathroom bill” issue that dominated the race. As governor, McCrory had signed legislation that prohibited localities from extending legal protections to cover sexual identity and gender identity, and that mandated transgender persons using public facilities must use the bathroom or locker room that matches the gender assigned to them at birth. The law drew national criticism and led to several boycotts of the state from major national associations. The National Basketball Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and Atlantic Coast Conference all moved tournaments out of the state following passage of the law.22

The race remained neck-and-neck to the end, and became the most expensive gubernatorial contest in the state’s history, with more than $39.5 million spent by the two major party candidates. In addition, the Republican Governors Association, Democratic Governors Association, independent 527 groups, and others spent heavily on the race.23 With fewer than 8,000 votes separating McCrory and Cooper on Nov 22, McCrory exercised his right to a recount.24 McCrory conceded the race to Cooper on Dec. 5, when the recount was nearly completed and Cooper still maintained his lead.

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Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin’s decision not to run for a fourth two-year term left a seat open for a competitive race in a state that has elected both Democrats and Republicans to the governorship in recent years. Lt.Gov. Phil Scott, a former five-term state senator, beat Bruce Lisman, a political newcomer and former principal at Bear Stearns, in the Republican primary. Scott had been an early frontrunner in the Republican race; more than a year before the election, polling data showed that three-quarters of Vermonters had heard of Scott, and 70 percent of that group had favorable impressions of him.25 Sue Minter, a former state representative and former head of the state transportation agency, bested former Google executive Matt Dunne, former state Sen. Peter Galbraith, and two other minor candidates in the Democratic primary.

The same 2015 poll that captured Phil Scott’s broad name recognition found that only 38 percent of voters recognized Sue Minter’s name, and of those, nearly half did not have an opinion of her.26 Scott and Minter ran neck-and-neck throughout the general election campaign. Campaign spending for the governor’s seat was three times what it was in 2010, the last time Vermont had an open seat gubernatorial election, although this is in part because Lisman and Galbraith spent heavily in their primary campaigns.27 Lisman spent nearly $2.3 million in his effort to win the Republican primary. Spending by outside groups also pushed this figure higher. Among other groups, the Democratic Governors Association and Republican Governors Association 527 groups spent roughly $3 million on the race.28

The poll that mattered—the one on election day—was not close, with Scott taking nearly 53 percent of the vote to Minter’s 44 percent. Turnout was high, but Donald Trump received only 30 percent of the vote on the presidential ballot, so Scott was not riding on presidential coattails. Indeed, Scott had publicly condemned Donald Trump during the campaign.29 For her part, Minter did not benefit from the state’s popular U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders. Sanders neither endorsed nor campaigned for Minter, a moderate Democrat. Minter was also hurt by advertising by outside organizations that linked her with the unpopular outgoing governor. Scott, who supported abortion rights and LGBT rights, including allowing transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice, picked up most of the votes from political independents and was rewarded with an unexpectedly strong victory.

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West Virginia
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was term-limited, leaving an open seat in a state that has had a Democratic governor, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House of Delegates for most of the last 25 years. A Republican has served as governor only once since 1992 (Cecil Underwood, a Republican who had served as governor from 1957 to 1961, served again from 1997 to 2001). Both houses of the state’s Democratically-controlled Legislature went Republican in the 2014 election, something that had not happened in West Virginia since the 1930s. This turn, coupled with the national mood, led West Virginia’s gubernatorial election to be one of the most closely watched statewide races in the country. In the end, Democrat Jim Justice earned a solid win over Republican Bill Cole in the general election. Justice had left the Republican Party shortly before filing for candidacy as a Democrat.30

Cole, an auto dealership owner who had served for four years in the state senate—including two years as president of the senate—was unopposed in the primary. The Democratic primary saw Justice, a coal company executive and Greenbrier Resort owner as well as the state’s only billionaire, in a race against 18-year state senate veteran and current Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. Goodwin had earned name recognition when he successfully prosecuted the CEO of Massey Energy for safety violations that led to nine deaths in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010.31 Justice argued that his business experience would help him bring jobs to the state, that he was in the best position to fix the state’s budget deficit, and that only he could beat Republican Bill Cole in the general election. Justice received more votes in the primary than Kessler and Goodwin together.

Thus, the general election saw two wealthy businessmen with limited or no experience in electoral politics face off. Both candidates were supporters of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, and both were skeptical of any link between human activity and global warning. A conservative Democrat with an outsized, folksy personality, Justice captured the same support in West Virginia that gave Donald Trump one of his biggest wins in the general election. Justice maintained a solid lead in the polls as the general election neared, and carried that lead to a 49-42 percent victory.

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Before the 2016 election, Republicans’ modern-day record had been 32 governorships. The 2016 election brought the total number of Republican governors to 33. This sort of lopsidedness isn’t unprecedented. Democrats controlled 37 in 1977 and 1978, when one governor was an Independent and only 12 were Republican, but there haven’t been this many Republican governors since the 1920s. Republicans converted two of the seats that were up for grabs, capitalizing on a national groundswell that unexpectedly brought Donald Trump to the White House. Like Trump, some new governors were political novices who had made a name in the private sector. Outside money continued to play a major role, as we saw more spending by outside groups than by candidate campaigns in some races. Meanwhile, Democrats have started looking toward 2017 and 2018, when 27 of the 38 governorships up for election are held by Republicans.


1 Albright, Matthew. 2016. “Governor’s race shows power of Delaware establishment.” The News Journal May 6. Accessed February 12, 2017.
2 Bittle, Matt. 2016. “Can Carney be topped in Delaware governor race?” Delaware State News July 23. Accessed February 12, 2017.
3 MacPherson, James. 2016. “Burgum wins ND governor primary; farming measure defeated.” US News Online June 14. Accessed February 10, 2017.
4 Smith, Nick. 2016. “Burgum campaign haul nearly $1.6 million.” Bismarck Tribune October 7. Accessed November 3, 2016.
5 Lehman, Chris. 2016. “Oregon Gubernatorial Candidates Work To Reach Voters.” Oregon Public Broadcasting April 28. Transcript available at Accessed June 7, 2016.
6 Mortensen, Camilla. 2015. “Climate Change Fuels a Run for Governor.” October 1. Available at Accessed October 10, 2016.
7 Theriault, Denis C. 2015. “Anatomy of an implosion: No one wins in Oregon road-funding collapse.” June 27. Accessed October 10, 2016.
8 Gehrke, Robert. 2016. “Herbert trounces Johnson in Utah governor’s primary, flipping the script on convention results.” Salt Lake Tribune June 28; updated October 28 Accessed November 15, 2016.
9 Gehrke, Robert. 2016. “Jonathan Johnson forces primary for Utah governor race, but can he defeat Gov. Gary Herbert?” Salt Lake Tribune April 25. Available at Accessed October 2, 2016.
10 Gehrke, Robert, 2016. “Democrat relies on outsider status, business success in bid for Utah governor.” Salt Lake Tribune January 21. Accessed October 2, 2016.
11 Cook, Tony. 2015. “Post-RFRA poll loaded with bad news for Gov. Mike Pence.” Indianapolis Star June 17. Available at Accessed December 15, 2016.
12 Krull, John. 2014. “Marriage message boxes Pence into contradiction.” Indiana Business Journal February 15, 2014. Available at Accessed December 15, 2016. Cook, Tony and Barb Berggoetz. 2014. “The intrigue behind the curtain cloaking the HJR-3 debate.” Indy Star February 22, 2014. Available at Accessed December 15, 2016.
13 2016. “AP: Latecomer Eric Holcomb defeats John Gregg for governor of Indiana.” Chicago Tribune online edition November 8. Available at Accessed February 10, 2017.
14 Polling data available at, Accessed February 10, 2017.
15 2015. “The Missouri Times ’16 Governor’s Race Poll: Koster stronger versus Republicans.” Missouri Times January 10. Blog entry. Available at Accessed on January 15, 2017.
16 Kraske, Steve. 2016. “Greitens fights to keep pace with Koster in Missouri governor race.” Kansas City Star online blog entry, August 11. Available at Accessed on February 25, 2017.
17 Dennison, Mike. 2016. “Who are these late-filing gov candidates?” online media site, March 14. Available at Accessed November 10, 2016.
18 Associated Press. 2016. “For some Montana office seekers, it’s not about winning.” March 20. Available at Accessed November 10, 2016.
19 Sutherland, Paige. 2016. “Edelblut Touts Outsider Credentials in Run for Republican Gubernatorial Nominee.” New Hampshire Public Radio, June 24. Transcript available at Ronayne, Kathleen. 2016. “New Hampshire GOP Gubernatorial Primary Qualifies for Recount.” Portland Press Herald, September 14. Available at
20 Landrigan, Kevin. 2016. “Outspending Sununu didn’t win Van Ostern NH governor’s race.” New Hampshire Union Leader November 16. Available at
21 “Election 2016: Sununu, Van Ostern Square Off In Gubernatorial Forum.” New Hampshire Public Radio. September 21 blog entry. Available at Koziol, John. 2016. “Gubernatorial candidates spar at debate, but agree on ‘Walking Dead.’” New Hampshire Union Leader October 31. Available at, Kimberly. 2016. “Gubernatorial candidates state their cases.” New Hampshire Union Leader September 26. Available at
22 Peralta, Katherine and Rick Bonnell. 2016. “NBA moves 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte over HB2; 2019 return possible.” Raleigh News & Observer July 21. Available at Carter, Andrew. 2016. “NCAA pulls championship events from North Carolina over HB2.” Raleigh News & Observer September 12. Available at Carter, Andrew. 2016. “ACC moving 2016–17 championships from NC over HB2.” September 14. Available at
23 Morrill, Jim and Gavin Off. 2016. “Cooper outraises McCrory in NC’s most expensive governor’s race ever.” Raleigh News & Observer November 2. Available at
24 Jarvis, Craig. 2016. “We answer your questions about this long election.” Raleigh News & Observer November 23. Available at Blinder, Alan, and Michael Wines. 2016. “North Carolina Republicans Battle to Save Governor, Trailing by Whisker.” New York Times November 19, A9.
25 Hirschfeld, Peter. 2015. “Castleton Poll Gives An Early Look At Vermont Gubernatorial Race.” Vermont Public Radio broadcast, September 21. Transcript and recording available at
26 Ibid.
27 Johnson, Mark. 2016. “Campaign spending in Vermont governor’s race hits $10M mark.” VT Digger blog posting, November 5. Available at
28 Craven, Jasper. 2016. “Vermont campaign sees record spending on advertising.” VT Digger blog entry, November 3. Available at
29 Lieb, David A. 2016. “VT in spotlight of nation’s governor races.” Burlington Free Press October 1. Available at
30 Marra, Ashton. 2016. “2016 Governor Race Already Taking Shape.” West Virginia Public Broadcasting radio report, June 2. Transcript and audio recording available at
31 Maher, Kris. 2016. “West Virginia’s Gubernatorial Race Turns on Personality and Policy; Polls show a businessman leading three-way race in Democratic primary; next governor to wrestle with state’s growing fiscal hole.” Wall Street Journal (Online), May 10. Via ProQuest. Available at