Governors 2017-2018: The Democrats’ Complicated Path to Big Gains
A Commentary By Kyle Kondik
A couple of weeks ago, Crystal Ball senior columnist Alan Abramowitz unveiled a model for predicting party change in next year’s gubernatorial elections. The results were rosy for Democrats: The model suggested Democrats should gain somewhere between six to nine governorships depending on the Democratic lead in House generic ballot polling. The Democratic advantage is in large part simply because: 1.) There is a Republican in the White House, and the presidential party often loses ground in midterm elections up and down the ballot; and 2.) Republicans are defending 26 of the 36 governorships up for election next year, meaning that they have a lot of ground to defend while the Democrats have relatively little.
The model does not take into account two other factors, both of which are also positive for Democrats. President Donald Trump is unpopular, and many of the governorships the Republicans are defending next year are open seats, which inherently are harder to defend. Of the 36 governorships up next year, Republicans will be defending 12 open governorships and an additional four (Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, and South Carolina) where successor incumbents who took over for departed or soon-to-be departing governors likely will be on the ballot next year seeking election to full terms. As the Crystal Ball’s Geoffrey Skelley found recently, these successor incumbents historically do not have as much of an incumbency advantage as their elected counterparts. So one could say the Republicans are defending 16 open seats, while the Democrats are only defending four.
And yet, at this early point, it may be that the Democrats will have a hard time realizing the potential that the Abramowitz model illustrates. For one thing, the average presidential party gubernatorial seat net loss in postwar midterm elections is only four seats, and even in the big wave years of 2006 and 2010, the net change in governorships was only six in favor of the wave-aided side (Democrats in 2006, Republicans in 2010). Additionally, there are some logistical advantages for Republicans. One is the financial might of the Republican Governors Association. In the first half of 2017, the RGA raised $36 million to the Democratic Governors Association’s $21 million, and the RGA has long held a money edge over its Democratic counterpart. The DGA’s disadvantage may be blunted a little bit by the efforts of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a new group backed by former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder that raised close to $11 million in the first half of this year. Some of that money will presumably go into gubernatorial races given the importance of this cycle’s gubernatorial races to decennial redistricting after the 2020 census (many of the governors elected next year will have a role in that process in 2021 and 2022). But still, if Republicans have a poor gubernatorial cycle, it won’t be because their candidates did not have the money to compete.
In addition, in many states, Republicans may have the more seasoned candidates. The Democratic bench of potential candidates was hollowed out in many states due to the party’s poor performances down the ballot in the Obama years. That’s common for the president’s party, though it was particularly pronounced for Democrats over the past eight years. So in many states, particularly in the Midwest, the Republican gubernatorial nominees are likely to be more proven electoral performers than the Democratic ones, although that of course is no guarantee of victory.
We’re going to look at the upcoming gubernatorial races in five categories, starting with the two 2017 races and then looking at incumbent and non-incumbent seats of both parties. But first, take a look at Map 1 and Table 1, which shows our gubernatorial ratings and describes a couple of ratings changes we’re making this week. The rationales for those changes are explained in the text.
Map 1: Crystal Ball 2017/2018 gubernatorial ratings
Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes
2017: Virginia in the Vanguard
The main event for 2017’s two gubernatorial races is in Virginia, where the dark shadows of the events of the past weekend, when neo-Nazi thugs caused chaos and death in our home base of Charlottesville, seem likely to loom over the race.
At the heart of the white supremacist rabble’s protest was an ongoing debate in many communities across the Greater South: what should be done with the scores of monuments to leaders of the Confederacy? Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and rename a downtown park previously named in his honor upset the neo-Nazis and led to this past weekend’s vile spectacle. Earlier this year, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart (R) almost won the GOP gubernatorial nomination on the strength of his reverence for Confederate nostalgia. Post-Charlottesville, gubernatorial nominees Ed Gillespie (R), the former chairman of the Republican National Committee who squeaked by Stewart in the primary, and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) released dueling statements Wednesday addressing their stances on the monuments. Northam said, “I believe these statues should be taken down and moved into museums,” while Gillespie said, “I believe that decisions about historical statues are best made at the local level, but they should stay and be placed in historical context.” Both shifted left post-Charlottesville: Northam had not previously explicitly called for the removal of statues, and Gillespie had not included the caveat about adding historical context. Still, there’s a legitimate difference of opinion here, and it’s one that will be litigated during the campaign.
At least one Democrat working on this year’s election expressed concern to us that Confederate nostalgia might redound in Republicans’ benefit this year. He’s worried that backlash over the removal of monuments might have an energizing effect on Republicans across the state and help juice turnout in a lower-turnout midterm election. We talked to this person before the Charlottesville debacle, which was so awful that it probably alienated even some people who might be supportive of maintaining Confederate statues, but the policy issue itself is one that probably will be impossible to avoid in the campaign and might serve as a catalyst for some cultural conservatives. For instance, it’s not hard to imagine the sight of protesters in Durham, NC, tearing down a Confederate statue, particularly if repeated elsewhere, giving statue defenders a rallying cry and forcing Democrats to answer for the overreach of some elements on the left.
It is worth remembering that both the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial and 2014 Senate elections, albeit Democratic victories, were closer than polls predicted. Now, that was during the Age of Obama, when Democrats had a generic national disadvantage. Now Trump is president, so Democrats may have more of an enthusiasm edge. But Democrats are heavily reliant on Northern Virginia, a nationalized political zone that may not turn out as reliably in a race to determine who rules the roost in Richmond, which to some might as well be 1,000 miles down the road, as opposed to 100. One positive counterargument for Democrats is that they boasted significantly higher turnout in the gubernatorial primary, potentially showing high Democratic engagement. Republicans counter by saying that supporters of Tom Perriello, Northam’s more combatively liberal opponent in the primary, may not turn out for Northam, although one could say the same of Gillespie and Stewart backers. Polling indicates a high level of party unity on both sides.
As of the most recent fundraising reports (June 30, a long time ago in politics), Gillespie had about $1.5 million more in the bank than Northam, who has been trying to catch up. It’s possible that Gillespie and the RGA will outgun Northam and the DGA in this race, which could be important. The most recent public polls have shown Northam with modest leads, but Northam is short of the magic 50% mark, and Republicans believe the race is tied. We’re sticking with our Leans Democratic rating here, but it’s a highly competitive race and a Gillespie win would not be at all shocking.
There’s much less to say about New Jersey, where former Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy (D) is a heavy favorite. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) does not appear to be exciting national Republicans, and while current polling showing Murphy up 20 points or more probably overstates the eventual final margin, there’s not much reason to think that Guadagno, carrying the weight of outgoing Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) immense unpopularity, will be able to pull the upset. Our Likely Democratic rating likely understates Murphy’s chances.
Bottom line: As we have said before, it’s sweep or bust for Democrats in this year’s pair of open-seat gubernatorial races. Only winning both makes 2017 a success for them.
The 2018 Democratic incumbents: Some GOP upset potential
As we move to 2018, let’s start with the Democratic seats held by incumbents. It’s not a long list but it does include at least a couple of credible Republican targets.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) will be seeking a second term after unseating unpopular GOP incumbent Tom Corbett in a rare 2014 Democratic bright spot, a victory that perhaps made some mistakenly believe that the state was out of reach for a Republican presidential candidate in 2016 (it wasn’t). Wolf’s approval numbers are not great as he has battled a strongly Republican state legislature. His likeliest opponents, at least at the moment, are either state Sen. Scott Wagner (R) or businessman Paul Mango (R). Either could end up being decent challengers, but the incumbent likely could have faced a stronger opponent, such as one of the state’s Republican U.S. House representatives. Further northeast in Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), a weaker 2014 winner than Wolf, has had an even rockier tenure, and it’s possible she will face a credible primary challenge from former Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D) or someone else. The GOP may not be able to capitalize on her weakness, though, both because of the state’s generic Democratic lean and because they may lack a top-tier candidate. Allan Fung (R), the mayor of Cranston and the party’s 2014 nominee, seems likely to run again, although he probably will have primary competition. Both of these races are just Leans Democratic, even though national Republicans are well aware of the difficulties of unseating incumbent governors (about three in four who sought another term in the postwar era have been reelected).
A longer-shot possibility for Republicans, but one that could be a dark horse race, is in Oregon, where Gov. Kate Brown (D) will be seeking a first full term after winning the remainder of a partial term as an unelected incumbent last year. The Beaver State has not elected a Republican governor since 1982, but Republicans have come close at times, and Brown only outpaced her challenger in 2016 by seven points. The likeliest GOP nominee at this point is Knute Buehler (R), a moderate state representative who ran against Brown for secretary of state when she was last elected to that position in 2012.
Republicans don’t have much of a chance to pick up either New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is gearing up to seek a third term, or Hawaii against Gov. David Ige (D). Cuomo has a lot of liberal critics but he doesn’t seem to have either a viable primary or general election challenger. Ige, who defeated then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) in a landslide in a 2014 primary, may have an intraparty challenge of his own next year if Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D, HI-1) or another prominent Aloha State Democrat challenges him, as seems quite possible.
Before we leave the Democratic incumbents, let’s address one other race that doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories: Independent Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska. Walker is not a Democrat, and once was a Republican, but he did defeat a Republican incumbent in 2014 with the help of Democrats, and his lieutenant governor, Byron Mallott, is a Democrat. Alaska is dealing with budgetary problems due in large part to the low cost of fossil fuels, and it’s unclear if Walker will run for reelection, even though Walker has indicated that he probably will. It’s also not impossible that Walker could run as a Democrat or even a Republican in a potential reelection bid. Assuming Walker does not return to the GOP, the Republicans likely will go after this seat hard. This one is still developing.
Bottom line: Any Republican win in this category would be an upset outside of Alaska, even though such an upset is possible. Democrats will have a hard time making major net gains if they lose one of these states.
2018 Democratic open seats: Challenging defenses in some Clinton states
If Republicans are going to pick up a Democratic-held governorship this year, it’ll probably be one of the states included here, even though some of the Democratic incumbents are potentially vulnerable, as noted above. That seat will not be California, though: It seems possible that two Democrats will advance to the general election in the top-two primary, which is what happened in last year’s U.S. Senate race. The GOP is an inert statewide force in the country’s largest state.
More attractive possibilities for the Republicans are Colorado,
Connecticut, and Minnesota. Some of our Democratic and Republican sources seem to agree that despite Minnesota being Hillary Clinton’s weakest win amongst the three states, it is probably the likeliest Democratic hold here. There are several reasons. Outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton (D) is not super-popular, but he also is not a drag on the eventual Democratic nominee. The state’s Democratic lean is also probably more pronounced than Clinton’s less-than-two-point win indicates, especially when one considers the convincing wins by Sen. Al Franken (D) and Dayton in 2014. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) looks like she will have an easy path to reelection, perhaps providing some lift to the Democratic nominee. And at this point, and unlike several other Midwest states, the bench in Minnesota is quite strong, and several top-tier Democrats are running. Republicans should produce a credible candidate, too, and the primary endorsement process that both parties conduct in the state could be an important step in determining nominees, although candidates can challenge the endorsed candidate in the primary. We’re moving Minnesota to Leans Democratic. We have heard some rumblings that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) may be thinking of running. If he did, we’d probably have to reassess this ratings change, but we have not heard this is pending or even likely.
The other two, Connecticut and Colorado, are definitely still toss-ups. It seems like both parties’ candidate fields in Colorado are strong, and it’s unclear whether there is a favorite on either side. Super-wealthy Rep. Jared Polis (D, CO-2), who was a very important player in statewide Democratic politics even before he won election to the House, could be the Democratic favorite, although Republicans persuasively argue that Polis is at least a little bit to the left of the two most recent Democratic governors, current incumbent John Hickenlooper and his predecessor, Bill Ritter. However, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne (D) seems likely to enter, and there are other credible candidates, too. Meanwhile, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Aurora-area District Attorney George Brauchler give the Republicans two potentially strong options. In Connecticut, the Republican field is still emerging, but the eventual nominee will effectively run against outgoing Gov. Dan Malloy (D), who is very unpopular, in addition to the actual Democratic nominee in a state, like others in New England, that is very open to electing GOP governors.
Bottom line: Realistically, Republicans should be able to pick off one of Colorado, Connecticut, or Minnesota. If they don’t, they could be in for a very challenging Election Night.
2018 Republican incumbents: Strengthening GOP prospects in some blue states
The generic challenge of defeating any gubernatorial incumbent is apparent in the roster of Republican-held incumbent governors. Several of these races do not appear to be all that competitive at this point.
There’s not much to say about the following Republican incumbents seeking second terms: Govs. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, and Greg Abbott of Texas. All ended up winning comfortably in 2014 and that doesn’t seem likely to change in 2018. Just a notch below them is Gov. Doug Ducey (R) of Arizona, where Democrats seem much more focused on challenging Sen. Jeff Flake (R) than the governor.
Those are red states, but some GOP incumbents in bluer states seem like they are in good position, too. There’s not much reason to think that popular Gov. Phil Scott (R) would be denied a second term in Vermont, and early numbers suggest Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is also off to a decent start in New Hampshire, even though Democrats argue the GOP-dominated state government has veered to the right. These are the only two states that elect governors every two years as opposed to every four years. Scott is in the Likely Republican column, and Sununu may be heading there, although the Granite State’s tendency to shift wildly with the political winds, which are likelier than not to be blowing in the Democrats’ direction, give us some pause about upgrading his position from Leans Republican. The Democratic candidate field is still developing there, as well.
Another New England Republican, Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, seems to have successfully dissuaded the state’s most prominent Democrats from running against him. Newton Mayor Setti Warren (D) seems like his likeliest challenger, but he may struggle to get traction against a popular incumbent. We’re moving the Bay State from Leans Republican to Likely Republican.
Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan (R) also has strong approval numbers, is probably a better Democratic target. There are a number of quality Democratic candidates running, and the recent example of Martin O’Malley (D) beating incumbent Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) in 2006 despite Ehrlich’s decent approval numbers is surely inspiring Democrats to take a look at the race. We’ll see if history repeats itself but Hogan remains a favorite.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) benefits from what is probably the strongest swing state GOP organization in the country, and while he’s probably never going to have outstanding approval numbers because of his divisive record, his approval is good enough to win a third term. Businessman Andy Gronik is a possible Democratic torch-bearer, as are state Rep. Dana Wachs, state Schools Superintendent Tony Evers, and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout. It’s unclear if any of them have what it takes to beat Walker, who has won three close but clear victories in recent years.
Of all the elected GOP incumbents, Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) of Illinois seems like he is clearly in the most trouble. Businessman J.B. Pritzker (D), who can match the also super-wealthy Rauner dollar for dollar, is asserting himself in the Democratic primary against businessman Chris Kennedy (yes, he is one of THE Kennedys) and others. This is a true Toss-up, although Rauner, who has been feuding with the Democratic legislature his entire time in office, is in really serious trouble.
Included in this category as well are the four states where successor GOP incumbents likely will be on the ballot next year. Govs. Kim Reynolds (R) of Iowa and Henry McMaster (R) of South Carolina are running for reelection after taking over for their departed predecessors, who took jobs in the Trump administration. There is a score of Iowa Democrats seeking the job, although the candidates to watch are wealthy businessman Fred Hubbell, ex-state party chair Andy McGuire, and state Sen. Nate Boulton. In Iowa, if no one gets over 35% in a primary, the nomination goes to a convention, which seems like a live possibility given that there are several more candidates than just the three mentioned here. In the Palmetto State, the GOP primary could have a Confederate flavor: Catherine Templeton, a former state agency head who is among the Republicans challenging McMaster, recently made waves by saying that she’s “proud” of the Confederacy. Whatever happens in the primary, it seems hard to imagine the Democrats truly competing in the general election.
Gov. Kay Ivey (R) of Alabama has not confirmed she is running for a full term next year but appears likely to do so, although she will not have a clear path to renomination in a state where in all likelihood the most competition will be in the primary as opposed to the general. In Kansas, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) will take over when Gov. Sam Brownback (R) presumably is confirmed as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Colyer is going to run for a full term, but he is not intimidating his potential rivals: firebrand Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) and others will also seek the GOP nod. Despite Kansas’ red hue, Democrats have a real shot at this seat, but the eventual nominee may test the party’s flexibility in supporting candidates who are not maximally liberal on all issues: one of the potential nominees is Josh Svaty, a former state agriculture commissioner and state legislator who cast anti-abortion votes in the state legislature.
Bottom line: Democrats probably need to win at least one race from this category for this cycle to be a success. That may make Illinois something akin to a must-win, and springing an upset somewhere else may also be necessary to realize the Abramowitz model projections.
2018 Republican open seats: The key to the cycle
If the Democrats are really going to make big gains, they likely will have to flip several of these seats.
They may be on their way in at least one state: New Mexico. There, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D, NM-1) seems like the primary and eventual general election favorite. Rep. Steve Pearce (R, NM-2), the likely GOP nominee, lost in a landslide the last time he ran statewide, in 2008 for Senate, and he is not necessarily a top-tier GOP recruit. Other than New Jersey, this is the clearest Democratic pickup so far.
Staying out west, both Democrats and Republicans seem to believe that Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak (D) is one of the Democrats’ strongest gubernatorial candidates this cycle, making Nevada another top Democratic target, though Sisolak may or may not have a clear path to the nomination. The likeliest Republican nominee is state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, although the more-moderate state treasurer, Dan Schwartz (R), is gearing up to run as well. If Wisconsin is the strongest swing state Republican operation in the country, the Democrats’ best organization may be in Nevada, which is part of the reason Republicans view the Silver State as one of their hardest holds this cycle.
Maine remains a Toss-up, but one way or the other, it may not be in that category for long. That’s because Sen. Susan Collins’ (R) decision on whether to run is so important. If Collins becomes a candidate, one would have to move the state into at least the Leans Republican category given her proven electoral track record in the state, even while acknowledging that she would not necessarily be a sure thing to get through a Republican primary given her decisive opposition to the Senate’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. On the other hand, if Collins does not become a candidate, it may be that Maine becomes a likelier Democratic pickup because the party otherwise seems to have a deeper field of candidates, somewhat akin to the situation in Minnesota. But for now, we wait.
Florida is a total Toss-up and an almost-certain money pit for both sides. State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam seems like the clear Republican frontrunner, although state House Speaker Richard Corcoran and state Sen. Jack Latvala are gearing up to run against him, among others, so the primary could be very competitive. On the Democratic side, former Rep. Gwen Graham is probably a soft favorite. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is another possibility, and there continue to be rumblings that wealthy attorney John Morgan could enter (wealthy businessman Chris King is another candidate). Democrats haven’t won this race since 1994, though they came really close in 2010 and 2014.
In Michigan, state Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) probably starts as a favorite in his likely primary with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley (R) and others, if only because of superior name recognition. The Democrats seem content with former State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer as their likely nominee, although there are several others competing for the spot. This is a state that probably should be a clearer Democratic pickup opportunity than it is: Michigan seems primed to swing back to Democrats after Trump’s very narrow win, but the GOP may end up with a stronger nominee and be able to gut out a win. Ohio, a more Republican state, is another potentially very competitive race, but the eventual GOP nominee — state Attorney General Mike DeWine is the favorite but he faces other serious, seasoned challengers — likely is going to be a more proven vote-getter than the Democratic candidate. Democrats have been talking up Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley for years, and she is running along with several others, but former state Attorney General Richard Cordray* appears likely to enter the race, perhaps after Labor Day. Cordray, the director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has the potential to make a big splash — it would not be surprising if he entered the race with endorsements from heavy hitters like former President Obama and CFPB architect Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — and he was a strong fundraiser when he was in state politics, giving him the most fundraising potential of any of the other Democrats. However, it is also not obvious to us that state and national Democrats are necessarily united in pining for his candidacy, and he’ll have work to do just to get through the primary.
Democrats also have some regularly Republicans states they might be able to target, like Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Georgia. Democrats have potentially intriguing candidates in all three states, though no single candidate has a clear road to the nomination: former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson in the Sooner State, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the Volunteer State, and either state Reps. Stacey Abrams or Stacey Evans in the Peach State. The battle of Staceys in Georgia is perhaps the most interesting Democratic primary in the country because it in some ways represents the wrenching struggle over the future of the party, and what the path to future victory is in a state that is getting bluer but remains Republican. Evans, a white woman, argues that the party needs to do a better job of appealing to white working class voters, an argument she tried to make at the liberal Netroots Nation conference over the weekend but was drowned out by supporters of Abrams, a black woman. Abrams and Evans are both potentially strong nominees, but one wonders if either can maximize Democratic performance: Evans might be able to do better outside of Metro Atlanta, but not generate peak African-American turnout, while Abrams could have the opposite problem. The Republican primary fields are packed in all three states, but we’re told the candidates to watch closest are Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in Georgia, Rep. Diane Black in Tennessee, and Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb in Oklahoma. But remember that little is certain in a crowded primary and none of those candidates can just waltz to the nomination. Also keep in mind that both Georgia and Oklahoma are runoff states — there’s a second round if no one wins a majority in the primary.
Finally, there are a few other deep red states that look even further out of grasp for Democrats at the moment: Idaho, South Dakota, and Wyoming.
Bottom line: To us, there are six clear Democratic targets on this list: Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio. Realistically, to make big gains, the Democrats probably need to win the majority of those states and/or pull off an upset in a state like Georgia or Oklahoma.
After Gov. Jim Justice’s (R-WV) surprising decision to switch parties, the Republicans are at a high water mark of gubernatorial control: They control 34 governorships, the Democrats hold only 15, and Walker of Alaska, an independent, holds the 50th seat. Given how overextended they are, that may be a peak, and Republicans may be down a net governorship by November if Democrats can pull off a sweep in New Jersey and Virginia. We also expect Republicans will lose net governorships next year, but they certainly have the potential to limit the damage, and Democrats will have to work hard and potentially get a few breaks to net the six seats (or more) that the Abramowitz model currently projects. Gubernatorial races are not as nationalized as House and Senate races, but Democrats can potentially weaponize Trump’s poor standing against Republicans this year and next if his numbers don’t start to recover.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for Cordray while he was Ohio attorney general from 2009-2010.
Kyle Kondik is the Managing Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
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