LauraKelly

Governors: Geography is Destiny - Part I

It is a rare cycle in which both parties step back the morning after the election, survey the landscape of the same set of races, and walk away happy with the results.

When it comes to Governors races, Democrats are happy to add to their numbers. They started the cycle with 16 seats and are emerging from Election Day with 23 seats. Democratic strategists note that Democratic Governors now represent 52 percent of the nation’s population. Republicans had significant exposure to losses this cycle as they had to defend 26 of the 33 seats they held. In their view, the potential existed for them to sustain double-digit casualties (and some Democrats gladly touted this possible outcome), and they managed to keep their losses to a manageable number; they currently hold 26 seats. Moreover, they continue to hold on to critical battlegrounds in Florida, Iowa, and Ohio. The outcome of the GOP-held seat in Georgia remains uncertain at this writing. What is most striking is how the most competitive races essentially broke along red and blue lines. Competitive races in purple or swing states tended to break slightly more toward Democrats than Republicans. In other words, the overall political environment that favored Democrats had more of an impact in purplish states than it did in red states.

Of the 36 gubernatorial contests on the ballot, Democrats only had to defend nine seats, seven of which were in solidly blue states. Republicans didn’t have strong nominees in the two Democratic-held seats in swing states — the open seat in Colorado and Gov. Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania — making it that much easier for the party to retain them. Democrats did not lose a single seat this cycle. The closest they came was the open seat in Connecticut where Democratic businessman Ned Lamont eked out a victory over GOP businessman Bob Stefanowski by 1.7 percent with 95 percent of the vote reporting at this writing. Democrats other vulnerable seat was in Oregon where Gov. Kate Brown was seeking a full four-year term. She defeated Republican state Rep. Knute Buehler, 49 percent to 45 percent.

Democrats easily held the two seats in the Lean Democratic column. In Colorado, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis took 52 percent for GOP state Treasurer Walker Stapleton who has 45 percent with 85 percent of the vote reporting. Finally, Republicans hoped to make the contest in Rhode Island one of the most competitive of the cycle, but were hobbled by a weak candidate in Cranston Mayor Alan Fung. It helped that there was an independent candidate running as well. In the end, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo took 53 percent to 37 percent for Fung and four percent for independent Joe Trillo. In 2014, Raimondo was elected in a multi-candidate field with 41 percent, making her 53-percent victory look like something close to a mandate.

The brightest spot for Republicans came in Alaska where former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy won the seat with 45 percent, defeating former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich who took 38 percent. Independent Gov. Bill Walker, who suspended his re-election effort two weeks before voters went to the polls, took just 2 percent, well below the 10 percent to 20 percent that both parties though he might get. The surprise was Libertarian nominee Billy Toien, who took 16 percent.

The battlefield in gubernatorial contests was really among the 26 Republican-held seats that were on the ballot. It was a given relatively early in the cycle that the three of the four GOP incumbents in blue states — Larry Hogan in Maryland, Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, and Phil Scott in Vermont — wouldn’t have much trouble winning re-election. The fourth — Gov. Bruce Rainer of Illinois — didn’t have much of a path to victory. In fact, the seat was in the Likely Democratic column, and Democratic entrepreneur J.B. Pritzker won the race with 54 percent to 39 percent for Rainer; two third-party candidates split the remaining 7 percent.

Democrats prevailed in other blue states held by Republicans, prevailing easily in Maine, Michigan and New Mexico, all open seats, while winning seats in the more purple states of Nevada and Wisconsin. Democrats are pleased with their gains, but perhaps a bit more so in defeating GOP Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. This was their third attempt to defeat him in eight years. Democratic state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers took 50 percent to 48 percent for Walker.

Democrats did claim one red state by winning the open seat in Kansas. Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly took 48 percent to 43 percent for GOP Secretary of State Kris Kobach and seven percent for independent businessman Greg Orman. This contest had everything to do with former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback and the long-term negative effects the deep tax cuts he implemented had on the state’s budget, particularly education. The already controversial Kobach embraced Brownback, which cost him an unusually high percentage of Republican voters.

Republicans held on to the seat in Iowa where Gov. Kim Reynolds won a full four-year term, defeating businessman Fred Hubbell, 50 percent to 47 percent. They also held their open seats in Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota, all races that were well within the margin of error going into Election Day.

The blue wave packed more of a punch when it hit New Hampshire, but GOP Gov. Chris Sununu survived the current, winning re-election with 53 percent to 46 percent for Democrat Molly Kelly. The race was in the Lean Republican column.

The race in Georgia is the only one that isn’t settled yet. Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp finished with 50.3 percent of the vote to 48.7 percent for former Democrat state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams. In this case, the decimal points are important. To avoid a run-off, a candidate needs to get 50 percent of the vote, plus one. Thus, Kemp barely cleared the bar; with 100 percent of precincts reporting, he leads Abrams by 63,225 votes. But, it is the fact that Kemp is hovering around the 50-percent mark that has Abrams committed to making sure all the votes in this race are counted. And, even making sure that happens is controversial since as Secretary of State, Kemp supervises elections. GOP strategists who have extensive experience in Georgia say that Kemp’s lead will hold, thus avoiding a December 4 run-off. This may be true, but the path to determining that will be contentious.

At the end of the day, Republicans continue to hold a majority of Governors’ offices at either 26 or 27, but Democrats made significant progress in leveling the playing field.

Image: Laura Kelly | Credit: AP Photo, Topeka Capital-Journal, Thad Allton