Like Senate and House races, gubernatorial contests have experienced a bumpy road over the past two weeks.
Republican prospects appeared to improve a good bit in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. In Governor's races, red states with competitive contests began acting more like red states. But, Republicans across the board saw a dip in support after the arrest of the man who sent 13 pipe booms to Democratic officials and major donors (and CNN) and the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead. It wasn’t until the middle of last week that Republicans saw improvement in the polls and while their candidates hadn’t returned completely to where they were before October 26 in some cases, many have.
Republicans hold 33 of the 50 governorships, while Democrats have 16 and there is one independent Governor. There are 36 gubernatorial contests on the ballot tomorrow, and Republicans must defend 26 of them; half of those 26 are open seats. In other words, chances that Republicans are going to gain seats this cycle are virtually non-existent.
If the political landscape is dictating the battle for the majority of the U.S. House and political geography is driving the battle for the U.S. Senate, Governors contests feature a mix of, and exceptions to, both. For example, both parties have competitive seats in otherwise friendly territory — Connecticut and Oregon in the case of Democrats and Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota for Republicans These contests are competitive for reasons close to home as opposed to any larger national trend. Republicans are also defending seats in blue and purple states like Illinois and New Mexico that they won in 2014, and these contests are being driven more by larger political trends that are likely to contribute to election night losses.
Overall there are 12 seats in the Toss Up column heading into Election Day. Here’s where things stand in these contests.
Vulnerable Democratic-Held Seats:
The outcome of just two Democratic-held seats remain in doubt: the open seat in Connecticut and Gov. Kate Brown in Oregon.
In Connecticut, the two parties continue to disagree on where this race between Democratic businessman Ned Lamont and GOP businessman Bob Stefanowski stands Democrats argue that the race is a referendum on President Trump, who is very unpopular in the state. As a result, Lamont is running ahead of Stefanowski and well positioned to win. Republicans say that the contest is instead a referendum on unpopular outgoing Gov. Dan Malloy and the state’s weak economy, and thus voters want a Governor who will take the state in a new direction. There have been seven polls taken since October 1, and Lamont had leads ranging from two to nine points; the average was 5.3 points. Republicans take issue with the public data and Democrats’ contention that Lamont is ahead, arguing that the race is tied. It’s worth keeping in mind that there are three third-party candidates on the ballot, one of whom, former banking executive Nelson “Oz” Griebel, has aired television ads. None of these three candidates have a shot at winning, but they could determine whether Lamont or Stefanowski comes out on top.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is the party’s only vulnerable incumbent. After getting 50 percent of the vote in 2016 to finish the term of former Gov. John Kitzhaber, Brown is now running for a full four-year term. The state of Oregon’s public schools and $13 billion in tax increases have made Brown less popular than a Democratic incumbent might otherwise be in a solidly blue state. Republicans nominated a moderate in state Sen. and orthopedic surgeon Knute Buehler. All ballots are cast by mail and early ballots suggest a very close race, but if Buehler hopes to win he needs to improve his performance among independent voters.
The race in Alaska was turned upside down when independent Gov. Bill Walker suspended his re-election effort on October 19. Walker will remain on the ballot, and is expected to garner somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of the vote. Democrats had given up hope that their nominee, former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, could beat GOP former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy, but Walker’s decision led them to throw the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in the last 10 days, putting up television ads attacking Dunleavy. This was not an easy feat in a state that makes it hard to invest outside money. Dunleavy remains ahead, but the race will be closer than it should be. This will be one of the few bright spots for Republicans on Election Night.
Vulnerable Republican-Held Seats:
Republicans go into Election Day with a deficit of three seats. In Illinois, it doesn’t appear that GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner will break the 40-percent mark in his quest for re-election against Democratic billionaire J.B. Pritzker. Republicans are also poised to lose the open seats in Michigan where Democratic former state Sen. Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer is running comfortably ahead of GOP state Attorney General Bill Schuette. And, in New Mexico, Democratic U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham leads GOP U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce by between five and 10 points, according to public polling conducted in October, but she is over 50 percent in every survey.
There are 10 races in the Toss Up column, including two incumbents: Kim Reynolds in Iowa and Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
In Iowa, Reynolds faces Democratic businessman Fred Hubbell. Which candidate is ahead depends on who you ask as both parties believe that they will win here. Public polls show a statistically tied race. Of the three surveys conducted in October, Hubbell was ahead in two by two and four points, respectively, while Reynolds led by four points in the third poll. It’s fair to say that Republicans here have been hurt by the political environment overall and by tariffs on soybeans specifically. This is more an explanation of why the contest is so close than it is a prediction that Hubbell will absolutely win on Tuesday.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker is seeking a third term in Wisconsin and faces state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers. Walker has been in Democrats’ sights since he was elected in 2010. They mounted an unsuccessful recall election against him in 2012, and fell well short of denying him a second term in 2014. Democrats have focused on Walker’s political ambitions, arguing that he ignored the state’s needs during his failed 2016 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and that he hasn’t made good on his promises to grow the state’s economy. Republicans contend that Evers will solve every problem with higher taxes. They have also attacked his record as Superintendent, pointing to a failure to discipline teachers who watched pornography at school or had inappropriate contact with students.
Both parties acknowledge that their polling shows a dead heat. Republicans in the state concede that everything needs to go right for Walker on Election Day. If Walker does not win, it’s worth asking whether there was ever a truly viable path to a third term. For Democrats, a win would mean that they had finally kicked Lucy’s proverbial football on the third try.
Also on the line for Republicans are eight open seats in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
In Florida, both parties have the race between Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis as a dead heat. The bone of contention is which candidate is ahead by a point or two. While Republicans are encouraged by early voting where they are hitting their targets, Democrats think that they have seized the momentum in the final week. Call it a coin toss.
The real question for election night in Georgia in this contest between Democratic former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp is whether either of these candidates can get the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a December 4 run-off. Both campaigns believe that their candidate can hit that threshold. At the same time, both camps, as well as both campaign committees, are preparing for a run-off. The contest is essentially tied and neither candidate has hit 50 percent in any party polling.
If a run-off occurs, expect it to be very contentious. The first battle will be over whether Kemp, as Secretary of State, can fairly oversee his own run-off, or even a recount for that matter.
The question “What’s the matter with Kansas” has been posed in many contexts. More than a few journalists covering gubernatorial races are likely to ask that question on election night. This is a three-way contest between Republican Secretary of Kris Kobach, Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly and independent businessman Greg Orman. Both parties have the race statistically tied with Orman getting between 8 percent and 10 percent of the vote. The parties disagree on whether Orman is pulling more votes from Kelly or whether he is attracting Republicans who can’t vote for the controversial Kobach and can’t bring themselves to cast a ballot for a Democrat. One thing that is clear is that Republican strategists have grown increasingly concerned about this race in the last few days. Roman’s presence makes this race a tough call, but we won’t be surprised if Kelly scores a win and picks up a seat for Democrats in this very red state.
Independent candidates may also play a big role in determining who wins the open seat in Maine. The race features Democratic state Attorney General Janet Mills, Republican businessman Shawn Moody and independent Terry Hayes, who is state Treasurer. Alan Caron, another independent, ended his campaign last week. Independent candidates have cost Democrats the gubernatorial contest in the last two elections and it appeared that they might be headed toward that fate again. But, Mills has started to put some distance between herself and Moody, while Hayes is only polling in the high single digits. Put a bit of a thumb on the scale for Democrats and Mills to pick up another seat for Democrats.
The open seat in Nevada is yet another race sitting on a knife’s edge. The contest between Republican state Attorney General Adam Laxalt and Democratic Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak is a dead heat, according to both parties. The RealClearPolitics moving average gives Laxalt a one-point advantage. Republicans need to be concerned about Democrats’ aggressive get-out-the-vote program that cost the party a Senate seat in 2016. It will be interesting to see if Laxalt’s closing television ad has any resonance with voters. It features Laxalt’s mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has visible symptoms of the disease assuring voters that Democrats’ attacks on Laxalt on the issue of pre-existing conditions are false.
The contest in Ohio between Republican state Attorney General Mike DeWIne and former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray has been called the Battle of the Blands as neither candidate possesses a lot of charisma. The other thing that this contest might be known for is how it has been dead even for several weeks and nothing either campaign has done seems to be able to move the needle. At this point, it’s all about turn out.
Oklahoma has been in the same category as Kansas — a solidly red state where Democrats are unusually competitive. Former Democratic state Attorney General Drew Edmondson is facing off against GOP mortgage company founder Kevin Stitt. Unlike Kansas, GOP polling over the past week has good news for the party as Stitt has cracked the 50-percent mark. Perhaps Stitt’s greatest asset in this race is that he is a new face to voters, while Edmondson has been a fixture in state politics for nearly 40 years. Put a thumb on the scale for Republicans here.
And finally, open seat in South Dakota is yet another race in a solidly red state that found its way into the Toss Up column. Democratic state Sen. Billie Sutton has given GOP U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem a surprisingly strong challenge. Noem hasn’t been helped by being a member of Congress, that is unpopular even in South Dakota, making it harder for her to counter Sutton’s claims that he is the only candidate who can address the problem of corruption in state government. It’s also possible that after winning a competitive primary that Noem took her foot off the gas allowing Sutton to gain some momentum unchallenged.
There hasn’t been a lot of party polling here, but the public surveys point to a dead heat. Republicans are feeling a bit better about where Noem is going into the final days, but they acknowledge that the outcome is still anyone’s guess.
Charlie Cook’s love of very symmetrical bell curves extends to Governors races. Unlike the Senate where the range of outcomes is very narrow, the possible outcomes in gubernatorial contests are quite broad and in the neighborhood of Democratic gains of four to 10 seats. The most likely outcome is that Democrats will gain between six and eight seats. Anything over eight seats is a sign that there was a strong blue tide.
Image: Florida Governors Debate Credit: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, Pool