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As the political universe fixates on the battles for control of Congress, little attention is being paid to the 36 gubernatorial contests on the ballot in November. But, the stakes for control of governorships are high given that most of the Governors elected this year will be in office during redistricting in 2021. And, races are starting to become engaged and more interesting.
Republicans currently hold 33 governorships to 16 for Democrats and one independent, Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska. Of the 36 races up in November, Republicans hold 26 to just nine for Democrats; Walker is up for re-election as well. There are 16 open seats, 12 of which are currently held by Republicans.
Governors’ races are not immune to mid-term election trends. Just as the party in power loses seats in the U.S. House and Senate, it also loses gubernatorial seats. In the 29 mid-term elections that have taken place since 1902, the party in power has lost seats in 26 of them, or 90 percent of the time. The average loss is 4.5 seats. The biggest losses in the last 50 years came in 1970 when Republicans under President Richard Nixon lost 11 seats. In 1994 as Democrats were losing their majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, they also lost 11 gubernatorial seats. The most recent exceptions to mid-term losses are 1986 when Republicans gained eight governorships under President Reagan (this is the same year that the GOP suffered a net loss of eight U.S. Senate seats), and 1998 when Democrats under President Clinton didn’t lose any seats.
Given the near historic number of seats Republicans hold and mid-term trends, it would seem that they have nowhere to go but down. They are playing defense this cycle, while Democrats are working to put as many GOP-held seats on the board as possible.
Both parties are looking at contested primaries in most of the competitive races. The primary calendar is somewhat backloaded in gubernatorial contests, meaning that many of the most important primaries are going to take place in August and early September. These primaries carry a risk for both parties: will the strongest nominees emerge, will a weak nominee take a potentially competitive contest off the table, or conversely, put what should be a safe seat at risk? The number of competitive primaries on the calendar also makes it difficult to assign a range of potential gains or losses.
Even though there is still a great deal of uncertainty about what the general election will look like, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to make some rating changes. Here are the latest changes, many of which are the result of the primary election outcomes.
Of the nine seats Democrats must defend, none are in red states, although a couple — Minnesota and Pennsylvania — are in swing states.
The seats Democrats need to be most concerned about are the open seats in Connecticut and Minnesota. It seems counterintuitive that a seat in a solidly blue state like Connecticut would be in play, but the state faces significant financial problems, the city of Hartford was on the brink of bankruptcy last fall until the state bailed it out, and major employers like General Electric are leaving the state. These are all ingredients for a competitive race. The presumptive Democratic nominee is Ned Lamont, a businessman who defeated then-U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in 2006 (Lieberman won the general election as an independent). Lamont made an unsuccessful bid for the gubernatorial nomination in 2010. Republicans have a crowded primary, but they are likely to nominate a political outsider.
In Minnesota, Democrats face a very competitive primary. While U.S. Rep. Tim Walz was thought to be the favorite, he faces challenges from state Rep. Erin Murphy, who won the party endorsement, and state Attorney General Lori Swanson. On the Republican side, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty is facing off against Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson in the primary. If Pawlenty doesn’t win the nomination, this contest becomes less competitive for Republicans.
The open seat in Colorado may also be up for grabs. On the Republican side, state Treasurer Walter Stapleton is the frontrunner for the nomination in a four-way primary. On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and former Denver CFO Cary Kennedy are locked in a battle for the nomination, while state Sen. Mike Johnston is considered a dark horse. Polis is putting considerable personal money into the race, which would make this contest more difficult for Republicans if he wins the nomination.
Republicans had hoped to give Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf a competitive challenger, but their nominee, state Sen. and wealthy businessman Scott Wagner, is probably too conservative for the general election. As a result, the race moves to the Likely Democrat column.
The only other Democratic-held seat that might become competitive is in Rhode Island, where Democratic incumbent Gina Raimondo is seeking a second term. She has pulled a primary opponent to her left. Although Raimondo remains the favorite in that contest, it will eat time and resources since the primary isn’t until September 11. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Fung was the party’s nominee in 2014, losing the race to Raimondo by five points.
The seats in California, Hawaii and New York will remain in Democrats’ hands, although Hawaii Gov. David Ige is in real danger of losing the primary to U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.
Republicans are defending 26 seats, including a number in blue and purple states. They go into the general election with one seat – the open seat in New Mexico – in the Lean Democrat column. Republican Gov. Susanna Martinez is unpopular, and Republican nominee U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce does not have a great track record in statewide races, having lost U.S. Senate contests in 2000 and 2008. He is the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, and as a member of the Freedom Caucus, he is likely too conservative and controversial to win a statewide contest this year.
There are seven seats in the Toss Up column, including incumbent Govs. Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Kim Reynolds in Iowa. Rauner is easily the most vulnerable incumbent of either party, but his significant personal resources make it hard to put him in the Lean Democrat column, at least for now. Reynolds is running for a term in her own right after becoming Governor when Terry Branstad resigned to become Ambassador to China. She will face Fred Hubbell, former president of Equitable Iowa and former Acting Director of the Department of Economic Development under Democratic Gov. Chet Culver. Hubbell easily won a crowded primary, outperforming expectations. This contest has moved to the Toss Up column.
The other five contests are in open seats in Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio. In Florida, both parties are hosting competitive primaries. There isn’t a real frontrunner on the Democratic side. On the Republican side, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is the frontrunner, but he is getting a challenge to his right from U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis. Putnam would be a very competitive nominee, while the race gets harder for the GOP if DeSantis, a member of the Freedom Caucus, is the party’s standard-bearer.
Maine will host a three-way contest. Shawn Moody, who ran for Governor in 2010 as an independent and finished fourth, won the GOP primary. As a result of the state’s ranked-choice primary system, it’s not clear yet whether businessman Adam Cote or Attorney General Janet Mills will be the Democratic nominee. There are several independent candidates running, but state Treasurer Terry Hayes seems likely to get the most traction.
In the open seat in Ohio, Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine will face off against Democrat Richard Cordray, former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. There are three recent polls: one shows DeWine up by six points, another has Cordray up by two points and the third has Cordray up by seven points. It is extremely unlikely that Cordray is up by seven points and he may not even be ahead by two points, but the takeaway from these surveys is that this race is within the margin of error. As a result it has moved to the Toss Up column.
Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin is in the Lean Republican column, but Democrats are convinced that this race will ultimately be a toss up. Walker is seeking a third term, which is always difficult, but before Democrats can go head to head with Walker, they need a nominee. They are hosting a 10-way primary, and seven or eight of the candidates can make credible cases that they have a path to the nomination. Until the August 14 primary, Walker is left to raise money and fine-tune his organization.
There are five seats in the Likely Republican column — Govs. Doug Ducey in Arizona, Jeff Colyer in Kansas, Larry Hogan in Maryland, Chris Sununu in New Hampshire and the open seat in Tennessee. The Likely columns are essentially watch lists. The party is favored to hold a seat, but there are some circumstances present that make the race worth keeping an eye on. In Kansas, Colyer faces a primary challenge from controversial Secretary of State Kris Kobach. This race would get more difficult for Republicans if Kobach were the nominee. Another complication is the presence of independent candidate Greg Orman, a wealthy businessman who took 43 percent of the vote against GOP U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014. It’s unclear whether he pulls more votes from Democrats or Republicans, but he will be a factor in the race.
New Hampshire seems unusually vulnerable to electoral waves, which is reason enough to watch this race. At the same time, Sununu has solid job ratings and Democrats don’t have a first-tier candidate, although there seems to be growing enthusiasm for former state Sen. Molly Kelly. It doesn’t help that the primary isn’t until September 11. The race was in Lean Republican, but has moved to the Likely column. It’s up to Democrats to make it more competitive.
Finally, there are 12 seats in the Solid Republican column. Govs. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Phil Scott have moved to this column from Likely Republican. Both are among the most popular Governors in the nation, despite the fact that they hail from two of the most Democratic states. Democrats tried to find first-tier candidates, but fell short and the candidates who are running are struggling to raise money.
There are two races that may well move out of this column. In the open seat in Georgia, Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams has fired up progressive groups who believe that a progressive African-American woman can bring out minority and millennial voters who tend to sit out mid-term elections. Republicans have a July 24 run-off between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp. We’ll re-evaluate the rating after that.
South Carolina seems like an unlikely candidate for a potentially competitive race, but Gov. Henry McMaster faces a run-off. If he wins that, he goes into the general election somewhat battered and carrying the weight of several scandals that have rocked state government in recent months. Republicans would still be favored here, but the contest has the potential to be more competitive than it should be.
The Bottom Line
With so many primaries yet to be decided, it’s a little early to predict a range of gains or losses for each party. It is fair to say that Republicans will lose seats. Given the political environment, Democrats are likely to be disappointed if they only pick up four or five seats. If they pick up seven or eight, it would be fair to call that a landslide.