Thanks to August primaries in a handful of key races, all the pieces of this year’s gubernatorial puzzle are finally in place, and Republicans’ exposure to losses in November has increased.
Republicans were already battling the trends that batter the party in power in midterm elections, and now the GOP is must deal with President Trump’s flagging popularity in the Midwest, one of the party’s electoral strongholds.
It’s not terribly surprising that Governors’ races are not immune from midterm 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 midterm 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 midterm 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.
If midterm history isn’t enough of a weight for Republicans to carry into November, President Trump has seen his job approval ratings drop in a number of states in the Midwest. The likely cause is trade and the tariffs imposed on soybeans and other crops in retaliation for the tariffs the U.S. placed on steel and aluminum. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, Trump’s approval ratings for the month of August have taken a hit in states he carried in 2016 and where Republicans are defending gubernatorial seats. It hasn’t escaped most observers that Governors have almost no role in trade policy, but GOP incumbents and challengers may pay a price anyway.
Admittedly, the Morning Consult poll isn’t a favorite largely because it’s conducted entirely online and over the course of a month in the case of presidential job approval ratings. Even so, it’s helpful to have ratings from each state taken by the same source. Consider it a rare apples-to-apples comparison. In August, Trump’s job approval ratings were suffering in Midwest states hosting gubernatorial contests. His approval ratings were 38 percent in Illinois, 44 percent in Iowa, 52 percent in Kansas, 42 percent in Michigan, 40 percent in Minnesota, 49 percent in Nebraska, 45 percent in Ohio, and 42 percent in Wisconsin. With the exceptions of Illinois and Minnesota, Trump carried these states in 2016. In some of these states, the difference between how much Trump carried a state by and his August job approval rating is striking. For example, Trump carried Iowa by nine points but now has a job approval rating of 44 percent, and won Kansas by 21 points, but now has a job approval rating of 52 percent.
Finally, Republicans need to deal with the outcome of several primaries that failed to produce the strongest general election nominees. Both parties held crowded and often contentious primaries, but Democrats generally nominated strong candidates while the same isn’t true for Republicans. While national Republicans stayed out of primary contests, the same can’t be said for President Trump. Trump endorsed a number of candidates, who ended up defeating candidates who were clearly stronger general election challengers. As a result, Republican-leaning states like Georgia and Kansas are in the Toss Up column, while potential pick-up opportunities in Minnesota and Pennsylvania were lost.
The State of Play
Overall, Democrats have far less exposure to losses as they are only defending nine seats, only one of which is a state (Pennsylvania) that Trump carried. Only one of their seats – the open seat in Connecticut – is in the Toss Up column. The open seats in Colorado and Minnesota, as well as Govs. Kate Brown in Oregon and Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island are in the Lean Democratic column. Republicans believe that Colorado is very competitive and will eventually land in the Toss Up column, while both parties agree that Minnesota is probably headed toward the Likely Democratic column.
Republicans are defending 26 seats, including 13 of the 17 open seats. Three of the seats – Gov. Bruce Rauner in Illinois and the open seats in Michigan and New Mexico – are in the Lean Democratic column, and Republicans will be hard pressed to get them into Toss Up. Another eight seats are in the Toss Up column; Govs. Kim Reynolds in Iowa and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and the open seats in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Nevada and Ohio. Govs. Doug Ducey in Arizona and Chris Sununu in New Hampshire are favored to win re-election but these races merit watching as does the open seat in Oklahoma.
The nation’s only independent Governor – Gov. Bill Walker in Alaska – is in a battle to win a second term that now leans toward Republicans.
The end of primary season means that the general election landscape can finally be viewed clearly. Not surprisingly, such clarity also necessitates some rating changes.
ALASKA (I - Walker) Toss Up → Lean Republican: Gov. Bill Walker is the country’s only independent Governor. He is also among the most vulnerable incumbents. Former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy is GOP nominee while former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich is the Democratic standard-bearer. Polling generally shows that Dunleavy benefits from the three-way contest: he runs first and is in the mid-30s, followed by Walker who is in the mid- to high 20s. It’s surprising that Begich is running third in polling taken over the summer.
Republicans say that they will make the case that Walker has been ineffective, and argue that is Begich won’t be the factor many assumed he would be: he has come out in favor of income and sales taxes and is struggling to raise money. Democrats aren’t writing Begich off, saying that his base in Anchorage and his history of strong performances in good years for Democrats nationally will work to his advantage. It’s unclear, though, whether national Democrats will invest in the contest.
RHODE ISLAND (D – Raimondo) Likely Democrat → Lean Democrat: Given how progressive candidates have surprised Democratic incumbents this cycle, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how Gov. Gina Raimondo would fare in her primary, but she ended up with a very comfortable victory. She took 57 percent to 33 percent for former Secretary of State Matt Brown and 10 percent for former state Rep. Spencer Dickinson. Republicans nominated Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who won the primary with 56 percent to 40 percent for state House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, and 4 percent for businessman Giovanni Ferocce. The primaries set up a rematch between Raimondo and Fung, who faced off in 2014; Raimondo took 41 percent to 36 percent for Fung and 21 percent for Moderate Party nominee Bob Healey.
Both candidates came out the day after the primary with negative ads. A super PAC largely funded by the Republican Governors Association accused Raimondo of failed leadership, while the Raimondo campaign aired a spot challenging Fung’s accomplishments as Mayor. While the narrative of the Raimondo ad was strong, Republicans noted that some of the video wasn’t of Cranston, but of Providence and this became the story of the day instead of the campaign’s message.
GOP ads notwithstanding, Raimondo does have a record on which to run. At least in the primary phase of the race, Fung wasn’t as strong a candidate as he was in 2014. He ran a Rose Garden campaign, largely to avoid dealing with President Trump, who is popular with the small GOP primary electorate (just 33,000 votes were cast in the primary) but very unpopular statewide. Now that the primary is over, Fung will need to engage and take positions on both national and state issues. But, Trump won’t go away as an issue for Fung.
Like 2014, This is another three-way race with conservative GOP state Sen. Joe Trillo running as an independent and likely to siphon some votes away from Fung. Raimondo starts with the advantage, but the race will be competitive. Whether this contest makes it to the Toss Up column rests on whether Raimondo’s campaign can avoid further unforced errors and whether Fung can prove he is a better candidate than he was in 2014.
GEORGIA (R – Open) Lean Republican → Toss Up: If there is any gubernatorial contest that excites national Democrats it’s this contest between former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. The contest is already fully engaged with Republicans taking aim at Abrams’ personal finances (and personal debt) and Democrats portraying Kemp as beholden to his campaign donors (i.e., overlooking reports of sexual assault by massage therapists who are licensed by Kemp’s office). Both parties acknowledge that the contest is in the low- to mid- single digits, but disagree on which candidate is in the lead.
It is worth remembering that Georgia still holds general election run-offs. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, then the top two will proceed to a run-off on December 4. There is a Libertarian candidate on the ballot, so a run-off is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
MICHIGAN (R – Open) Toss Up → Lean Democrat: Republicans should be an even-money bet to hold this seat, but the combination of Trump’s sagging job ratings and some intraparty discord have turned this into an uphill battle for Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette. National Republicans are spending money here, but Schuette doesn’t seem to be getting any real traction, and is on the defensive on issues like health care. Democrats contend that voters like former state House Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer and are receptive to her message of fixing the state’s infrastructure. Strategists for both parties say that Whitmer is ahead; Democrats have her with a lead in the mid teens. It’s hard to see how Schuette turns this around in just a few weeks. The question is how long national Republicans keep putting money into the race.
SOUTH DAKOTA (R – Open) Solid Republican → Likely Republican: Even in a difficult political environment, South Dakota is a reliably Republican state. This year won’t be too much different, but GOP U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem probably can’t expect the kind of margins that Republicans have enjoyed in recent gubernatorial contests. Part of it is the national political climate and another part is that Noem is a member of an unpopular majority in an even more unpopular Congress. Finally, Democrats nominated an appealing candidate in 34-year-old state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton. Sutton, who became a paraplegic after injuries suffered in a rodeo accident, is a moderate, which makes too hard for Republicans to morph him into a version of Hillary Clinton or Chuck Schumer. This remains a difficult race for Democrats, but Sutton is an appealing candidate who Noem and Republicans can’t take for granted.
WISCONSIN (R – Walker) Lean Republican → Toss Up: Democrats have wanted to defeat Republican Gov. Scott Walker since the day he was elected in 2010. After two failed attempts, they believe that they will succeed on the third try. But, Walker isn’t an easy target. Between his first gubernatorial election in 2010, a recall election in 2012, the race for a second term in 2014 and his unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nominee, Walker is about as tested a candidate as any incumbent Governor seeking re-election in 2018. He is a strong fundraiser and, as evidenced by his party’s successes in 2016 and in this year’s Senate primary on behalf of state Sen. Leah Vukmir, has built and maintained a solid grassroots organization.
Democrats think that this race is different from the last two. Strategists say that Walker’s failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination pushed him even further to the right and exposed some inherent weaknesses. That they can tie him to President Trump, who is unpopular in the state, is an added bonus. They also argue that after two terms, fatigue has set in and voters aren’t sure they want to give Walker another four years. Finally, they contend that their nominee, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, is focusing on issues that voters care about like education and fixing the state’s deteriorating roads.
Republicans say that Walker will run on his record and focus on issues like making higher education more affordable. They are portraying Evers as an advocate of higher taxes and budget-busting single-payer health care. Their most recent attacks, however, have centered on Evers’ failure to take action against a teacher who viewed pornography at school and another who allegedly used Snapchat to solicit sex from a student.
Public polling taken in August showed a range of outcomes from giving Evers a five-point advantage to putting Walker ahead by two points. We are dubious of public polling here given polling in both the 2016 Senate and presidential contests, but we do think that this race is within the margin of error and is therefore a Toss Up.
This was always going to be a tough cycle for Republicans given that they hold 33 governorships. But, mid-term trends and Trump’s waning popularity even in Republican-leaning states has made this cycle all the more difficult. The best Republicans can likely hope for is a net loss of four or five seats. A strong case can be made that they can lose as many as eight seats. Anything over eight seats would indicate a wave of tsunami proportions.