Why Governor Races Loom Large

House and Senate elections get the lion’s share of the attention in the midterms, but now gubernatorial contests are arguably more important because they will shape redistricting in 2021.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds points to the crowd during a ceremonial swearing in, Wednesday, May 24, 2017, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
June 26, 2017, 8 p.m.

The nat­ur­al tend­ency in Wash­ing­ton in midterm elec­tion-year cycles is to fo­cus on the House and Sen­ate, but ar­gu­ably more im­port­ant now are the two gubernat­ori­al races this year and 36 next year. Re­pub­lic­ans are de­fend­ing the New Jer­sey gov­ernor­ship while Demo­crats are de­fend­ing one in Vir­gin­ia. Over­all, the GOP is de­fend­ing 27 of the 38 gubernat­ori­al races up this cycle; Demo­crats hold 10 and Gov. Bill Walk­er of Alaska is an in­de­pend­ent.

Gov­ernors play a crit­ic­al role in con­gres­sion­al and state-le­gis­lat­ive re­dis­trict­ing, es­pe­cially next year be­cause it’s the last midterm elec­tion be­fore the 2020 Census and 2021 re­dis­trict­ing. The ex­ample of Demo­crats’s dis­aster in 2010, the first midterm elec­tion un­der Pres­id­ent Obama and last midterm be­fore the 2011 re­dis­trict­ing, should be deeply con­cern­ing for Re­pub­lic­ans. It’s no secret that midterm years are bad for the party hold­ing the White House. With more straight-party vot­ing than at any time in Amer­ic­an his­tory, this bi­as goes from the top of the bal­lot all the way to the bot­tom.

Be­cause Demo­crats got clobbered in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, Re­pub­lic­ans now enter their first midterm elec­tion un­der Pres­id­ent Trump with an un­usu­al de­gree of ex­pos­ure. Jen­nifer Duffy, seni­or ed­it­or of The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port and its ex­pert on gubernat­ori­al and Sen­ate elec­tions, notes that the 33 gov­ernor­ships held by the GOP is the largest num­ber since 1928.

Mak­ing the 2017-2018 gubernat­ori­al cycle even more volat­ile is the num­ber of open seats. Of the 38 gov­ernor­ships up this year and next, 19 are open, with no in­cum­bent seek­ing reelec­tion in five of the 10 Demo­crat­ic seats and 14 of the 27 Re­pub­lic­an seats.

Duffy notes that the vast ma­jor­ity of these are open be­cause of term lim­its, but Demo­crat­ic Govs. Dan­nel Mal­loy (Con­necti­c­ut) and Mark Dayton (Min­nesota) have op­ted to re­tire rather than run for third terms. GOP Gov. Robert Bent­ley’s resig­na­tion in Alabama, and Trump’s ap­point­ment of South Car­o­lina’s Nikki Haley as am­bas­sad­or to the United Na­tions—two in­cum­bents who were term-lim­ited—el­ev­ated lieu­ten­ant gov­ernors who are now ex­pec­ted to run as in­cum­bents. Should term-lim­ited GOP Gov. Sam Brown­back in Kan­sas get an ap­point­ment in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion as many spec­u­late, GOP Lt. Gov. Jeff Co­ly­er would be able to run as an in­cum­bent and bring the num­ber of GOP open seats to 13.

A lot of the ac­tion will be in primar­ies, with some epic battles ex­pec­ted. Re­pub­lic­ans have been host­ing primar­ies fea­tur­ing es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates versus tea-party (and now Trump) con­ser­vat­ives since 2010. 2018 won’t be any dif­fer­ent. Next year, Demo­crats are likely to see their own ver­sion of frat­ri­cide with battles between es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates and pro­gress­ives in sym­pathy with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Eliza­beth War­ren.

Giv­en the large num­ber of open seats, it’s not sur­pris­ing that we are see­ing big primary fields emer­ging already, even though the first fil­ing dead­lines are al­most six months away. Each party already has five an­nounced can­did­ates for the open gubernat­ori­al seat in Col­or­ado, while in Min­nesota, six Demo­crats and four Re­pub­lic­ans have thrown their hats in the ring, and that num­ber is ex­pec­ted to grow. In Iowa, six can­did­ates are bat­tling for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion and the right to chal­lenge newly min­ted GOP Gov. Kim Reyn­olds.

Both the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors’ as­so­ci­ations are largely keep­ing a hands-off ap­proach to the primar­ies, an ac­know­ledg­ment that neither party has the re­sources to play heav­ily in both primar­ies and gen­er­al elec­tions. Fur­ther, in this en­vir­on­ment, voters seem to be un­usu­ally sens­it­ive to the idea of party bosses dic­tat­ing nom­in­ees.

Duffy rates the two Demo­crat­ic seats in Con­necti­c­ut and Min­nesota as toss-ups. Con­necti­c­ut is a very Demo­crat­ic state, but the state’s eco­nomy is in tough shape, with com­pan­ies like Gen­er­al Elec­tric and Aet­na de­camp­ing and the state budget $5 bil­lion in the red. The Demo­crats are bet­ter off with an open seat than with Mal­loy run­ning, but Re­pub­lic­ans will be very com­pet­it­ive there. Min­nesota showed in 2016 that it re­mains more purple than blue. After eight years with a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, voters might be ready for a change.

Four of the five Re­pub­lic­an toss-up seats are open—Flor­ida, Maine, Michigan, and Nevada—and all will have con­tested primar­ies. In Maine, both parties are wait­ing for de­cisions from po­ten­tial can­did­ates who will de­term­ine the con­tours of the primar­ies and gen­er­al elec­tion. The fifth seat is in Illinois, where GOP Gov. Bruce Rau­ner is seek­ing a second term. The front-run­ner for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion is bil­lion­aire J.B. Pritzker, whose will­ing­ness to spend his per­son­al wealth erases Rau­ner’s fin­an­cial ad­vant­age: The gov­ernor has already put $50 mil­lion in­to his cam­paign. Rau­ner is the most vul­ner­able in­cum­bent seek­ing reelec­tion next year.

Re­pub­lic­ans’ most vul­ner­able seats are open seats in New Mex­ico, which leans to­ward Demo­crats, and in New Jer­sey, which is likely to fall to Demo­crats. This means that Re­pub­lic­ans may already be two seats down.

COR­REC­TION: The ori­gin­al ver­sion of this column mis­stated the num­ber of gubernat­ori­al seats Re­pub­lic­ans are de­fend­ing this cycle.

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