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.