Democrats Make Governor Gains, But Fall Short in Some Key Races

The party picked up at least seven seats, yet was unable to secure closely watched contests in Florida, Ohio, and Georgia.

Kansas Gov.-elect Laura Kelly (D)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Nov. 7, 2018, 1:35 a.m.

Democrats put a dent in the Republicans’ historically large advantage in governor seats Tuesday, picking up at least seven seats—as of 7:30 a.m.—while the GOP held on in a handful of contests that had drawn national attention.

Republicans defended key seats in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio, but lost those in Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Illinois, and Maine, plus the biggest upset of the night in Kansas, where Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly defeated Kris Kobach.

Races in Alaska, Connecticut, and Georgia remained uncalled as of Wednesday morning.

President Trump helped boost Kobach, a divisive figure, over the state's interim Gov. Jeff Colyer in the GOP primary. But despite holding a rally in the state days before the election, Trump could not unite the Republican base behind Kobach in the general. Democrats lost the seat in the 2010 wave election, but Kelly's record of bipartisanship helped her capitalize on fractures in the Republican Party and swing it back to the blue column.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham will be New Mexico's first Latina Democratic governor, replacing Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. Lujan Grisham focused much of her campaign on criminal justice, education, and health care. GOP Rep. Steve Pearce and the Republican Governors Association hammered Lujan Grisham with ads attacking her health care company and previous state-government service. However, Lujan Grisham was able to run effective counterarguments as she dominated Pearce in spending and fundraising throughout the campaign.

Janet Mills also made history as Maine’s first female governor after having been the state’s first female attorney general. Mills focused heavily on health care, proving her chops as an advocate by leading the fight against outgoing GOP Gov. Paul LePage on Medicaid expansion. Michigan’s governor race featured another female-led victory in which Gretchen Whitmer defeated Trump-endorsed Bill Schuette.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder declined to endorse Schuette, who was never able to unite the Republican base. Meanwhile, Whitmer was able to unite progressives and moderates with her mantra of "fix the damn roads" and her focus on health care without alienating Trump voters.

In an exceedingly close race watched by both parties, Democrat Tony Evers ousted Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. And in Illinois, venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker handily unseated Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner—a result that surprised few. Despite the odds, Pritzker didn't take any chances, donating a record $171 million to his campaign out of pocket. Rauner sank only some $70 million of his own money into his campaign.

Trump spent time campaigning in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio, proving his pull among white working-class voters has not weakened significantly since he won these states in 2016. Ron DeSantis, a former congressman from Florida, leaned most heavily into the Trump brand even when a vast majority of polls showed him trailing Democrat Andrew Gillum. Similarly, in Georgia Brian Kemp kept himself closely aligned to Trump, though he dialed back some of his more provocative rhetoric from the primary. Kemp even canceled his final debate against Democrat Stacey Abrams so that he could appear at a rally Trump held in the state.

Both Kemp and DeSantis also did well uniting the state party establishment after surviving very competitive primaries. DeSantis spent time campaigning with Gov. Rick Scott, who defeated Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida’s Senate race. Kemp had Georgia’s popular outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal recording TV ads on his behalf, despite his contentious primary against Deal’s lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle.

Abrams and Gillum, both of whom are African-American, drew intense interest from Democratic activists and donors across the country, and their apparent losses—Abrams did not concede Tuesday night—proved to be among the party’s most disappointing results Tuesday.

Mike DeWine’s victory in Ohio had less to do with Trump, though the president did hold a rally there days before the election. But the race felt more like a personal slugfest between Obama administration alum Richard Cordray, with both candidates airing negative spots related to untested rape kits, the opioid epidemic, and the state’s economy. This is DeWine’s second victory over Cordray—he unseated him as the state's attorney general in 2010.

Republicans also held their seats in Iowa and South Dakota, where Kim Reynolds and Kristi Noem became the first women elected governor of their respective states.

This story was updated at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

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