Opinion

Midterms: Democrats poised for big gubernatorial gains

  • Paul Waldman

The vast majority of our attention in this election has focused on the races for House and Senate, but there may be equally dramatic changes in store at the state level. If you’ve heard anything at all about a governor’s race, chances are it had to do with vote suppression in Georgia or some, ahem, racially charged controversies in Florida. Both those races feature dynamic young African-American Democrats who would make history if they won, but there are lots of other interesting races going on at the same time.

So let’s break it down. We’ll start with the big-picture predictions being offered today by Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball:

“Right now, the Republicans hold 33 governorships, the Democrats just 16, and an independent, Bill Walker, holds Alaska. Our ratings suggest the Democrats could net ten governorships, while the GOP could lose nine — we favour Republicans to pick up Alaska, which throws off the net change statistic a little bit. That does not include Georgia, where we are maintaining a unique “Toss-up/Leans Runoff” rating in anticipation of a possible run-off on December 4 if neither major party candidate gets a majority. If the run-off happens, just think about how much money former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams might raise from the Democrats’ hyperactive small donor network. This is something that concerns Republicans if there is a run-off.

“More than half of the Democratic pick-ups could come in the Midwest. While we think the GOP could claw back one or two of these states — Iowa, Kansas and Wisconsin are the picks we are the least confident in — we thought the data and the year’s overall trends pointed to the Democrats in each of these states individually.

Besides the national environment, there may just be a fatigue with eight years of conservative GOP rule in places such as Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, particularly in a time of conservative governance in Washington. The public are idiosyncratic and often want what they do not have; the same dynamic helped Trump win many states in the Midwest after eight years of a liberal Democratic president.”

That would be an absolutely earth-shaking shift, from a situation in which Republicans hold twice as many governorships to one in which Democrats hold slightly more than Republicans do.

The governor’s mansions that Sabato and Kondik predict will flip from Republican to Democrat are Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Maine. The only places Republicans have even a shot to win a seat held by a Democrat at present are Connecticut and Oregon.

Other forecasters are more conservative than the Crystal Ball folks; for instance, the Cook Political Report rates most of those races as toss-ups, and FiveThirtyEight has a more complex set of ratings that shows most of those races heading in the direction of the Democrat. But it looks likely that Democrats will get big gains at the state level and could even run the table on these races. If the blue wave is as big as it could be, it would tip many of those close races over to the Democrat. Even without that, there are multiple important races, such as in Illinois and Michigan, where the Democrat is clearly ahead.

If more of those races fall to the Democratic side, the consequences would be enormous. In the short run, there would be substantial policy changes as many of these states move from unified Republican rule — under which Republicans went hog-wild passing conservative legislation — to one where the parties have to work together, or even one where Democrats have complete control. There are also multiple states where one or both chambers of the legislature could flip from red to blue if Democrats have a big night.

Think about a place such as Wisconsin, which we used to think about as the prototypical Midwestern swing state. In the Republican wave year of 2010, Scott Walker was elected governor and Republicans seized control of both houses of the legislature. They immediately went on a tear, waging war on the state’s unions and creating gerrymandered districts that solidified their control. The state government there produces a governing approach you would expect to find in a deep red state such as Alabama instead of a swing state.

This year, however, Walker is trailing Democrat Tony Evers in most polls, and the state senate could flip to the Democrats as well. If Evers wins, it could change everything.

That is true in policy terms, of course — even if Republicans were to hold both houses of the legislature, they wouldn’t be able to get reactionary legislation past the governor’s veto, so they would have to compromise. Then we get to where some of the most important long-term consequences are: redistricting.

The governors elected this year will be in office when their states redistrict after the 2020 Census, which means they will be in a position to stop the kind of brutal gerrymandering Republicans undertook after 2010. In Ohio, for instance, the congressional delegation is now 12 Republicans and only four Democrats. In Georgia it is ten Republicans and four Democrats. In Michigan it’s nine Republicans and five Democrats. If Democrats have a say in redistricting, those numbers will almost inevitably change.

And it isn’t just Congress; states will be redrawing their state legislative districts as well. If Democrats aren’t shut out of the process, they can demand some measure of fairness.

One of the most important stories in American politics in the past few years has been the way the GOP has worked so hard to alter the rules of the game once it gets power to make sure that it keeps it, even when it has the support of fewer voters than Democrats do. They have been enormously successful at making that happen through gerrymandering and voter suppression. But if enough Democrats get elected governor, the timing is right to undo some of what they have done and make the system more fair and representative. At least for a few years.

Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog