The 38 Governors races on the ballot in 2017 and 2018 may end up being the biggest story of the cycle. There is a lot at stake for both parties as most of the Governors elected this cycle will be in office in 2021 when the next round of redistricting takes place. Thus, there is no time like the present to unveil the first iteration of gubernatorial ratings of the cycle.
In the current line up, Republicans hold 33 of the 50 governorships to 16 for Democrats and one independent. This means that the GOP has more exposure and thus will be playing defense in more states. Of the 38 races, each party has an open seat up in 2017, as Republicans defend their seat in New Jersey where Gov. Chris Christie is term limited, and Democrats work to hold their seat in Virginia where Gov. Terry McAuliffe is limited to just one term under state law.
In 2018, Republicans have 26 seats up, at least 16 of which will be open largely due to term limits. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has not indicated whether he plans to seek a seventh term, while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hasn’t yet decided on a third term. The seven Republican Governors first elected in 2014 and the two first elected in 2016 are all expected to run again in 2018.
Democrats have just nine seats up in 2018, including three that will be open. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy are both eligible to seek third terms. As of this writing, both are expected to run. Two Democratic Governors first elected in 2014 are poised to seek second terms, as is Oregon Gov. Kate Brown who won a special election last month and must run for a full term in 2018.
Finally, the nation’s only independent Governor – Bill Walker of Alaska – is expected to seek a second term in 2018.
As evidenced by the lengthy Governors At-A-Glance chart, the open seats have generated a great deal of interest among a diverse array of potential candidates. In some states, the number of potential candidates will winnow over the next year, but will grow in others. Open seats are likely to produce competitive primaries for both parties.
Assigning ratings to races at the start of any cycle is never an easy task, particularly when there are so many open seats.
There are a few guidelines that were employed in this process. First, no incumbent starts a cycle in the Toss Up column. Do we expect Illinois GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to have difficult races? Absolutely, but first they need announced first-tier opposition.
Second, although presidential performance is not a perfect measurement in Governors races, it does play a role when it comes to assigning ratings. This is particularly true of open seats.
Overall, Democrats only have one seat up in 2018 that Trump carried – Pennsylvania R+1. By contrast, Republicans must defend seats in eight states that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried, including the open seat in New Jersey. This partly explains why open seats in states like Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico are in Toss Up. Once candidates announce or nominations are decided, some of these states may well get assigned less competitive ratings. If, for example, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall decides to run in New Mexico, his candidacy might be enough to put that race in Lean Democrat.
Presidential performance is not always a useful tool when it comes to incumbent Governors. There are several good examples this cycle. In Massachusetts, GOP Gov. Charlie Baker is expected to seek a second term in a state that Clinton carried by 27 points. The same is true for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in Maryland. But, both are very popular, making Democratic efforts to defeat them a very uphill battle despite how solidly blue these states are.
Finally, it is worth remembering that the “Likely” columns really serve as a watch list. Races can land here for any number of reasons. Democrat Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, a reliably blue state, is in the Likely Democrat column simply because of the outsized role third-party candidates have played in the last two gubernatorial contests, thus making this race worth keeping an eye on. Three of the four GOP incumbents sitting in very blue states – Baker in Massachusetts, Hogan in Maryland and Scott in Vermont – are in the Likely Republican column as a reminder that their races could get more competitive if the political landscape turns decisively against their party.
Given the stakes and the number of open seats, both parties spent time and resources during the 2016 cycle focused on 2018. This will not be a dull cycle. Click here for the PDF.