While most of the political world has been focused on special elections for vacant House seats and the developing congressional mid-term elections, the two gubernatorial contests that will take place this November and the 36 races on the ballot in 2018 have started to take shape.
Republicans are playing defense this cycle simply by virtue of the number of seats they must defend. They currently hold the open seats in New Jersey and Virginia that are up this year plus 25 of the 36 seats up next; Democrats have 10 seats up and one independent, Gov. Walker in Alaska, is seeking re-election.
Of the 50 governorships, Republicans hold 33, the most they’ve held since 1928. Democrats have 16 and there is one independent. Democrats have nowhere to go but up, and they believe that they can make significant gains this cycle. Republicans are well aware that they are likely to lose seats. Their objective is to keep their losses at a minimum. Both parties look at these 38 races as the first phase of the redistricting process that will culminate in 2021. The Governors elected this cycle will be incumbents and most will have a pivotal role in the exercise of drawing congressional and state legislative districts.
This cycle’s gubernatorial contests are initially going to be defined by two factors: open seats and primaries. Of the 38 races, 19 are open. Five of the 10 Democratic-held seats are open, as are 14 of the 27 Republican-held seats. A vast majority of them are open because of term limits, but Democratic Govs. Dan Malloy (CT) and Mark Dayton (NM) have opted to retire rather than run for third terms. In fact, there might have been more open seats, but Robert Bentley’s resignation in Alabama, and President Trump’s appointment of South Carolina’s Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the United Nations – two incumbents that were term-limited – elevated Lieutenant Governors who can now run as incumbents. There is speculation that term-limited GOP Gov. Sam Brownback in Kansas may get an appointment in the Trump Administration, which would allow Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer to run as an incumbent and bring the number of GOP open seats to 13.
Open seats lend themselves to primaries and both parties are slated to host some epic battles. 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 some battles between more establishment candidates and progressives more aligned with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Whether progressives will have the same kind of momentum this cycle that Tea Party candidates had in 2010 is an open question.
Both sides are also seeing large primary fields form in some races even though the first filing deadline is almost six months away. In the open-seat contest in Colorado, each party already has five announced candidates. In the open-seat race in Minnesota, six Democrats and four Republicans have already announced their candidacies and that number is expected to grow. And in Iowa, six candidates are battling for the Democratic nomination and the right to challenge to newly minted GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds.
The existence of such large fields is an indication that the national and state parties aren’t intervening to anoint a frontrunner. Neither party believes it is wise to interfere in the nominating process in the current environment. Of course, resources are also an issue. Neither party has the resources to participate in numerous primaries and then adequately support their nominees in the general election.
One of the consequences of having many primaries is that it will take longer for the contours of the general election to take shape. In fact, it may be next summer before it becomes clear where each party stands heading into the general election.
At this point, three Democratic-held seats look safe: the open seat in California, and Govs. Andrew Cuomo in New York and David Ige in Hawaii. The top two primary system in California has served to shut Republicans out of a shot at statewide office. This is particularly true in next year’s gubernatorial contest. While Democrats will certainly hold the seat in Hawaii, Ige’s job approval ratings are very low, making him vulnerable to a primary challenge.
Govs. Kate Brown in Oregon and Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island are on our watch list and thus are in the Likely Democratic column. Both represent very Democratic states, but Republicans are looking to expand the playing field and believe that support for both these incumbents is soft. The Republican Governors Association has been taking particular aim at Raimondo in recent weeks. But, the onus to make these races competitive rests entirely with Republicans and their ability to nominate very strong challengers.
There are three races in the Lean Democratic column: the open seats in Virginia (2017) and Colorado, and Gov. Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania. Our take on Virginia was posted in last week’s update. Although Colorado is now considered a blue state, voters still elect Republicans to statewide office. Democrats have held the governorship since 2006 and voters may be getting restless. Both parties will host competitive primaries. In 2014, Wolf didn’t so much win the gubernatorial contest as GOP Gov. Tom Corbett lost it. Wolf’s job ratings make him vulnerable, but Republicans need the right candidate to elevate this to a Toss Up race.
The open seats in Connecticut and Minnesota are both in the Toss Up column. Solidly blue Connecticut seems an unlikely place to host a competitive gubernatorial contest, but the state’s economy is in tough shape as companies like General Electric and Aetna decamp to more business friendly states and the state budget is $5 billion in the red. In truth, Democrats are better off with an open seat than if Malloy had run, but Republicans will be very competitive here. One of things that became apparent in 2016 is that Minnesota remains more purple than blue. Both parties are hosting crowded primaries and the outcome of both those contests will determine how competitive this contest becomes in the general election, but after eight years of a Democratic Governor, voters might be ready for a change.
If Republicans are looking for silver linings in a challenging cycle, they can find one in that 11 of the 27 seats they have to defend are in the Solid Republican column. This includes the open seats in Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming, plus incumbent Govs. Hutchinson (AR), Reynolds (IA), Ricketts (NE), McMaster (SC) and Abbott (TX).
There are six seats on the watch list (Likely Republican), including the open seats in Kansas and Tennessee, and Govs. Doug Ducey (AZ), Larry Hogan (MD), Charlie Baker (MA) and Phil Scott (VT). Hogan, Baker and Scott earn this rating simply by sitting in very blue states. If the political environment nationally becomes toxic for Republicans, these incumbents may find themselves in danger, making these races worth watching. Brownback’s deep unpopularity in Kansas makes this normally solid red state a target for Democrats. In Tennessee, primaries will determine how competitive Democrats can make this race, but they are optimistic that they will end up with a first-tier nominee with broad appeal. And, Democrats have been arguing that Arizona is becoming a purple state since 2012. This cycle is no different when it comes to the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, but Democrats will need to produce a very competitive challenger to Ducey. Finally, if another race joins this column this year, it will be Georgia. Again, the outcome each party’s respective primaries will make the difference here.
Govs. Chris Sununu in New Hampshire and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and the open seat in Ohio are in the Lean Republican column. While New Hampshire tends to re-elect its incumbents after the first two-year term, Sununu’s narrow victory in 2016 puts this race on Democrats’ target list. Walker is running for a third term, which is a difficult proposition for an incumbent of either party. That said, Walker has demonstrated tremendous staying power though two general elections and a recall, and is known for running very solid campaigns. Wisconsin is a swing state, but Democrats will need a very strong challenger to make this a Toss Up race. Both parties are hosting primaries in Ohio. If both produce first-tier nominees, this contest will be very competitive.
Of the five Republicans seats in the Toss Up column, four of them are open: Florida, Maine, Michigan and Nevada. Expect both parties to hold contested primaries in all these races. Maine is something of an outlier here, but both sides are waiting decisions from potential challengers that will impact the race. If, for example, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins runs, Republicans’ chances of holding this seat greatly improve. The fifth seat is in Illinois where GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner is seeking a second term. Rauner has been under siege for much of his term in a stand off with the Democratic-controlled legislature over the state’s budget – or rather, the lack of one. The frontrunner 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. As a Republican in a very blue state, Rauner is the most vulnerable incumbent seeking re-election next year.
The open seat in New Mexico is in the Lean Democratic column. While Democrats are facing a primary, any of three announced candidates can win a general election. By contrast, Republicans are struggling to find a first-tier candidate. After eight years of a Republican Governor, who is now unpopular, voters seem ready for a change.
The open-seat contest in New Jersey, which will take place this November, is in the Likely Democratic column. Earlier this month, Democrats nominated Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs senior director and former Ambassador to Germany, while Republicans chose Kim Guadagno, the current Lieutenant Governor. GOP Gov. Chris Christie is very unpopular, which makes Guadagno’s task in this race exponentially harder. Recent polls put Murphy over 50 percent and Guadagno trailing by double digits. After having a Republican Governor for eight years, voters in this blue state appear to be ready for a change of direction.
It is far too early in the process to predict a range of gains and losses. Suffice it to say that Republicans will lose seats. How many seats they lose will depend on a range of factors from the national political environment to the outcome of primaries. If little attention is being paid to Governors races this year, they will become a bigger and more interesting story next year.