The 2018 Gubernatorial Races that Matter Most for 2020 and Beyond

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham speaks to voters in Miami Lakes, Florida, on August 18, 2018.

Capturing control of state governments in 2010 proved to be a crucial step for Republicans in engineering a dominant position in American politics for the past decade. They used their power in the states to entrench themselves in office by gerrymandering both congressional and state legislative districts after the 2010 census, changing critical voting rules and procedures, and passing legislation such as “right to work” laws weakening unions and rewarding the wealthy donors to their campaigns.

With the 2018 election, Democrats have a chance to recover some power in the states in advance of the 2020 presidential election and the redistricting that will follow the 2020 census. In the gubernatorial races, Republicans are defending 26 of the 33 seats they hold, while Democrats are defending 9 of 16 (the one remaining is in Alaska, currently held by an independent). These races include major pick-up opportunities for Democrats in states where Republicans have used their power for purposes of partisan entrenchment.

The Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate none of the states that currently have Democratic governors as “leaning Republican,” and only two states with Republican incumbents (Illinois and New Mexico) as “leaning Democratic.” But both forecasters see many more toss-up races in states currently held by Republicans than in states held by Democrats. For Cook, these Republican-held toss-up states are Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, and Ohio. Sabato’s Crystal Ball also puts Wisconsin in the toss-up category but rates Kansas as leaning Republican. The seats rated toss-ups now held by Democrats are in Connecticut (according to both forecasters) and Colorado (according to Sabato). Both forecasters rate Alaska’s gubernatorial race a toss-up too.

A convenient Washington Post map identifies which state elections this year could affect redistricting for the next decade. Putting that information together with the forecasters’ toss-up ratings and a report from the Brennan Center on “extreme” partisan gerrymanders, we can get at least a first cut on understanding how the most competitive gubernatorial races could affect the future of Republican entrenchment in the states.

Of the states with toss-up races, there are four where a Democratic gubernatorial victory could break up a one-party Republican government and have a big influence on the 2020 election and beyond. Perhaps not surprisingly, these are Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Three others—Iowa, Nevada, and Colorado—could also prove pivotal because of their possible role as battleground states in 2020.

In the Big Four, the general election candidates remain to be chosen only in Florida, where Gwen Graham, a former member of Congress and the daughter of former governor and senator Bob Graham, appears likely to win next Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Recent trends in voter registration and other data on Florida’s electorate have not been encouraging for Democrats about their chances in the state (a worrisome development also for Bill Nelson, the Democratic senator in Florida seeking re-election). But Gwen Graham has polled well against her potential Republican opponents, and as a candidate who emphasizes practical issues with potential cross-over appeal, she fits the predominant pattern in Democratic gubernatorial campaigns this year. Gretchen Whitmer, the winner of the Democratic primary in Michigan, epitomizes the approach with her campaign slogan, “Fix the Damn Roads.”

This kind of politics may trouble progressives who argue that the number of genuine swing voters in a polarized America has become vanishingly small and that Democrats should concentrate on mobilizing their electoral base, particularly in low-income and minority communities. Whatever truth that may have in national elections, it doesn’t seem to apply to gubernatorial races in the many states where voters have been swinging back and forth between the parties. This year it’s conceivable, as Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, points out, that “Republicans could sweep all six governorships in New England,” while Democrats could sweep the six gubernatorial races in the Midwest even though all of those states’ governorships except Minnesota’s are currently held by Republicans.

Nonetheless, this year’s gubernatorial elections are going to be important in setting the conditions for national politics in 2020. The outcome in the Big Four gubernatorial races may determine who has the edge in the decisive battlegrounds. Wresting control of the electoral machinery from Republicans in those states could prove vital in stopping voter suppression and raising turnout.  

There may also be sleeper races where gubernatorial candidates break through, win improbable victories, and emerge as leaders in national politics. With so few governorships, Democrats nationally have had a weak bench and a limited ability to test out ideas at the state level. The 2018 election is a critical chance for Democrats to reclaim lost ground. The consequences will be felt for a long time if they fail.

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