A Wicked Early Look At Governor’s Races in 2021 and 2022

In a recent post, I assessed it was fairly likely Republicans regain control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) in 2022. In this post, I turn my attention to the two gubernatorial elections to be held in 2021 (New Jersey, Virginia) and the 36 gubernatorial elections to be held in 2022. My goal is to provide the view from 30,000 feet: what the “fundamentals” in each race reveal about the overall partisan landscape—and how likely it is Democrats cut into the current 27-23 Republican gubernatorial advantage.

“Fundamentals” are the sum of three values:

  1. State partisan lean, measured using my three-year-weighted relative Democratic margin (“3W-RDM”), or weighted[1] three-election average of the difference between a state’s Democratic (minus Republican) margin in a presidential election and the Democratic (minus Republican) margin in the total national vote in that election. For updated 3W-RDM following the 2020 presidential election, see here.
  2. Estimated incumbency advantage (incumbent office-holders tend to receive a higher percentage of the vote than an open-seat candidate of the same party).
  3. National partisan lean, measured by the “generic ballot” question (variations on “If the election for were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or some other candidate?”)

**********

To estimate incumbency advantage in gubernatorial elections, I first calculated an “expected margin of victory” for the Democratic nominee in the 14 gubernatorial elections in 2019 (3[2]) and 2020 (11) and the 38 gubernatorial elections in 2017 (2) and 2018 (36); New Hampshire and Vermont elect governors every two years. I had previously estimated the effect of gubernatorial incumbency using two full cycles, but I decided to keep these calculations in line with those for Senate incumbency (last three cycles: 2016, 2018, 2020) as possible.

“Expected margin of victory” is state 3W-RDM plus the difference between the Democratic percentage and Republican percentage of all gubernatorial votes cast in each two-year period:

2019-20 = D-7.0 percentage points (“points”)

2017-18 = D+3.5 points

After subtracting actual margin from “expected” margin, I calculated three averages of these differences within each election year:

  1. Races with Democratic incumbents
  2. Races with Republican incumbents
  3. Open-seat races

Within each two-year election cycle, then, the effect of incumbency for Democratic candidates for governor is the first average minus the third average (D+23.3 in 2019-20, D+2.0 in 2017-18), while the Republican advantage is the second average minus the third average (R+10.9, R+17.3). And the estimated effect of incumbency for each party is this calculation using all 52 elections: +10.4 points for Democrats and +13.9 points for Republicans. If an incumbent has served less than a full four-year term –  as Rhode Island’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee has since Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo was sworn in as Secretary of Commerce – I multiply incumbency advantage by the percentage of term served, using an approximation of 50% for McKee.

The effect of incumbency for gubernatorial elections remains very strong: heading into the 2019-20 cycle it was D+5.7 and R+8.5 (albeit based on 104 elections over eight years).

**********

We now turn to the elections themselves…and immediately face the problem of estimating partisan lean as of November 2022. In 2022 House elections post, I estimated that the current partisan lean is Dem+3.5, though with an average of 14.3% of the electorate undecided or leaning toward third-party candidates. If the vote for third-party candidates is 1.5%, and true undecideds split 2-1 Republican, partisan lean is GOP+0.7. Even that latter number may be wishful thinking for Democrats – Democrats (in governor’s races, anyway) led 3.5 points in 2018, the last time a newly-elected president – in this case Republican Donald J. Trump – faced a first midterm election.

To account for this uncertainty, we explore three different scenarios in 2019-20:

  • Democrats win national House vote by 3.5 points, as current polls suggest
  • Democrats and Republicans split national House vote, after a sharp break by undecideds toward the out party
  • Republicans win national House vote by 3.5 points, in line with recent elections

Election data – unless otherwise specified – come from Dave Leip’s invaluable website.

2021 gubernatorial elections (November 2):

NameStateRun 20213W-RDMINCNat LeanTotalLast marginFirst elected
Phil MurphyNJYes12.010.43.525.914.2%2017
     022.4  
     -3.518.9  
Ralph NorthamVANo3.903.57.4N/AN/A
     03.9  
     -3.50.4  

In New Jersey, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy seeks reelection against Republican Jack Ciattarelli. New Jersey’s strong Democratic lean and incumbency advantage suggest Murphy will cruise to reelection irrespective of the national political environment. Two publicly-available polls of this election, conducted in May 2021 by B/C level pollsters, show Murphy ahead by an average 50-31%, which aligns with a pro-Republican environment.

In Virginia, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam is limited to one term, so former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe will face Republican Glenn Youngkin. Virginia has been trending sharply Democratic, but without the advantages of “direct” incumbency (I am not sure how to assess “formers”), McAuliffe is only modestly favored to win back the job he left in 2018. So long as the environment is pro-Democrat or neutral, McAuliffe should prevail by 3-8 points…but if it shifts pro-Republican, this race becomes a pure toss-up. Two publicly-available polls of this election, conducted in June 2021 by B/C level pollsters, show McAuliffe ahead by an average 47-44%, which aligns with a neutral environment.

California Governor Gavin Newson will also face a recall election sometime in 2021. It is actually two elections. The first is a “yes” or “no” on Newsom. If “yes” prevails, Newsom remains governor. If “no” prevails, Newsom is booted and voters then choose from a slate of candidates excluding Newsom. Based solely on the recent improvement in California’s finances, I expect Newsom to survive the first vote relatively easily.

Bottom line: While Virginia could be close, Democrats are unlikely to lose any governor’s mansions in 2021.

2022 gubernatorial elections – 16 Democratic incumbents/open seats (November 8):

NameStateRun 20223W-RDMINCNat LeanTotalLast marginFirst elected
David IgeHINo29.00.03.532.5N/A
     029.0  
     -3.525.5  
Gavin NewsomCA???24.910.43.538.823.9%2018
     035.3  
     -3.531.8  
Andrew CuomoNY???20.210.43.534.123.4%2010
     031.6  
     -3.527.1  
Dan McKeeRIYes16.65.23.525.32021
     0.021.8  
     -3.518.3  
Ned LamontCTYes13.910.43.527.83.2%2018
     0.024.3  
     -3.520.8  
J.B. PritzkerILYes13.310.43.526.215.7%2018
     0.023.7  
     -3.519.2  
Kate BrownORYes10.10.03.513.6N/A
     0.010.1  
     -3.56.6  
Michelle Lujan GrishamNMYes6.310.43.520.214.4%2018
     0.016.7  
     -3.513.2  
Jared PolisCOYes5.710.43.519.610.6%2018
     0.016.1  
     -3.512.6  
Janet MillsMEYes4.510.43.518.47.7%2018
     0.014.9  
     -3.511.4  
Tim WalzMNYes1.810.43.515.711.4%2018
     0.012.2  
     -3.58.7  
Steve SisolakNVYes-0.510.43.513.44.1%2018
     0.09.9  
     -3.56.4  
Gretchen WhitmerMIYes-0.710.43.513.29.6%2018
     0.09.7  
     -3.56.2  
Tom WolfPANo-2.30.03.51.2N/A
     0.0-2.3  
     -3.5-5.8  
Tony EversWIYes-2.410.43.511.51.1%2018
     0.08.0  
     -3.54.5  
Laura KellyKSYes-21.310.43.5-7.45.1%2018
     0.0-10.9  
     -3.5-14.4  

With the exception of Kansas, these are either strong Democratic states, Democratic-leaning states or swing states, minimizing obvious losses; the average partisan lean is D+7.4, D+9.4 without Kansas. And even if Newsom loses the recall vote, Democrats are still favored to regain that governor’s mansion, along with those in Hawaii, New York, Connecticut and Illinois. One fly in the ointment in New York is whether embattled Governor Andrew Cuomo seeks a fourth term, though I expect the Democratic nominee to prevail easily if he does not.

Democratic incumbents are also favored in New Mexico, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada and Michigan – as is the Democratic nominee in the seat being vacated by Oregon Governor Kate Brown. However, it is unlikely Mills, Sisolak and Whitmer will win by more than even their relatively modest margins in 2018. Regardless of the margins, though, Democrats are favored to retain 13 of the 16 governor’s mansion they will defend in 2022.

That leaves – in reverse order of retention likelihood – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Kansas. Tony Evers benefitted from a strong pro-Democratic environment and unpopular incumbent Scott Walker seeking a third term in 2018, yet still only won by 1.1 points in Republican-drifting Wisconsin. Incumbency makes him a narrow favorite to win again; the 4.5 points suggested by a pro-Republican environment feels about right. Tom Wolf is term-limited after defeating a Republican incumbent in 2014 by nearly 10 points, then winning reelection four years later by nearly 17 points. Pennsylvania, like Wisconsin, is drifting Republican, and it has a history – albeit broken by Wolf – of  flipping its governor’s mansion between the two parties every eight years. Thus, the fundamentals suggest Republicans are modest favorites to win it back in 2022 – unless Democratic front-runner Josh Shapiro, currently state Attorney General, secures the nomination against a divided and little-known Republican field. Finally, Laura Kelly – who won an open gubernatorial election in Kansas in 2018 against a very unpopular opponent in Kris Kobach, succeeding even more unpopular Republican governor Sam Brownback – is a solid underdog based on the fundamentals.

Pennsylvania Attorney General is likely Democrats’ best chance to retain the commonwealth’s governor’s mansion.

Bottom line: Democrats will likely lose one, and possibly two or three, of the 16 governor’s mansions they will defend in 2022.

2022 gubernatorial elections – 20 Republican incumbents/open seats (November 8):

NameStateRun 20223W-RDMINCNat LeanTotalLast marginFirst elected
Phil ScottVT???28.9-13.93.515.041.1%2016
     011.5  
     -3.58.0  
Larry HoganMDNo26.20.03.529.7N/A
     026.2  
     -3.522.7  
Charlie BakerMA???26.1-13.93.515.733.5%2014
     012.2  
     -3.58.7  
Chris SununuNH???1.2-13.93.5-9.231.8%2016
     0.0-12.7  
     -3.5-16.2  
Ron DeSantisFLYes-5.5-13.93.5-15.90.4%2018
     0.0-19.4  
     -3.5-22.9  
Doug DuceyAZNo-6.10.03.5-2.6N/A
     0.0-6.1  
     -3.5-9.6  
Brian KempGAYes-6.4-13.93.5-16.81.4%2018
     0.0-20.3  
     -3.5-23.8  
Kim ReynoldsIAYes-9.8-13.93.5-20.28.7%2017
     0.0-23.7  
     -3.5-27.2  
Mike DeWineOHYes-9.8-13.93.5-20.23.7%2018
     0.0-23.7  
     -3.5-27.2  
Greg AbbottTXYes-12.0-13.93.5-22.413.0%2014
     0.0-25.9  
     -3.5-29.4  
Mike DunleavyAKYes-15.8-13.93.5-26.27.0%2018
     0.0-29.7  
     -3.5-33.2  
Henry McMasterSCYes-15.9-13.93.5-26.38.0%2017
     0.0-29.8  
     -3.5-33.3  
Pete RickettsNENo-25.10.03.5-21.6N/A
     0.0-25.1  
     -3.5-28.6  
Bill LeeTNYes-27.2-13.93.5-37.621.0%2018
     0.0-41.1  
     -3.5-44.6  
Kay IveyALYes-29.2-13.93.5-39.619.1%2017
     0.0-43.1  
     -3.5-46.6  
Kristi NoemSDYes-29.6-13.93.5-40.03.4%2018
     0.0-43.5  
     -3.5-47.0  
Asa HutchinsonARNo-30.30.03.5-26.8N/A
     0.0-30.3  
     -3.5-33.8  
Brad LittleIDYes-34.8-13.93.5-45.221.6%2018
     0.0-48.7  
     -3.5-52.2  
Kevin StittOKYes-37.8-13.93.5-48.212.1%2018
     0.0-51.7  
     -3.5-55.2  
Mark GordonWYYes-47.5-13.93.5-57.939.6%2018
     0.0-61.4  
     -3.5-64.9  

Like Democrats, Republicans are defending governor’s mansion on very favorable turf -with four glaring exceptions in New England and Maryland; the average partisan lean of these 20 states is R+13.0, but take away the four swing/strong Democratic states, and it jumps to R+21.4.

And while many of the margins in the table above seem ludicrous – I suspect incumbency advantage dissipates when your party dominates – Republican governors are heavy favorites to win reelection in Tennessee, Alabama, South Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming, while holding onto open governor’s mansions in Nebraska and Arkansas. Henry McMaster in South Carolina, Mike Dunleavy in Alaska and Kim Reynolds in Iowa should also win reelection, perhaps hitting low double-digits in what could be a good Republican year.

Assuming Greg Abbott seeks a third term as governor of Texas, he should win reelection – if he can survive primary challenges from his right. It is unlikely the collapse of Texas’ power grid earlier this year will impact voting. The same is true of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who only defeated Democrat Richard Cordray by 3.7 points in 2018, in a state nearly 10 points more Republican than the nation as a whole.

Similarly, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by just 1.4 points in 2018, albeit in a very Democratic year. IF she runs again, as she has strongly hinted, and if Kemp himself survives a primary challenge, this is a sleeper pickup opportunity for Democrats.

Will former Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abrams run for governor again in 2022?

Another sleeper pickup opportunity is Arizona, where Governor Doug Ducey is term-limited. Like Georgia, Arizona both voted for Democrat Joseph R. Biden, Jr. in 2020 and in the space of two elections went from two Republican United States Senators (“Senators”) to Democratic ones. Just as Ohio, Iowa and Florida are becoming more Republican, Arizona and Georgia are becoming more Democratic – or, rather, less Republican. A Democratic nominee like state Secretary of State Katie Hobbs would still be at best a slight underdog, as would be Abrams.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs could be the Democratic nominee for governor in Arizona in 2022.

Speaking of Florida, Ron DeSantis – who only won the open governor’s mansion in 2018 by 0.4 points – is clearly using a solid reelection in 2022 to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. And, despite coming very close in recent elections, a Democrat has not been elected governor of Florida since 1994. As a Republican running for reelection in a state 5.5 points more Republican than the nation as whole in what could be a good Republican year, DeSantis should win easily. And yet…those recent narrow margins – especially the 1.1-point margin in the strong Republican year of 2014 give me pause, and suggest this should be in the sleeper column with Arizona and Georgia.

That leaves Maryland and the three New England states, where moderate or center-right Republicans continue to win gubernatorial elections. Maryland, where Larry Hogan is term-limited, is by far the strongest opportunity for Democrats to win back a governor’s mansion in 2022: even in a strong Republican year, a generic Democratic nominee is still heavily favored. As for the three New England states, the only question is whether Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Chris Sununu in New Hampshire and/or Phil Scott in Vermont seek reelection. Sununu is being heavily recruited to run against Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan; if he runs, the gubernatorial election becomes a pure toss-up. Moreover, if Baker and/or Scott – whose average margin of victory in their previous elections was 37.3 points – do not seek reelection, the Democratic nominee would be heavily favored to win. If either does run, though, he would be the favorite – though Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey could make things very interesting for Baker.

Will state Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, be the next governor of Massachusetts?

Bottom line: On paper, Republicans are very likely to lose one governor’s mansion (Maryland), could easily lose another one-to-three (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont) under the right circumstances, and could see another three become more competitive (Arizona, Florida, Georgia). Outside of Maryland, Republican success hinges upon whether incumbents seek reelection in New England, how right-wing primary challenges fare and just how Republican 2022 proves to be – if it is at all.

Overall outlook. The bad news for Democrats is that unless they maintain high levels of voting enthusiasm, Republicans could do very well in 2022 – though not in 2021. The good news for Democrats is that they have more overall opportunities. Based solely on the fundamentals, they have at most three vulnerable seats – they are a heavy underdog in Kansas, a slight underdog in Pennsylvania, and only a slight favorite in Wisconsin – while Republicans could have anywhere from one to seven (though keep an eye on Texas). Realistically, however, Democrats are likely to lose one or two of their governor’s mansions while netting one-to-three, putting them somewhere between a net loss of one and a net gain of two. All things considered, though, what amounts to a draw could be considered a win for Democrats in 2022.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] Most recent election weighted “3,” 2nd-most recent “2,” 3rd-most recent “1”

[2] For the 2019 Louisiana gubernatorial election, I used data from the runoff election held November 16, 2019.

Published by

Matt Berger

I am a data geek, writer, investigator and film noir devotee with academic training in political science (Yale BA, Harvard MA), biostatistics (Boston University SPH MA) and epidemiology (Boston University SPH PhD). In January 2021, I finished writing Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History...and My Own for which I seek literary representation and a publisher. In Chapter 6: So...What Is Film Noir, Again?, I analyze my film noir database, which contains 4,825 titles. My musical holy trinity is Genesis, Miles Davis and Stan Ridgway. I am a liberal Democrat who understands a thriving democracy requires at least two mature political parties. I grew up just outside Philadelphia, and I live just outside Boston, where my wife and daughters keep me happy, sane and grounded. Please ask me anything else you want to know.

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