Having previously analyzed Democratic prospects in the 2018 midterm elections for U.S. House (House; here and here) and Senate (Senate; here), I now examine what I think are the most important elections for both parties in 2017 and 2018—those for governor.
In an age of increasing partisan polarization and Congressional gridlock, governors have emerged as crucial policy leaders far from Washington DC. On the conservative side are recent innovations by Republican Governors such as Sam Brownback of Kansas, Scott Walker of Wisconsin (prompting an unsuccessful 2012 recall election) and Rick Snyder of Michigan. Governors could choose whether or not to accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, as Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio continues to note.
More recently, Democratic Governors have attempted to block Trump Adminstration actions. Washington’s Jay Inslee was a key leader in blocking iterations of the travel ban. California’s Jerry Brown has emerged as a leader on climate change, especially after President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.
Currently, there are 16 Democratic governors, 33 Republican governors and one Independent governor (Bill Walker of Alaska). Thus, of the 38 elections for governor scheduled for 2017 (New Jersey, Virginia) and 2018 (36, including New Hampshire and Vermont, who hold gubernatorial elections every two years), 27 are currently held by Republicans, offering a potentially target-rich opportunity for Democrats.
Just bear with me while I review some recent electoral history.
When Barack Obama won his first presidential election in 2008, Democrats also netted one governor’s mansion, giving them a 29-21 edge.
On January 21, 2009, Arizona’s Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, became Secretary of Homeland Security. She was succeeded, under the Arizona Constitution, by the Republican Secretary of State, Jan Brewer. That November, in a further ominous sign of things to come, Democrats lost governorships in New Jersey (Republican Chris Christie unseated Democrat Jon Corzine) and Virginia (Republican Bob McDonnell won an open seat).
Democrats 26, Republicans 24.
During the 2010 midterm elections, as Republicans were recapturing the House, Democrats lost six governorships, while Republicans gained five and Independents gained one (Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island).
Republicans 29, Democrats 20, Independent 1.
Over the next three years, there was no net change in the partisan distribution of governorships. The four gubernatorial elections in 2011 were a wash: both Republican seats stayed Republican, and both Democratic seats stayed Democratic. In 2012, Republicans netted one governorship, as Republican Pat McCrory won an open seat in North Carolina from retiring Democratic governor Bev Perdue. And in 2013, while Christie cruised to reelection by 22.1 percentage points, Democrat Terry McAuliffe edged out Republican Ed Gillespie by 2.5 percentage points (Virginia governors are limited to a single four-year term).
In 2014, however, the wheels really came off for Democrats, as they lost nine Senate seats, and control of the Senate, while losing 12 additional House seats. They also lost a net of two governorships: Republicans Asa Hutchinson, Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker won open Democratic-held governor’s mansions in Arkansas, Maryland and Massachusetts, respectively, while Republican Bruce Rauner defeated incumbent Democratic governor Pat Quinn in Illinois. On the flip side, Democrat Tom Wolf defeated incumbent Republican Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, and Democrat Gina Raimondo won an open seat in Rhode Island (Independent Chafee did not seek reelection), while Walker defeated incumbent Republican governor Sean Parnell in Alaska.
Republicans 31, Democrats 18, Independent 1.
The three gubernatorial elections in 2015 were again a wash, with open seats in Kentucky flipping Republican (Matt Bevin) and Democratic in Louisiana (Jon Bel Edwards). Finally, in 2016, Republicans netted an additional two governor’s mansions, winning open seats in Missouri (Eric Greitens), New Hampshire (Chris Sununu) and Vermont (Phil Scott), while Democrat Roy Cooper upset McCrory in North Carolina.
Republicans 33, Democrats 16, Independent 1
In other words, since Obama assumed the presidency on January 20, 2009, Democrats have lost 13 governorship (Republicans +12, Independents +1), as well as 62 House and 11 Senate seats.
For Democrats simply to break even in governor’s mansions (or pull within one, if Alaska reelects Walker in 2018), they would need to net nine of them (or Republicans would have to lose eight of them).
That is a tall order for a single two-year election cycle, but there is every reason to believe Democrats can make up substantial ground in the 2017 and 2018 gubernatorial elections.
Table 1: Governor Elections in 2017 and 2018
||Ave. Margin Prior 2 Races, Incumbent Party
|C.L. “Butch” Otter
* From a Morning Consult poll of 85,000+ respondents in all states (except South Carolina), January to March 2017.
† For Rhode Island 2010, the margin is Democrat minus Republican, despite the victory of Independent Chafee. For Colorado 2010, the margin is Democrat minus American Constitution Party (who nominated former Republican Representative Tom Tancredo). For Alaska, the margins are Independent minus Republican (2014) and Democrat minus Republican (2010). New Hampshire and Vermont hold gubernatorial elections every two years, so this is the average of 2014 and 2016. For Maine 2010, the margin is Republican minus Independent, as LePage’s closest competitor was Independent Eliot Cutler.
†† Brown became governor February 18, 2015 when John Kitzhaber resigned amid scandal, then won reelection in 2016. Reynolds became governor May 24, 2017 when Terry Brandstad became Ambassador to China. McMaster became governor January 24, 2017 when Nikki Haley became Ambassador to the United Nations. Ivey became governor April 10, 2017 when Robert Bentley resigned amid scandal.
††† Margin includes the regularly-scheduled 2010 and 2014 elections, as well as the June 2012 recall election
Table 1 (for which I am indebted, in part, to here) lists, for every governor’s race in 2017 (italicized) and 2018, whether an incumbent will be seeking reelection (if known; open seats tend to be closer), the average margin of victory in the previous two gubernatorial elections for the current governor’s party, and the net approval rating (percent approving minus percent disapproving) in an April 2017 Morning Consult poll.
The potential for Democratic governorship gains in 2017-18 is clear: Republicans are defending governor’s mansions in nine states which lean at least 2.0 points more Democratic than the nation (using my 3W-RDM measure of how much more or less Democratic a state’s presidential vote has been than the national presidential vote over the last three elections, weighted for recency) and in an additional five states no more than six points more Republican than the nation. Democrats, by contrast, are defending only one governor’s mansion in a state (Pennsylvania) less than 1.5 points more Democratic than the nation.
In the rest of this post, I will briefly analyze all 38 gubernatorial elections in 2017 and 2018, organized by party and from most to least vulnerable. This analysis is based solely upon the partisan lean of the state, previous winning margins and the incumbent governor’s popularity (or unpopularity), ignoring possible partisan “waves” and (for the most part) opposition candidate quality.
Republicans. Let’s get 2017 out of the way first. Christie is the least popular governor in the nation, with a -46% net approval rating. And while he won his two elections by a solid 12.8 percentage points, on average, New Jersey is a Democratic state (+12.0). Put it this way: if Democrats do NOT win the 2017 New Jersey governor’s race, they should disband as a political party.
There are four other 2018 gubernatorial elections in Democratic-leaning states in which a Republican governor is retiring: Maine (+5.9), Michigan (+2.2), Nevada (+2.0) and New Mexico (+6.5). In Maine, Michigan and New Mexico, the current Republican governors average a -7% net approval rating and won relatively close elections in very good Republican years (2010, 2014). These three states are thus probably the best opportunities for Democrats to win back governor’s mansions in 2018. Nevada, by contrast, has a very popular governor in Brian Sandoval (+42), who won his two elections by an average of 29.2 percentage points, making it a harder pick-up for the Democrats than the state’s Democratic lean would suggest.
Six Republican governors will seek reelection in 2018 in Democratic-leaning or swing states, with five having won either a single close election (average margin 4.1 percentage points) or three relatively close elections (Walker, by an average 6.1 percentage points). Baker, Hogan and Scott govern very Democratic states (average=+24.1), but they are also remarkably popular (average=+56%), making them (at this point) likely favorites to win reelection. On the flip side, however, are Bruce Rauner (Illinois, +14.7), Walker (+0.7) and Sununu (+0.1). While Rauner and Walker have an average net approval of -6%, Sununu is quite popular (+33%). Thus, Illinois and Wisconsin should also be at the top of the Democratic target list in 2018, while Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont have popular Republican incumbents who may be hard to beat in 2018.
Florida is the ultimate swing state, albeit one that leans Republican (-3.4) at the presidential level. Retiring Republican governor Rick Scott (net approval +21%) won both his 2010 and 2014 elections by only 1.1 percentage points (even as Republicans were winning the gubernatorial vote in 2013-14 by 4.4 percentage points and in 2009-10 by 1.3 percentage points). If I were a Democratic strategist, I would add Florida to Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and Wisconsin as top targets to retake governor’s mansions (and I would certainly keep an eye on Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire and Vermont).
After that it gets…trickier. Donald Trump won Iowa and Ohio by 8.7 percentage points, on average, in 2016; these two states now average 5.2 percentage points more Republican than the nation in presidential elections. Kasich, who is term-limited, won his two elections by 16.3 percentage points, on average, just above the average 15.7% percentage point victory margin for Branstad, before becoming Ambassador to China in May 2017, elevating Lieutenant Governor Reynolds to governor. If Reynolds seeks reelection in 2018, she is probably a heavy favorite. However, the open seat in Ohio should be in play for Democrats, even with Kasich’s current popularity (+26%).
Governor’s races in 2018 in Arizona and Georgia (average 3W-RDM=-9.7, though trending Democratic), will test the hypothesis that the future of the Democratic Party lies more in the Southeast and Southwest than in the Rust Belt/Midwest. Current Republican governors Doug Ducey (+25%) and Nathan Deal (+38%) are quite popular. However, Ducey is seeking reelection in Arizona, making him a likely favorite, while Deal is term-limited in Georgia, creating a better opportunity for Democrats. These elections may be more about narrowing Republican advantage than outright victory, but Georgia, at least, should be on the Democrats’ radar.
That leaves 11 additional 2018 gubernatorial elections in states with a Republican governor. These states average 27.9 percentage points more Republican than the nation in presidential elections, ranging from Texas (-15.3) and South Carolina (-15.7) to Wyoming (-45.7). As many as five of them will have incumbent governors seeking reelection, three of whom have an average net approval of +39% (Greg Abbott in Texas, Pete Ricketts in Nebraska, Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas). Of the six open seats, only two are of even the slightest interest to Democrats: Kansas, where outgoing governor Sam Brownback has a dismal -39% net approval rating (and only beat Democrat Paul Davis in 2014 by 3.7 percentage points), and Oklahoma, where outgoing governor Mary Fallin has a net approval rating of -11%. These two states would be the longest of long shots, but I would still stick a pin in them if I were a Democratic strategist.
Independent. The unpopular Walker (-10%) upset incumbent Republican Parnell in 2014 by 2.2 percentage points while Republicans were winning the national gubernatorial vote by 1.3 percentage points. Given the strong Republican lean of Alaska (-19.2), I would expect a decent Republican challenger to unseat Walker—though if a strong Democrat were to run, a three-way race could be anyone’s to win.
Democrats. Let’s start with 2017. McAuliffe, the popular (+21%) Democratic governor of Democratic-leaning Virginia (+1.5), cannot seek reelection, and in the commonwealth’s two previous gubernatorial elections, the average Democrat-minus-Republican margin was -7.4 percentage points. On paper, then, this election looks like a toss-up (maybe even slight lean Republican). That said, both Democrat candidates for governor—Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and former House Member Tom Perriello—have opened up double-digit polling leads against Gillespie.
Should he seek a third term, the most vulnerable incumbent Democrat is Dannell Malloy of Connecticut. His net approval is a dismal -37%, and he won his previous two elections (albeit in strong Republican years nationally) by only 1.6 percentage points, on average. The state’s solid Democratic lean (+12.8), which would benefit another Democratic candidate (even as Malloy’s unpopularity would weigh her/him down), probably would not save Malloy in 2018.
To the extent that any of the other eight Democratic-held governorships are likely to be won by Republicans in 2018, the next-most-vulnerable incumbent Democrat is Wolf, whose net approval is a middling +5%. Wolf defied Pennsylvania’s decades-long tradition of changing partisan control of the governor’s mansion every eight years when he beat incumbent Republican Corbett by 9.9 percentage points (after Corbett had won an open seat in 2010 by 9.0 percentage points), even as Republicans were winning the national gubernatorial vote by 4.4 percentage points. Pennsylvania is a swing-state at the presidential level (-0.4), and Democrats have essentially tied the last two governor’s races (D+0.4 percentage points). Like Virginia, this looks like a toss-up on paper, but I would give Wolf the edge to win reelection.
Popular Democratic incumbents Mark Dayton (+23%) and John Hickenlooper (+33%) are term-limited in the Democratic-leanings states of Minnesota (+1.5) and Colorado (+2.2). These two governors defied the strong Republican performances of 2010 and 2014, winning their four combined elections in those years by an average 6.0 percentage points. I would expect Democrats to prevail in close elections in both states in 2018.
That leaves five current Democratic governors in Democratic states. Oregon is the least Democratic of the five (+8.7), but Governor Kate Brown has a solid +27% net approval rating. California’s equally popular Jerry Brown (+24%) is term-limited (for a second time; the eternally-young 79-year-old also served as California’s governor from 1975-1983), but at +23.2, California is one of the nation’s most Democratic states. Hawaii’s David Ige is only marginally popular (+8%), but Hawaii (+34.3) is the most Democratic state in the country, and Ige won his first election by 12.4 percentage points. By contrast, Rhode Island’s Raimondo is not especially popular (+3%) and she only won in 2014 by 4.5 percentage points, but the state’s strong Democratic lean (+18.0) is likely sufficient for her to win reelection. And, finally, New York’s highly popular governor Andrew Cuomo (+31%) won his previous two elections by 21.6 percentage points, on average, while New York is heavily Democratic (+21.6); Cuomo is a safe bet to win reelection.
Bottom line. The dream scenario for Democrats is this. All 10 governor’s mansions currently held by Democrats stay in Democratic hands, while Democrats not only upset Walker in Alaska, they also defeat Rauner and Walker in Illinois and Wisconsin, respectively, while capturing open seats in New Jersey, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Florida, Ohio, Kansas and Oklahoma. Democratic gubernatorial candidates also prevail in states with popular incumbent Republican governors: Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, Vermont, and even Iowa. This scenario would result in a net pickup of 17 governor’s mansions, which while (barely) within the realm of possibility, is EXTREMELY unlikely.
The nightmare scenario for Democrats is that Republicans win the New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races in 2017, recapture governor’s mansions in Connecticut and Pennsylvania (as well as Colorado and Minnesota), and do not lose any other currently Republican governorship in 2018. This scenario would result in a net gain for Republicans of five governor’s mansions. This, too, is (even more barely) within the realm of possibility, and even more EXTREMELY unlikely.
The most likely outcome is that Democrats net somewhere between one (lose VA, CT, PA while winning half of NJ, MI, ME, NM, IL, WI, FL, OH and none of MD, MA, NV, NH, VT, KS, OK) and nine-ten governorships (hold VA, CT, PA and win all of NJ, MI, ME, NM, IL, WI, FL, OH as well as one or two of MD, MA, NV, NH, VT, KS, OK).
Simply put, the opportunity for Democrats to make substantial progress towards parity in governorships is there, if they can take advantage of it.
Until next time…
 I assume more unpopular governors will have a harder time winning reelection or being succeeded by a member of the same party, and that higher popularity will make it easier to win reelection, while contributing little otherwise.
 This is still a reasonable proxy for the general partisan lean of a state, despite the fact that governor’s races do not always align neatly with presidential voting.
 Seven, if you count Democratic-trending Arizona and Georgia.
 A wild card is Maine. If Republican Senator Susan Collins runs for governor in 2018, she is probably a heavy favorite to win, though from a policy perspective, replacing the Trump-like LePage with the far more moderate Collins would be a moral victory for Democrats.
 Heck, I am a lifelong Democrat, and I might vote for Charlie Baker in 2018!
 It should be noted, however, that Branstad had only a +2 net approval rating in April 2017.
 Former Democratic Senator (and Anchorage Mayor) Mark Begich lost his 2014 reelection bid by only 2.1 percentage points, even as Republicans were winning nationally by 6.7 percentage points. Were Begich to run for governor…
 I’m not kidding. Democrat Ed Rendell was governor from 2003-2011. Republican Tom Ridge was governor from 1995-2003. Democrat Bob Casey Sr. was governor from 1987 to 1995. Republican Richard Thornburgh was governor from 1979 to 1987. Democrat Milton Shapp was governor from 1971 to 1979. And so forth.