Democrats make up the vast majority of Senate seats in play next year, opening the door for major GOP gains. However, the opposite is playing out at the gubernatorial level.
The Republican Governors Association is without a doubt the most successful campaign arm of the GOP. The GOP currently controls 34 governorships to the Democrats’ 15 (Alaska is run by an independent). Unfortunately, there is a price to pay when you are at the top. In the 2017 and 2018 gubernatorial elections, Republicans will be defending 27 seats to the Democrats’ 10. Without factoring in the partisan swing of the country or the environment in each state, math alone suggests a growth year for the Democratic Governors Association.
Here are five gubernatorial races that could flip party control.
While most of the states on this list are in no particular order, New Jersey comes first as it will undoubtedly fall into Democratic hands. All thanks to Gov. Chris Christie.
The outgoing leader of The Garden State boasts a special title: he’s the least popular governor in the country. A Morning Consult poll released last month has been at near 70 percent disapproval by his constituents. Once a rising star, Christie had amazed national Republicans just a few years ago by winning election in New Jersey (a very blue state) by wide margins, despite having an “R” after his name. This star power vanished after the Bridgegate scandal, a feeble run for the presidency and subsequent support for Donald Trump. Christie is now term-limited, but his legacy will serve as an albatross for the Republican nominee.
New Jersey holds off-year elections and will be choosing their next governor this November (not next year). Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany, is the official Democratic nominee. He is running against Kim Guadagno, the current lieutenant governor of the state. The choice of Guadagno by Republicans is odd, given she is the least likely person to distance herself from the unpopular Christie. And her candidacy does appear to be hopeless. A Monmouth University Poll released last month shows Murphy leading Guadagno by a staggering 27 points.
Republican Gov. Susan Martinez is term-limited and cannot run for re-election, leaving this seat open. Despite New Mexico’s light blue lean, Martinez has performed well here. She won the governorship in 2010, becoming the state’s first female governor, and won re-election in 2014 by double digits. However, many pundits point to a lagging economy and high crime rates as reason for voters seeking a change in direction.
Rep. Steve Pearce is the only major Republican candidate running thus far (Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry is mulling an entrance). Pearce’s background makes him a formidable candidate. First elected to the state’s 2nd congressional district in 2002, he’s won re-election by wide margins every time (not including 2008 where he stepped down in a failed bid for the Senate). Pearce is the only Republican in New Mexico’s Congressional Delegation. A larger swath of candidates are running on the Democratic side. The likeliest candidate to emerge victorious in the Democratic primary is Michelle Lujan Grisham, the current representative of New Mexico’s 1st congressional district. She is serving her third term in Congress.
I find this race somewhat perplexing because I believe it is more competitive than how it’s ranked by almost every other tracking outlet. Most analysts rate this gubernatorial race as lean Democrat. A recent poll by The Terrance Group does show Lujan-Grisham leading Pearce 47 to 43 percent, but with 10 percent of respondents saying they are undecided.
Both Inside Elections and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate this race as leans Democrat.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has not had an easy first term. Elected in 2014, the governor almost immediately entered into a budget battle with the state’s Democrat Speaker of the House. A budget impasse lasted over two years, leaving Illinois with a dismal credit rating and unfunded liabilities.
The Land of Lincoln is the home base of Barack Obama and voters here have rejected every Republican presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush – it’s a solidly blue state. Rauner was able to secure a victory three years ago amid the huge unpopularity of his predecessor. This go-around, however, he may be the unfavorable one out the door. Chris Kennedy, a businessman and the son of Robert Francis Kennedy, currently leads the pack of Democratic contenders. A recent Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll showed him leading by large margins over J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist and venture capitalist, 44 percent to 11 percent. The winner of the Democratic primary will face off against Rauner.
The Republican governor does have two things in his favor: incumbency and a whole bunch of cash at his disposal. Unlike many of the other Republican governors leaving office next year and leaving their seats open, Rauner was elected in 2014 and gets a go at re-election. The power of incumbency goes a long way. The Republican businessman is a multimillionaire who poured millions into his last race. He has plenty of cash to do it again.
The downside for Rauner: both Pritzker and Kennedy are filthy rich as well, essentially negating the Republican’s cash advantage. Pritzker boasts a net worth of $3.4 billion and Chris Kennedy, a member of the wealthy Kennedy clan, is holding onto millions. This gubernatorial race is shaping up to be the most expensive in history.
Inside Elections rate this as tilts Democrat. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball gives it a toss-up.
This is one state where Republicans have an opportunity to capture a seat. Outgoing Gov. Dan Malloy, beset by approval ratings in the 20s, is deeply unpopular and has opted out of running for a third term. He has been more concerned with virtue signaling than actual governing. A slew of GOP candidates have already entered the race in a campaign that looks promising for their party.
Connecticut runs deep blue, having opted for only Democratic presidential candidates since 1992. However, The Constitution State has a propensity for voting for Republican governors. Malloy was the first Democratic governor in almost twenty years and both his 2010 and 2014 elections were won narrowly. The GOP has also been making recent gains in the state legislature. Republicans captured seats in the state House and moved to a tie in the state Senate. Connecticut Democrats have their smallest House majority in thirty years.
GOP candidates who are exploring a run or have made it official include Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton (his third run for this office), Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, US Comptroller General David Walker, Glastonbury Rep. Prasad Srinivasan and several others. Middletown Mayor Dan Drew is the only major Democrat to have entered the race thus far, with several others to decide at a later date.
Inside Elections rates Connecticut as leans Democrat, but Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it as a toss-up.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, a popular moderate, is term limited and will not be running again. Nevada is a swing state, but has leaned blue in recent years. The Silver State voted for Obama both times and chose Hillary Clinton in 2016, along with Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto – who succeeded the retired Harry Reid. Democrats also captured the state Senate and state House last year. Reid ran a strong operation that kept Democratic candidates afloat across the state.
What’s interesting about this race is the lack of development. Jared Fisher, the owner of a tour company and bike shop, is the only Republican to have officially declared. The 47-year-old has never run for elected office and he kicked off his campaign with none other than a bike tour across the state. Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt is considered a front-runner for the nomination, but he is still deciding on a run. State Treasurer Dan Schwartz is also mulling a campaign bid.
On the Democratic side, Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak is the only candidate to have officially entered the race. While he’s not known statewide, Clark County makes up the vast majority of Nevada residents. Sisolak also enters the race with a formidable campaign war chest. Stephen Cloobeck, a rich Las Vegas businessman, is also considering a bid.
Inside Elections and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate this state as a toss-up.
A Side Note:
The majority of these states are Republican-controlled, but that doesn’t necessarily mean conservative voters need to sweat the upcoming governor races. Of the many seats up for grabs next year, a relatively few amount are actually considered vulnerable. A big factor in these races will be President Donald Trump and his popularity, but unlike congressional contests, American voters tend to separate state executives from those in Washington. We see this with the success of Republicans Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker in the deep blue states of Maryland and Massachusetts, respectively.
For all the vacancies and vulnerable seats up for grabs in the upcoming gubernatorial races, maybe only a handful will actually change party control. This would be good news for the GOP, as they rule the largest number of governor mansions in recent history. This control will be crucial when the 2020 Census approaches and state leaders must redraw congressional maps again – greatly influencing the makeup of the U.S. House districts.
People tend to pay more attention to the movers and shakers in Washington, D.C., but governors all across our states play a crucial role in our country’s political process.