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2018 Election Preview: Governor’s Races

By Max Rieper | October 10, 2018

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Democrats are focused on taking the U.S. House and possibly even the Senate this fall, but they may also have the opportunity to flip several governorships in states across the country. Republicans currently hold 33 governorships, tying for the most seats they have ever held, which would be difficult to defend even in a typical election year. But with Democrats expecting to fare well in November, as the opposition party typically does in midterm elections, and with poor approval ratings for President Donald Trump in many key states, there could be even more opportunities to flip governors’ seats.

Of the 36 governor seats up for election in 2018, 26 are currently held by Republicans, nine by Democrats, and one by Independent Bill Walker in Alaska. With primary season over, the nominees of each race have been decided and early polls are encouraging for Democrats.

States likely to flip to Democratic control

In Illinois, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has the lowest approval ratings of any governor running for re-election this season, alienating many conservatives by signing bills they opposed on immigration and abortion. Rauner narrowly won his party primary against state legislator Jeanne Ives and already finds himself down double-digits against Democratic nominee J.B. Pritzker, according to an August poll. Pritzker, a billionaire whose family owns the Hyatt hotels chain, has also drastically outspent Rauner in campaign advertising.

Michigan has had eight years of Republican trifecta control, holding majorities in both legislative chambers and the governor’s seat, but that could change this November. Attorney General Bill Schuette won a very combative Republican primary against Lt. Governor Brian Calley, leaving the party fractured. Current Republican Governor Rick Snyder has declined to endorse Schuette. Schuette has also faced criticism from Calley and others for how he handled the Flint water crisis and may be perceived as too conservative for a swing state. Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer, a former state lawmaker, has taken a commanding lead in the polls, with most showing her up by double digits.

Toss-up states that could flip to Democratic control

Florida will likely have one of the most contested and expensive governor’s races in the country. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won the Democratic primary and will attempt to be the state’s first African-American governor. Gillum has an FBI investigation involving development deals with his City Hall hanging over his head, though he said he is not the target of the probe. His opponent is Republican U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis, who has strongly tied himself to President Trump. His candidacy has been plagued by racially-charged comments and reports that his campaign is in disarray. The race has been very tight, but Gillum has begun to open up a small lead in some recent polls.

Georgia had a very divisive Republican primary for governor, with Secretary of State Brian Kemp winning the run-off in a landslide against Lt. Governor Casey Cagle. Kemp now faces former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who is vying to become the first female African-American governor in the country. Turnout in the primaries surged among African-American voters compared to the last competitive governor’s race in 2010 and could be a key factor this November. Polls show the candidates running neck-and-neck, with an internal poll from the Abrams campaign showing she has opened up a slight lead.

Iowa incumbent Republican Governor Kim Reynolds took over the governorship in 2017 when Governor Terry Branstad resigned to take an ambassador position in the Trump administration, but finds herself in a tough race to win her first full term. Reynolds trails closely behind Democratic businessman Fred Hubbell in polls, but with one-third of supporters of each candidate still willing to change their minds. Hubbell has attacked Reynolds for problems with the privatization of Medicaid, which took place in 2015 under Branstad.

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Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer narrowly lost in the Republican primary to Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has gained notoriety for his national platform on voter fraud and illegal immigration. Kobach has fired up conservatives, but his high unfavorable ratings have given an opening to Democratic candidate Laura Kelly, a state senator, with polls showing the two essentially tied. Adding another wrinkle is the presence of an Independent candidate, businessman Greg Orman, who consistently polls around nine percent.

Maine voters will decide who will succeed combative Governor Paul LePage this November. Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills is tied in the polls with Republican businessman Shawn Moody, with left-leaning Independent candidates Terry Hayes and Alan Caron polling at less than five percent each. Maine implemented the first ranked-choice voting system this year, so the supporters for those Independent candidates could determine the outcome, depending on who they ranked as their second choice.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt won the Republican nomination by warning of  “Californication.” He has broken with popular Republican Governor Brian Sandoval by calling for a repeal of the commerce tax, limiting the expansion of online gaming, and advocating for more anti-abortion measures, which may have led to Sandoval declining to endorse him. He has been neck-and-neck in polls with Democratic nominee Steve Sisolak, a Clark County Commissioner who has run on a platform of increasing school funding.

Ohio may still be a swing state in presidential elections, but Republicans currently hold all statewide executive offices and control both chambers of the state legislature. The state party’s strength should help candidate Mike DeWine, a familiar face in the Ohio Republican party who has served as a U.S. congressman, U.S. senator, and most recently as state attorney general. DeWine is locked in a tight race with Democratic candidate Richard Cordray, who headed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Obama. The two have faced each other before when DeWine defeated then-incumbent Attorney General Cordray eight years ago. DeWine has criticized how Cordray handled that office, claiming there were 12,000 untested rape kits that DeWine had to clear, while Cordray has criticized DeWine’s unclear stance on right-to-work legislation. DeWine has held a very slight lead in some polls, but well within the margin of error, making this race a virtual tie.

Oklahoma would typically be an easy win for Republicans, but businessman Kevin Stitt’s upset primary win over Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett may give an opening to Democratic candidate Drew Edmondson. Polls showed Cornett easily defeating Edmondson, but with Stitt as the nominee, the race has become a virtual tie. Stitt, a political newcomer, has advocated for running the state more like a business and opposes Edmondson’s proposal to expand Medicaid.

New Mexico’s gubernatorial matchup features two sitting members of Congress, Democratic nominee Michelle Lujan Grisham, and Republican nominee Steve Pearce. Grisham has held a consistent lead in polls, though the race is still competitive. The two candidates have disagreed on many employment issues, such as right-to-work, paid sick leave, and minimum wage ordinances, but both nominees have stressed funding for public education. Pearce has been a strong conservative in Congress, but has tried to appeal to moderate voters and distanced himself from incumbent Republican Governor Susana Martinez.

Wisconsin voters will decide if they want a third term from incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker or if it is time for a change. Walker made waves by signing a right-to-work bill, taking on public unions that flooded the capitol with protests, fending off a recall challenge, and launching an unsuccessful presidential campaign. But his sagging approval ratings have given Democratic nominee Tony Evers an opening. Evers, the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Wisconsin, won a very crowded primary and has emerged as a slight favorite against Walker in early polls.

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Other states that could flip to Democratic control

Arizona incumbent Republican Governor Doug Ducey’s approval rating dipped over the summer following a teacher walkout in the spring over education spending cuts. Ducey proposed a 20-percent increase in teacher pay by 2020, but education spending may remain a vulnerable point for the governor. Arizona State University Associate Professor David Garcia will face off against Ducey in the general election. While Ducey has held a consistent lead in polls, it is not enough for him to feel comfortable about re-election quite yet.

South Dakota has not elected a Democrat for governor in over 40 years, so U.S. Representative Kristi Noem should have the advantage as the Republican nominee, but polls thus far have showed a close race with Democratic nominee Billie Sutton. Sutton, a rancher and former Senate minority leader, has run as a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment moderate, choosing a former Republican as his running mate. A tough year for Republicans could put this race into play for Democrats.

Toss-up states that could flip to Republican control

Alaska voters have an independent streak that has led to a wide-open three-way race for governor.  Governor Bill Walker is a former Republican who won in 2014 as an Independent on a unity ticket with Democrat Byron Mallott as his running mate. Voters have soured on Walker since he reduced the annual oil checks given to residents from the Permanent Fund, leaving an opening for the Republican candidate and former State Senator Mike Dunleavy. Former Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Begich made it a three-way race, with some liberals and independents concerned that Begich and Walker will split the vote and allow Dunleavy to win. Polls indicate that Walker could defeat Dunleavy in a one-on-one race, but Dunleavy would win a three-way race.

Connecticut has one of the most unpopular governors in the country, Democrat Dannel Malloy, who is retiring. But his unpopularity has not seemed to hinder Democratic candidate Ned Lamont, a businessman who ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat in 2006. Lamont has had a double-digit lead over Republican nominee Bob Stefanowski, another businessman and political newcomer, but a more recent poll shows the race tightening.

Rhode Island is a reliably blue state in presidential races, but President Trump had the best showing by a Republican candidate in the state since 1988. Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo has been plagued by low approval ratings and had to fend off a primary challenge. Republican nominee Allan Fung, mayor of Cranston, has made it a close race in the polls, but it may be a tough year for a Republican candidate to flip a seat in a Democratic-leaning state. The candidacy of former Republican Joe Trillo as an Independent candidate could have an impact as well.

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