The ranks of Republican governors are poised to thin after this year’s midterm elections, and some party strategists are bracing for major Democratic gains even in some of the most conservative states in the country.
Voters in 36 states will elect governors on Tuesday, including 26 states where Republicans currently hold the top job. Democrats are defending nine seats, and both sides are fighting over Alaska, where independent Gov. Bill Walker dropped his reelection bid late last month.
Virtually all of the most contested races are being fought on Republican turf.
Democrats are overwhelmingly likely to pick up governorships in Illinois, where Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) is running a long-shot bid for reelection, and New Mexico, where Gov. Susana Martinez (R) faces term limits.
Polls also show Democratic nominees ahead in open seat races in Michigan, Maine and Florida; of the 33 public surveys taken in Florida since the Aug. 28 primary, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) has led former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) in 32.
In Nevada, Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak (D) is running even with or just ahead of Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R).
Two high-profile races in which Republican governors are retiring, in Ohio and Georgia, remain virtual toss-ups. Former Attorney General Richard Cordray (D) is tied with current Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) in Ohio, and former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D) is locked in an increasingly contentious battle with Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) in Georgia.
Democrats are even running close to Republicans in Kansas and South Dakota, two deep-red states. The party’s nominees are narrowly trailing or tied with Republican candidates in Oklahoma, New Hampshire and Alaska.
“These are all replays of 2014 races, which were such a low watermark for Democrats,” said Thad Kousser, a political scientist who studies state politics at the University of California-San Diego. “The Democrats probably can’t do any worse than Democrats did in the 2014 election.”
Republicans were virtually certain to give back some states to Democrats, given the zenith they reached after the 2014 elections. Republicans hold 33 of 50 governorships, the most the party has ever held.
“Polling shows that Democrats could have a good night, but there’s no clear evidence of a blue wave,” said Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. “Republicans’ record fundraising and strong candidate recruitment gives the party a high chance of victory in numerous races.”
But with so many seats in play, this year’s contests may mark a dramatic realignment — right before the next round of reapportionment and redistricting commences after the 2020 census. Democrats who were locked out of so many redistricting processes following the 2010 census appear suddenly poised to seize back seats at the table in many states.
Republicans remain optimistic that they can snag at least one victory, in Alaska. Walker endorsed the Democratic nominee, former Sen. Mark Begich, but his name will still appear on the ballot on Tuesday.
And Republicans have shots at picking up two states helmed by Democratic governors where voters are tired of ongoing budget and pension crises. Polls show businessman Bob Stefanowski (R) running close to progressive hero Ned Lamont (D) in Connecticut, and state Rep. Knute Buehler (R) mounting a strong challenge to Gov. Kate Brown (D) in Oregon.
Governors' races tend to break differently than do House or Senate contests, which are largely fought on national issues. While Democrats running for governor have focused their campaigns on health care and protecting those with pre-existing conditions, those candidates have also talked about infrastructure and education spending, issues that resonate on a state level if not at the national level.
That different landscape leads to historical anomalies. Both Oregon, which has not elected a Republican governor since 1982, and South Dakota, where no Democrat has won since 1974, are in play this year.
At the same time, Republican governors are cruising to reelection in deep-blue states like Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont.
But history shows that even governors' races are susceptible to a national electorate’s mood: In a Republican president’s first midterm, the president’s party tends to lose an average of five governorships.
Republicans were confident at the beginning of the election cycle that their party would be on defense in deep-red territory President Trump had won by wide margins in 2016. But the combination of weak candidates, like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) or DeSantis in Florida, and Democratic rising stars like Whitmer in Michigan or state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton (D) in South Dakota, has changed the landscape.
President Trump’s anemic approval rating is also causing a drag in some states. Trump has rallied with or raised money for gubernatorial candidates like Kobach, DeSantis and Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), but some Democratic candidates are pitching themselves to voters as the calm counterweights to the Trump-sewn chaos in Washington.
“The irony of this election may be that Donald Trump is saving the Democratic Party in the states,” Kousser said.