Democrats want to forget this year and who can blame them. They blew a winnable Presdential election, gave up 2 Governorships and gained few Senate and House seats. They did not gain legislative seats and even gave up blue Vermont to a Republican Governor. Today, Republicans have total control in 25 states compared to Democrats 5.
The 2016 election was the first time in recent memory where not a single D/R Senate candidate won in a state the opposite party’s presidential nominee took. But, Governorships did not follow suit. Indeed, of the 12 Governorships up in 2016 almost half (5) were won by D/R candidates not of the victorious Presidential candidate’s ilk. Republicans took Vermont and New Hampshire while Democrats won West Virginia, Montana and North Carolina.
If you compile the margins between gubernatorial and Presidential results the difference was a whopping 17 points. Compare that to the difference between President and Senate in the 13 most competitive states being 5 points.
If you read an article talking about the lean of one state or another there is no way you’d be able to guess the results of many state’s gubernatorial contests. Jim Justice won West Virginia by 7 points while Trump won it by 42 points. Republican Phil Scott won Vermont by 7 points in a state Trump lost by 26 points. Steve Bullock won by 4 points in a state Trump won by 20.
These big margin differences did not just occur in states where a D/R gubernatorial candidate won while the opposite party’s Presidential candidate carried it. In Missouri and Indiana, Trump won both states by about 20 points. Republican gubernatorial candidates carried them by only 6.
While polarization has increased at all levels of voting, especially the federal level, state level results are not tied as closely to Presidential results. For example, in 2014, 76 percent of states that had voted for the Republican or Democratic nominee in 2012 backed a similar party’s Senate candidate. But, that number was just 12 percent for Governors.
There is quite a bit of literature on why gubernatorial results are not tied to the partisan lean of a state. Senators and Congressmen/women serve in DC with the President. Governors, on the other hand, govern in their respective states, deal with different issues and often have more time to personally get to know voters (just ask Phil Scott in Vermont).
On the surface this looks good for Democrats coming into 2018. States that voted for Trump might be willing to throw their lot in with local Democrats if they hit on the right issues. Afterall, voters in North Carolina responded to Roy Cooper’s campaign to end toll roads and repeal HB-2.
But, it might be good news for Republicans too. If Trump is unpopular it suggests that Republicans could outrun Trump and insulate themselves by campaigning on local issues. Not only could Republicans hold purple states in the Midwest and South like Florida, but states like Massachusetts and Maryland might stay red due to the popularity of their GOP Governors.
Democrats have ample reasons for wanting to capture at least some Governorships in 2018. First, a majority of legislation is crafted at the state level. We have seen the political results of this via Scott Walker’s Collective Bargaining Reform, Rick Snyder’s Right to Work law in Michigan or Sam Brownback’s elimination of income taxes in Kansas.
Secondly, Governors and the legislatures draw congressional and legislative lines after the 2020 census. If Republicans hold onto blue and purple states they could lock in their majorities for another decade or more. This has legislative repercussions as well for obvious reasons.
Lastly, parties have to have a bench to draw rising stars from. Obama has cost the Democratic Party 12 Senate seats, 63 House seats, and over 900 legislative seats (including 2016). The Democratic bench has been reduced to a shell of itself and many times the parties look to their Governors for policy ideas and candidates for President. Part of the reason why Clinton faced such weak competition for the Presidency is because Democrats lacked a bench to draw from. Republicans had so many choices they could not even fit every candidate on a single debate stage.
Democrats fielded few strong candidates this cycle. In top-tier races in Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Indiana the party either went with second-tier candidates or legacy candidates (Ohio and Indiana). In every case, Democrats lost.
Of course, Democrats have time to retool and test their messages. Nowhere will this be more important than the Virginia gubernatorial election in 2017. Until 2013, the state had elected Governors not of the incumbent President’s party. However, 2013 might be an outlier only because the GOP nominated a deeply flawed and ideological nominee.
Democrats will probably pick up some Governorships and legislative seats in 2018. They should be considered heavy favorites in New Jersey next year and a slight favorite in Virginia. But, Democrats will need more than an unpopular Trump to carry them if 2016 is any indication of a trend.