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'Nowhere To Go But Up': Democrats Aim to Gain Ground in 2018 Governors' Races

Here are some of the top gubernatorial races to keep an eye on in 2018.
Voting booths set up and ready to receive voters inside a polling station in Christmas, Florida on November 8, 2016.GREGG NEWTON / AFP - Getty Images

The 2018 elections are still 18 months away, but both parties are already bracing for how the political landscape could shift the next time voters around the country head to the polls. While much of the focus in Washington will be on the fights for House and Senate control, the most consequential battlefields may actually be in the three dozen states holding gubernatorial elections next year.

Midterms have historically yielded losses for the president’s party, particularly at the federal level, and Democrats hope a potential tide of anti-Trump resistance will extend to governors’ races. With Republicans controlling 32 state legislatures, Democrats also urgently need more power at the state level in order to have a say in the redistricting process that will begin after the 2020 Census.

Democratic governors are also on the front lines in their party’s battles against Republicans in Washington. From opposing changes to Medicaid to resisting new immigration policies and fighting President Donald Trump’s travel ban, governors are already fighting back against the GOP policies that could affect their state.

The good news for Democrats is that they have a lot of offense to play. Republicans are defending 27 governors seats over the next two years compared to just ten for Democrats. (That tally includes the two races taking place this year to replace Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia and Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey.)

“Democrats have nowhere to go but up,” says Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

With candidate recruitment still ongoing, it may be too early to tell how many states are actually in play, but Democrats are already heartened by their stronger-than-expected performances in recent congressional special elections. They’re also expecting an early boost from their likely win in New Jersey, where Christie’s unpopularity has left deep scars for the GOP.

Still, they need to find the best candidates possible if they want to find success in 2018 after a devastating 2016.

For their part, Republicans can take comfort in voters’ tendency to distinguish between leaders in their home state and those in Washington, which explains the success of popular Republicans like Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts.

But, as Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections points out, an unusually strong backlash against Trump could swamp Republicans anyway.

“People often view their governors as being different — that’s the good news for Republicans,” Gonzales says. “The bad news is voter angst has turned against the president in a significant way that could change that.”

Here are some of the top governor’s races to keep an eye on in 2018.

Best Democratic pickup opportunities (alphabetical order)

* Florida

Cook Political Report rating: Toss Up

Trump percentage in 2016: 48.6%

An open seat left by term-limited Rick Scott is inviting more than a handful of Republican and Democratic challengers to seek a job that hasn’t been held by a Democrat since before 2000. Trump won the state in 2016 with a slim 1.2% lead over Clinton. Scott eked out a close race in 2014, winning by just a percentage point over former governor and onetime Republican Charlie Crist. This cycle, the Republican favorite is Adam Putnam — the state’s Agricultural Commissioner and a former US congressman. Also thinking of throwing their hats in the ring for the Republican nomination are State Sen. Jack Latvala, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who is being urged by conservatives to jump in. Democrats are poised to face a competitive primary pitting former congresswoman Gwen Graham (the daughter of former Governor and Senator Bob Graham) against Tallahassee Mayor and rising Democratic star Andrew Gillum.

* Illinois

Cook Political Report rating: Lean Republican

Clinton percentage in 2016: 55.5%

Illinois tends to send Democrats to Washington, choosing Democrat Tammy Duckworth over Mark Kirk for his former Senate seat by 15 points and voting for Clinton by 17 points over Trump in 2016. But the state also has a history with Republican governors; disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was the first Democrat elected as the state’s governor in 30 years in 2003 and was succeeded by fellow Democrat Pat Quinn after his impeachment. Quinn barely won a full term in 2010, but voters replaced him with Republican Bruce Rauner four years later. Rauner’s challenges in office — including a damaging budget stalemate — could give Democrats a decent chance to flip the executive mansion in 2018. The most high-profile Democrats running to challenge Rauner so far are Chicago businessman Chris Kennedy, the son of late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and billionaire heir to the Hyatt Hotel business J.B. Pritzker. Though Kennedy and Pritzker have never been in politics before, both would be formidable candidates due to their famous family names and significant personal wealth.

* Maine

Cook Political Report rating: Toss Up

Clinton percentage in 2016: 46.8%

Term-limited Republican Paul LePage has been a controversial and polarizing governor for two terms. Republicans likely have the best chance of holding the seat if Sen. Susan Collins decides to run for the seat she unsuccessfully sought in 1994. If Collins does not run, the Republican primary is sure to get crowded. Other possible candidates in the Republican race include U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett and Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. On the Democratic side, 2008 congressional candidate Adam Cote has made his bid official, with Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and former Speaker of the House Mark Eves among those eyeing a run.

* Michigan

Cook Political Report rating: Toss Up

Trump percentage in 2016: 47.3%

The once reliably blue state has recently boosted Republicans, electing President Trump by a slim margin in 2016 and voting for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder twice. But, although the GOP has done well in Michigan in the past few years, the trend might not hold in 2018 with Trump in the White House and with the term-limited governor’s unpopularity. Snyder won in both 2010 and 2014 by appealing to moderates, but many in his state are angry over his administration’s handling of the water crisis in Flint — something Democrats will likely use to attack his leadership. Democrats have state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer and former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed running. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, who has been vocal throughout the crisis in Flint, recently ruled out a run. The most prominent GOP names in the mix will likely be Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.

* Nevada

Cook Political Report rating: Toss Up

Clinton percentage in 2016: 47.9%

Nevada was a bright spot for Democrats in 2016, voting for Clinton and for Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto to keep former Sen.Harry Reid’s seat. But Nevada could be tough for them in a midterm year if the Democrats’ base doesn’t turn out. Likely candidates among the Democrats include wealthy businessman and Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck and Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak. Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the grandson of a former US Senator, is the top choice for GOP nominee. Senator Dean Heller was also said to be considering a run, but Heller has chosen to run for reelection in 2018 instead.

* New Mexico

Cook Political Report rating: Toss Up

Clinton percentage in 2016: 48.3%

With Republican Gov. Susana Martinez term-limited, Democrats are looking to take back the seat in 2018 — and it’s one of their easiest pickup opportunities. Top Republicans interested in succeeding Martinez are U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez. Also considering a run for the GOP nomination is Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry. Democratic U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham has declared her bid and has already picked up the endorsement of former Sen. Jeff Bingaman. Jeff Apodaca, a media executive and the son of a former governor, also recently announced a bid.

* Ohio

Cook Political Report rating: Lean Republican

Trump percentage in 2016: 51.3%

The race in Ohio is wide open for both Republicans and Democrats in 2018 with Gov. John Kasich reaching his term limit. The state voted for Kasich in 2014 with 63.8% of the vote and swung for Trump in 2016, but Democrats believe they have a strong stable of candidates — even despite Rep. Tim Ryan’s decision to not run for the seat. In the mix are Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director and former Attorney General of Ohio Richard Cordray, former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, Ohio Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, whose name is being floated around by the Ohio Democratic Party Chairman. The GOP field is also crowded, with candidates including Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and as-yet-unannounced early favorite Attorney General Mike Dewine.

Best pickup opportunities for Republicans

* Alaska:

Cook Political Report rating: Lean Independent

Trump percentage in 2016: 51.3%

Alaska Independent Gov. Bill Walker could face a three-way race in 2018. Walker won in 2014 by running on a “Unity Ticket” with a Democratic running mate, but his low approval ratings and an unresolved budget crisis could attract challengers on both sides of the aisle. Walker’s last margin of victory over Republican Gov. Sean Parnell was less than 5,000 votes, and the state voted for Trump over Clinton by nearly 15 percentage points. That’s encouraging data for Republicans who might challenge Walker, including possible candidate state Sen. Mike Dunleavy. Former Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is also rumored to be mulling a run. Still, without a formidable candidate from either Democrats or Republicans, Walker could win a second term despite being one of the least popular governors in the country.

* Colorado

Cook Political Report rating: Lean Democrat

Clinton percentage in 2016: 48.2%

Colorado’s blue streak looks strong. Clinton’s victory in the state in 2016 was the third consecutive presidential win for Democrats, and the state has elected only two Republican governors in the past 60 years. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is term-limited, and the field on both sides is likely to get crowded. On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, state Sen. Mike Johnston and former state CFO Cary Kennedy have already announced their candidacies. (Rep. Jared Polis also hasn’t ruled out a campaign.) There’s also a lot of competition among Republicans. Candidates include: former state Rep. Victor Mitchell, who has emphasized that he didn’t vote for Donald Trump; businessman Doug Robinson, who is Mitt Romney’s nephew; Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter, and District Attorney George Brauchler, who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter. Those contenders may also be joined by George H.W. Bush’s cousin, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton.

* Connecticut:

Cook Political Report rating: Lean Democrat

Clinton percentage in 2016: 54.6%

Connecticut’s unpopular Democratic governor, Dannel Malloy, announced that he would not seek a third term, likely boosting the party’s chances of holding on to the seat. Malloy became the state’s first Democratic governor in nearly two decades when he was elected in back in 2010. Republicans think they have a shot at playing offense here, given the state’s past selection of GOP governors and Malloy’s unpopularity. Republicans already mounting campaigns include contractor Joe Visconti and Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, both of whom ran for governor in 2014. Another onetime GOP gubernatorial hopeful, John McKinney, also says he’ll make a decision about a run later this year. The Democratic field is still far from settled as well. Should Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman run, other candidates may step aside in deference to her. Another potential candidate getting significant buzz is state Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. of the Kennedy family.

* Pennsylvania

Cook Political Report rating: Lean Democrat

Trump percentage in 2016: 48.4%

Despite lackluster job approval ratings, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is running for a second term in 2018 in what may be a tough race for Republicans. Democrats are not interested in challenging the incumbent governor, who just received a clean bill of health after a battle with cancer. But Republicans, encouraged by Trump’s slight margin of victory and the state’s budget woes, are lining up for a fight. State Sen. Scott Wagner and businessman Paul Mango have launched bids for the GOP nomination. Former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley is said to be considering a run, and a handful of congressmen representing the Keystone State — including Mike Kelly, Charlie Dent, Tom Marino and Patrick Meehan — could also be in the mix.

Other races to watch

* Minnesota

Cook Political Report rating: Lean Democrat

Clinton percentage in 2016: 46.4%

Gov. Mark Dayton is retiring, leaving his seat open in Minnesota. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (as Democrats in the state are known) is confident that it is in a good position to hold on to the seat, and there’s no shortage of names circulating within the party. Those who have already announced that they are running include St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, state Representatives Tina Liebling and Erin Murphy and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. The field could get bigger in the DFL primary, with U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, state Attorney General Lori Swanson and state Rep. Paul Thissen still weighing whether to jump in. On the GOP side, Hennepin County commissioner Jeff Johnson, who lost to Dayton in 2014, recently announced a second run, joining a handful of state elected Republicans already in the race.

* New Hampshire

Cook Political Report rating: Lean Republican

Clinton percentage in 2016: 46.8%

After just winning his seat for governor, incumbent Republican Chris Sununu will have to run again in New Hampshire, which has two-year terms for its governors. The state is known to swing between voting for Democratic and Republican governors — and it did vote for Clinton in 2016 by very slim margin last year — but 2018 still may be too soon for the pendulum to swing back to a Democratic governor’s mansion. The Sununu name is entrenched in the state; Chris Sununu’s father is a former governor and his brother is a former U.S. senator. Democrats who may run include several former gubernatorial candidates: Former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand (who has already announced a bid), former state Securities Bureau Chief Mark Connolly and 2016 gubernatorial nominee Colin Van Ostern. Former Rep. Paul Hodes also hasn’t ruled out a run.

* Wisconsin

Cook Political Report rating: Lean Republican

Trump percentage in 2016: 47.2%

Incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker has not formally announced his bid for reelection just yet, but it is highly likely that he will run for a third term. Walker won a recall election in 2012 and was reelected in 2014 with 52 percent of the vote. Walker remains polarizing, but the race could still lean in his favor if Wisconsin Democrats fail to produce a viable challenger. Bob Harlow, who ran an unsuccessful bid for California’s 18th district in 2016, is the only Democrat who has announced a bid so far.