|by Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor,
Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
August 17, 2017
One of the nation’s top election handicappers — Sabato’s Crystal Ball, headquartered in Virginia — tabs Michigan as one of the most uncertain targets for national Democrats aiming to making major gains in governorship races in 2018. Currently, Republican hold a modern record 34 governorships, Democrats only 15, with Alaska Gov. Bill Walker the only Independent.
In Michigan, says Crystal Ball, “state Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) probably starts as a favorite in his likely primary with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley (R) and others, if only because of superior name recognition. The Democrats seem content with former State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer as their likely nominee, although there are several others competing for the spot. This is a state that probably should be a clearer Democratic pickup opportunity than it is: Michigan seems primed to swing back to Democrats after Trump’s very narrow win, but the GOP may end up with a stronger nominee and be able to gut out a win. ”
In the nation as a whole, Crystal Ball senior columnist Alan Abramowitz has unveiled a model for predicting party change in next year’s gubernatorial elections. The results are rosy for Democrats: The model suggests Democrats should gain somewhere between six to nine governorships depending on the Democratic lead in House generic ballot polling. The Democratic advantage is in large part simply because: 1.) There is a Republican in the White House, and the presidential party often loses ground in midterm elections up and down the ballot; and 2.) Republicans are defending 26 of the 36 governorships up for election next year, meaning that they have a lot of ground to defend while the Democrats have relatively little.
The model does not take into account two other factors, both of which are also positive for Democrats. President Donald Trump is unpopular, and many of the governorships the Republicans are defending next year are open seats, which inherently are harder to defend. Of the 36 governorships up next year, Republicans will be defending 12 open governorships and an additional four (Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, and South Carolina) where successor incumbents who took over for departed or soon-to-be departing governors likely will be on the ballot next year seeking election to full terms. As the Crystal Ball’s Geoffrey Skelley found recently, these successor incumbents historically do not have as much of an incumbency advantage as their elected counterparts. So one could say the Republicans are defending 16 open seats, while the Democrats are only defending four.
And yet, at this early point, it may be that the Democrats will have a hard time realizing the potential that the Abramowitz model illustrates. For one thing, the average presidential party gubernatorial seat net loss in postwar midterm elections is only four seats, and even in the big wave years of 2006 and 2010, the net change in governorships was only six in favor of the wave-aided side (Democrats in 2006, Republicans in 2010). Additionally, there are some logistical advantages for Republicans. One is the financial might of the Republican Governors Association. In the first half of 2017, the RGA raised $36 million to the Democratic Governors Association’s $21 million, and the RGA has long held a money edge over its Democratic counterpart. The DGA’s disadvantage may be blunted a little bit by the efforts of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a new group backed by former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder that raised close to $11 million in the first half of this year. Some of that money will presumably go into gubernatorial races given the importance of this cycle’s gubernatorial races to decennial redistricting after the 2020 census (many of the governors elected next year will have a role in that process in 2021 and 2022). But still, if Republicans have a poor gubernatorial cycle, it won’t be because their candidates did not have the money to compete.
In addition, in many states, Republicans may have the more seasoned candidates. The Democratic bench of potential candidates was hollowed out in many states due to the party’s poor performances down the ballot in the Obama years. That’s common for the president’s party, though it was particularly pronounced for Democrats over the past eight years. So in many states, particularly in the Midwest, the Republican gubernatorial nominees are likely to be more proven electoral performers than the Democratic ones, although that of course is no guarantee of victory.
For a full rundown of all the races, go to the Sabato’s Crystal Ball website. Crystal Ball takes a look at the upcoming gubernatorial races in five categories, starting with the two 2017 races and then looking at incumbent and non-incumbent seats in 2018 for both parties.