(AP Photo/Scott Bauer)
Opinion writer

The good folks at Sabato’s Crystal Ball have released a new set of rankings of the gubernatorial contests. There are some three dozen such races this fall, and many of the gubernatorial mansions in play are currently held by Republicans, which gives Democrats tremendous pickup opportunities at the level of the states.

But I wanted to focus on a handful of races in the Midwest. Sabato and company have shifted their rating of the Wisconsin contest from Lean Republican to Toss Up now that Democrats have picked a solid nominee, state schools chief Tony Evers, to go up against GOP incumbent Scott Walker. They’ve also moved Minnesota into the Lean Democratic column now that Republicans have chosen full-blown Trumpist Jeff Johnson as their nominee against Dem Rep. Tim Walz.

That means six big Midwestern states are Toss Ups or better for Democrats:

There are six governorships at stake in the Midwest, and all are rated Toss-up (or worse) for Republicans: Illinois is rated Likely Democratic. … So that means, in our ratings, Democrats are favored in Illinois and Minnesota and are in Toss-up races in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. …

Of the six Midwest governorships mentioned here, Republicans currently hold all but Minnesota. It is possible that Democrats could win all six this year. Realistically, they should win at least three and probably four of the six, given the trajectory of the cycle.

Obviously, there would be great symbolic value in Democrats taking back gubernatorial mansions in the Midwestern states where Donald Trump shattered the vaunted “blue wall” in 2016, and this would perhaps bode well for Democratic chances to reverse those losses in the 2020 presidential race.

But these races — particularly the ones in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio — matter for another huge reason: Winning them could do a lot to help Democrats reverse their losses in the House of Representatives, too. I’m talking about losses Democrats suffered in part at the hands of GOP gerrymandering.

In most states, state legislatures draw the district lines for congressional districts. Because of the enormous GOP victory in the 2010 elections, which was built upon in 2014 and 2016, Republicans enjoy total control of the state legislatures and the gubernatorial mansions in those three states: Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

Those three states remain heavily gerrymandered at the congressional level by the GOP. Now Democrats are in such a deep hole at the state level that even if they make gains, Republicans will very likely retain control of the state legislatures in all those three states. Depending on what happens in 2020, that means they’ll likely have control over redistricting in those three states in the next decade as well.

But here’s the rub: In all those states, governors can veto redistricting maps. This means that if Democrats can take control of the gubernatorial mansions in them, they can have a hand in forcing much fairer congressional (and state legislative) maps. Ohio is in some ways a different animal: Voters there recently passed a new redistricting system that utilizes a bipartisan commission to draw district lines if the legislature cannot pass an initial map by a supermajority. Still, if that process fails, the state legislature ultimately draws the map by simple majority, which means gerrymandering is still a real possibility — and if that happens, a Democratic governor there could block a terrible map.

The bottom line is that if Dems can win in these states, they can force fairer maps. And to understand what fairer maps might look like, just glance over at neighboring Pennsylvania. This, too, was heavily gerrymandered after the 2010 GOP rout. But after the courts stepped in, Pennsylvania now has a much fairer map, and partly because of this, Democrats are projected to pick up several additional congressional seats, which could bring the overall seat spread much more in line with the state’s small Democratic lean.

This gives you a sense of what forcing fairer maps can look like. It also underscores the urgency of Democrats keeping the gubernatorial mansion in Pennsylvania, making this another contest with long-term importance in Midwestern territory snatched by Trump. By the way, if Democrats can win the Florida gubernatorial race as well, that could also make a big difference in the next decade’s redistricting wars.

In my forthcoming book, “An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics”, I try to game out what these gains might look like. (Yes, you can preorder it!) I also get into the raging debate among data nerds about the degree to which geographic sorting, rather than gerrymandering, is the problem Democrats face. The short answer is: Yes, geographic sorting is a big problem. But gerrymandering clearly plays a key role in the Democrats’ disadvantage.

Indeed, in the book, I report that Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman believes that if Democrats can secure fairer maps in many of these big states, this could ultimately bring a dozen House seats back into the Democratic column. Other analysts think it could be higher. All of which is to say it once again: Keep focused on the elections in the states. They matter.

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