The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Democratic Party’s future could be on the line in 7 hugely important governor’s races

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Republicans control government at nearly all levels — from the presidency to Congress to their historic domination of governorships and state legislatures. And a big reason they've monopolized the U.S. House and state legislatures this entire decade is that, in much of the country, they drew the maps.

Which leaves Democrats with a real chicken-and-egg dilemma: To redraw those maps more favorably for themselves, they first must win the races that allow them to be at the table when the lines are redrawn. Except they have little hope of retaking a significant number of state legislative chambers by 2020 because of those very same maps. In 2010, the last election before maps were redrawn based on new census data, Republicans picked up some 21 chambers and flipped 725 state legislative seats. They controlled the drawing of nearly half of all congressional districts — four times as many as Democrats.

And Democrats have been locked out of power in some key swing states ever since.

Democrats' quickest way back to relevancy, then, is to win governor's races in 2018. That would at least give them veto power over post-2020 Republican-drawn maps and, in the worst-case scenarios, kick it to the courts.

“That alone would result in considerable gains for Democrats,” said Mark Gersh, a longtime redistricting expert at the Democratic-leaning National Committee for an Effective Congress.

Governor's races aren't the sexiest in politics, but it's hard to overstate how important the seven listed below are. They won't just chart the future of their states; they also may determine whether Democrats can get back on their feet in Congress and in key state legislatures at any point in the next 15 years. Democrats estimate they could pick up as many as 10 or more seats in the House of Representatives if they can have a say in post-2020 redistricting, and they've launched a new redistricting effort aided by President Obama to try to make that happen.

“I truly believe that if we don't win these states races — particularly governors' races — in 2018, we are going to have another decade of lost Democratic leaders,” said Elisabeth Pearson, the executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association.

After even more steps backward in the 2016 election, it's not an exaggeration to say these seven races could be most important races of this entire decade.

1. Virginia

Virginia is a vital test for Democrats' renewed focus on redistricting, since it is the first governor's race in which the winner will get a say in redrawing a state's electoral maps. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who co-chairs the Democratic governors' redistricting fund, is term-limited in 2017.

On the line are glaring disparities between how Virginians vote and who represents them at the federal and state level: Virginia has voted for the Democratic candidate for president in the past three elections and won nearly every statewide race in recent years, yet Republicans control two-thirds of the state House and have a slim, two-seat majority in the state Senate. In 2017, Republicans will hold seven of 11 congressional seats. Some gerrymandering experts think if Democrats have more of a say in drawing new maps, they could pick up as many as three congressional seats and take a majority of that delegation.

Democrats already picked up one seat this fall thanks to the Supreme Court, which effectively threw out some of the GOP-drawn congressional districts, leading to a court-redrawn map and the election of the state's second-ever black U.S. House member. In December, the Supreme Court heard arguments claiming a dozen Richmond-area state House districts were illegally drawn based on race. (The Supreme Court has long said race can't be the main factor for drawing districts, although partisanship can.)

Democrats will try to hold on to the governor's mansion there with any number of candidates, although as of now just Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has declared his candidacy. Republicans already have a bevy of declared candidates, including 2014 Senate candidate Ed Gillespie; Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors; and state Sen. Frank W. Wagner.

2. Florida

There is perhaps no state whose delegation has been so at-odds with its typical presidential results. After the 2010 election, Republicans actually controlled 19 out of 25 congressional districts in this swing state — more than three-quarters (!).

They got to solidify many of those gains by drawing the map before the 2012 election. But since then, court decisions have changed many of their districts, allowing Democrats to win 11 of the state’s 27 districts in the 2016 election.

Those decisions and the state's “Fair Districts” law mean it's unlikely we'll see another hugely ambitious attempt at a gerrymander even if Republicans do control the entire redistricting process. But control still matters, simply because of how many districts are at stake (tied for the third-most in the country), and Democrats stand to possibly gain as many as two or three seats if they have a Democratic governor.

The GOP is very likely to retain its stranglehold on the state legislature, where it holds a 25-15 majority in the state Senate and a 79-41 majority in the state House. That means the governor’s race is by far Democrats’ best ticket to a seat at the table. Gov. Rick Scott (R) is term-limited. Plenty of names have been floated on both sides, including former state Agriculture Commissioner and former congressman Adam Putnam (R), former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker (R), former state House speaker Will Weatherford (R), outgoing congresswoman Gwen Graham (D) and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn (D). So at this point, it’s anyone’s guess. But it will be a big one for Democrats.

3. Pennsylvania

One of the most successful gerrymanders last cycle was in the Keystone State, where Republicans used their newfound power after the 2010 election to shore up vulnerable incumbents in the Philadelphia suburbs and elsewhere. While Republicans controlled just seven of 19 districts before 2010, they have rather easily held on to 13 of 18 districts this whole decade.

What that also means, though, is that those suburban Philadelphia districts could just as quickly become a little less favorable. And for Democrats, that probably means reelecting Gov. Tom Wolf (D), since Republicans control two-thirds of the state Senate and more than 60 percent of the state House. Doing so could result in a two- or three-seat Democratic gain in the House.

But Wolf happens to be the only Democratic governor seeking reelection next year in a state Donald Trump won, and he could face any number of Republicans, from state Sen. Scott Wagner (who is already in) to Rep. Mike Kelly to former lieutenant governor Jim Cawley. Wolf’s approval rating dropped into the 30s this year, making him a prime target. You can bet Democrats will do whatever they can to prop him up.

4. Michigan

This state is pretty similar to Pennsylvania in that it’s usually blue-leaning, but Republicans suddenly found themselves with the trifecta of redistricting control after the 2010 election. This allowed them to merge two Democratic districts (the state had to ax one due to its population loss) and shore up their incumbents a bit. They continue to hold 9 out of 14 districts after easily holding two supposedly competitive districts — the 1st and the 7th — by 15 points apiece in the Year of Trump.

As in Pennsylvania, their advantages in the state legislature are pretty insurmountable. They hold nearly three-fourths of the state Senate (27-10) and 56 percent of the state House. Therefore, whether the GOP will control redistricting will likely come down to the open governor’s race next year.

Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is term-limited. Potential successors include state Attorney General Bill Schuette (R), Lt. Gov. Brian Calley (R), outgoing congresswoman Candice S. Miller (R) and Rep. Daniel Kildee (D). Democrats could also try to win back the state House, but they haven't made much headway there.

The state is likely to lose another seat due to the 2020 Census, and Democrats could gain two or even three seats with a better map.

5. Ohio

The 2010 elections were terrible for Ohio Democrats. They lost the governor's mansion, half of their 10 Democratic members of Congress and control of the state House. In 2017, Republicans will have a 2-to-1 majority in the state House and control 23 out of 33 state Senate seats. Despite the fact the state remains swingy (though favorable to Trump this year), Republicans control 75 percent (12) of the state's 16 congressional seats.

In other words, the open governor's race is one of Democrats' only opportunities to re-wedge themselves into the map-drawing conversation (and gain as many as three congressional seats). But they could struggle from a bench problem after spending the past decade in the political wilderness.

Gov. John Kasich (R) is term-limited, and what seems like every Republican statewide officeholder has indicated they're interested in the job, including Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor. The Columbus Dispatch reports Democrats hope Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley will run, or Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general and current head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington. Also in the mix could be Rep. Tim Ryan, who is coming off an unsuccessful challenge to Nancy Pelosi for House minority leader.

What's interesting about Ohio is that some of its top Republicans, including Kasich and Husted, have also been clamoring for redistricting reform. But as Husted himself has said, it's not clear there's the political will for it: Every single member of the House of Representatives in Ohio won reelection in 2016 — in their sometimes very creatively drawn districts — by at least 60 percent of the vote.

6. Wisconsin

Shortly after the November election, a federal court struck down the maps used to elect Wisconsin's 99 state Assembly members, saying the maps burdened the voting rights of Democratic voters. Trump won Wisconsin by less than a percentage point, yet Republicans control five of the eight U.S. House seats and both state legislative chambers, including a nearly two-to-one majority in the state House.

It's not clear who — a judge or the GOP legislature — would redraw the maps, nor when. But Democrats have an incentive to get to the table as quickly as they can. Standing in their way could be one of the nation's most well-known governors. If Gov. Scott Walker (R) decides to run for a third term, Democrats will have to do one of the hardest thing in politics and unseat a sitting governor.

If they do knock him off, the most bullish Democrats think they can regain as many as two congressional seats through helping redraw maps. But, as in Ohio, their bench appears to be relatively thin, especially for a traditionally blue-leaning state.

State Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D) is considering taking Walker on. But as the Daily Kos points out, she held onto her seat in November by just 61 votes. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D) is also considering it, but she got just 4 percent of the Democratic primary vote when she tried to run for governor in 2012. There are a handful of other options, none of them nearly as well known as Walker.

7. Illinois

This one is different than the others on this list, in that it's actually Democrats who are very likely to control the state legislature come 2021, given their huge majorities. It's also different because Democrats got to draw the maps last time around, and they drew a very ambitious congressional map (one that hasn't quite panned out like they'd hoped it would).

Back then, it was one of only a handful of states where Democrats had total redistricting control, and they'd love to have it again, given the state has 18 districts. Standing in their way for now is GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), who is up for reelection in 2018 and a top target in this clearly blue-leaning state.

The self-funder could face a wealthy opponent himself, with billionaire J.B. Pritzker looking at running. Other possible hopefuls include Rep. Robin L. Kelly and businessman Chris Kennedy, the son of former senator Robert F. Kennedy. Rauner's approval rating has been underwater for much of the past year.