When it comes to gubernatorial races, Republicans say they’re victims of their own success from two great election cycles in a row. Going into 2018, Republicans control a near-record high of 33 governor’s mansions, including a number in blue and swing states.
So the only place for Democrats to go in 2018 may be up. What Democrats win back is critical for the future of their party. Many of the governors in these states will have strong influence over the legislative districts drawn when new census data arrives in 2020.
A full election cycle before that, Democrats will have a lot of opportunities to chip away at their deficit. Of our top 10 governor’s races in 2018, eight are for Republican-held seats.
As primaries settle, Republicans have managed to make some seats they’re defending, such as Maryland’s, slightly less competitive. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is no longer on our list of top 10. Other Republican governors, as in Illinois, look to be in big trouble. Here are the latest top 10 governor’s races, ranked in order of least likely to flip parties (10) to most (1).
10. Wisconsin (Republican-held, no previous ranking): Gov. Scott Walker (R) is attempting to do something few governors do successfully: win a third term. Actually, this will be his fourth statewide election in eight years, since he also won a recall in 2012. Democrats in Wisconsin say this is the year to take out Walker. Tuesday’s primary, in which Democrats nominated state schools superintendent Tony Evers to take him on, showed signs of a Democratic electorate finally turning out in off-year elections. That may be enough for Democrats to win in a swing state in a tough year for Republicans nationally. Walker knows this; he’s warned of a “blue wave” in his state after several special elections that were alarming for Republicans, but his allies say the battle-tested Walker is ready.
9. Ohio (Republican-held seat that will be open in 2018. Previous ranking 9): Ohio is the second of several governor’s mansions in Trump states that Democrats are targeting. Gov. John Kasich (R) is term-limited, and Democrats hope that Republicans' domination of the state mansion, plus anti-Trump sentiment, plus a liberal hero of sorts in former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Richard Cordray, could give them the edge. But it’s not clear if Ohio will go Democratic, given that it went for Donald Trump by nearly 10 points. Polls are all over the place between Cordray and the Republicans' nominee, state Attorney General Mike DeWine.
8. Connecticut (Democratic-held seat that will be open. Previous ranking 8): Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) has decided not to run for a third term, and with good reason. More than two-thirds of the state disapproves of him, according to polls. Republicans have made this a top target. On Tuesday, they nominated Bob Stefanowski, a wealthy former GE executive. Democrats nominated their own wealthy candidate, businessman Ned Lamont. This race may come down to whom Connecticut voters loathe most: Trump, who has endorsed Stefanowski, or their current governor. Something to watch for: Is Stefanowski too tied to Trump to be a Republican governor in a blue state like Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland?
7. Florida (Republican-held open seat in 2018, previous ranking 6): One Republican operative described Florida as the purest toss-up race in 2018. Statewide races in Florida are always close (like, within a percentage point or two). A recent Trump endorsement could benefit Democrats, though. Trump’s endorsement of conservative Rep. Ron DeSantis boosted him in the polls over more establishment picks ahead of the Aug. 28 primary. Democrats hope DeSantis is too conservative and too Trump-like (he recently ran an ad of himself helping his toddler daughter build a wall with blocks). The Democratic primary is still up in the air; the strongest nominee would probably be former congresswoman Gwen Graham.
6. Nevada (Republican-held seat that will be open in 2018. Previous ranking 5): Nevada moves slightly less competitive for Democrats, mostly as a function of other races looking more competitive for Democrats. Democrats are trying to keep their up-and-down-the-ballot success in 2016 going by taking the governor’s mansion from term-limited Brian Sandoval (R). Their nominee is Democratic Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak. Not helping Republicans is that Sandoval, one of the most popular politicians in the state, said this week he won’t offer his endorsement to the Republican nominee, Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Recent polls show the race close.
5. Michigan (Republican-held seat that will be open in 2018. Previous ranking 7): Of the past three toss-up races, Michigan looks the most favorable to Democrats right now. Trump won it by less than a percentage point, and outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is highly unpopular. His handling of the Flint water crisis could taint his would-be successor, Trump-backed Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette. Democrats are excited about their nominee, Gretchen Whitmer, the former party leader in the state Senate. Republicans acknowledge that winning Michigan will be tough but say Whitmer is vulnerable to attacks.
4. Maine (Republican-held seat that will be open in 2018. Previous ranking 2): What could still be a top pickup opportunity for Democrats feels a little more competitive for Republicans now that the nominees are set. Republican businessman Shawn Moody has plenty of money to try to outrun the large shadow cast by the departing, unpopular GOP governor, Paul LePage. Polls show the race tied between Moody and Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills, who Democrats feel is a strong nominee. But could two third-party candidates take away votes from Mills, given that Maine is a state with a strong independent streak that also leans a touch left? Ranked-choice voting, which Maine voters instituted this summer, might prevent such a scenario by lumping the candidates all together. But that won’t be in effect for the general election.
3. Alaska (Independent-held. Previous ranking 3): Gov. Bill Walker (I) is the only independent governor in office right now, and he could soon realize the perils of not having a major-party backer. Republicans are already making an effort to oust him, and the entry into the race of former Democratic U.S. senator Mark Begich has put this on the radar for Democrats. Republicans think former state senator Mike Dunleavy will win Tuesday’s primary. This could be one of the most endangered governor’s mansions in America if anyone drops out by the Sept. 4 deadline, depending how a two-way battle shapes up.
2. Illinois (Republican-held. Previous ranking 4): This is probably the most drastic move on our list. Everyone we spoke to agrees that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) is one of the, if not the, most vulnerable governors in America, despite his billions. He’s facing another billionaire, J.B. Pritzker, of one of the wealthiest families in the country. What happens when two billionaires clash can be unpredictable, but the emergence of a third-party conservative candidate, state Sen. Sam McCann, really hurts Rauner’s already iffy chances for reelection.
1. New Mexico (Republican-held seat that will be open in 2018. Previous ranking 1): The state is trending blue (Hillary Clinton won it by nearly 10 points), it’s a majority-minority state, and the outgoing governor, Republican Susan Martinez, isn’t very popular. That’s a recipe for a Democratic pickup. This race pits two members of Congress, Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) against Stevan Pearce (R), and some analysts' polling shared with The Fix shows Lujan Grisham up by eight to nine points.