Democratic hopes of clawing back power in state capitals face considerable uncertainty in Tuesday’s midterms, as a number of highly competitive races for governor throw into question the party’s efforts to use states as a check on President Trump.
Just a few weeks ago, Democrats appeared well-positioned to pick up at least a half-dozen governorships while making major gains in state legislative chambers that will draw congressional boundaries after the 2020 Census. Democrats were especially heartened about their chances in Midwestern and Southern states, including Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Florida — all states that left party activists bitterly disappointed in 2016 after droves of white voters abandoned the party for Trump.
But in recent days, Democratic enthusiasm has been dampened by the continued closeness of key races, forcing party leaders to recalibrate expectations. The two most high-profile governor’s races, featuring African American Democrats in Florida and Georgia who are seeking historic wins, are among the races going down to the wire.
Republicans are also mounting strong challenges in several traditionally Democratic states, including Oregon and Connecticut. Democrats are running strong races in some states — like Pennsylvania, which went narrowly to Trump in 2016 — with Democratic governors.
“Things I would have expected to break open one way or another just aren’t,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, the senior editor of the Cook Political Report. “You still have a decent number of undecided voters . . . and, in some ways, the Republican base woke up.”
After making steady gains during the Obama presidency, Republicans now hold 33 of the nation’s 50 governorships, just one below their all-time high of 34. Republicans also hold the majority in two-thirds of state legislative chambers.
In Tuesday’s election, 36 states will hold a governor’s election, and Republicans will be defending 26 of them. With so many opportunities, Democrats still remain well-positioned to make gains.
But the precise number of Democratic pickups is being viewed as a crucial test of the party’s message in swing states, especially when it comes to voter concerns about health care and public schools. The gubernatorial races also are being seen as a test of Democratic efforts to rebuild at the local level after they received a surge of volunteers following Trump’s election. Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping the nation’s improving economy overpowers the electorate’s continued anti-incumbency mood.
“People are looking for a bit of balance,” said Elisabeth Pearson, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, which has raised a record $122 million. “There are different dynamics in each state, but with everything coming out of D.C., and things Trump is saying, it is worrying people, and they want steady leadership.”
Democrats are especially confident they will defeat Illinois Republican Bruce Rauner, one of the nation’s least-popular governors, and take over the chief executive’s offices in Michigan and New Mexico, which are held by retiring Republicans.
But whether Democrats can make dramatic gains — perhaps even reaching parity with Republicans for governorships — will probably come down to a half-dozen races in states that formed the backbone of Trump’s surprise 2016 victory.
In Florida, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, seeking to be the state’s first black chief executive, has narrowly led Republican Ron DeSantis, a former congressman, for much of the fall. But GOP strategists and Florida political observers say the race has tightened, setting the stage for a volatile conclusion to a campaign that has been cluttered with allegations of racism and corruption.
In Georgia, the race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp has been deadlocked for weeks, with many observers now predicting neither candidate will get 50 percent of the vote in the multicandidate race. Abrams, seeking to be the first black woman elected as governor of any state, and Kemp would then advance to a Dec. 4 runoff.
Democratic hopes in the Midwest depend on the return of the blue-collar voter who went for Trump in 2016.
In Ohio, Democrat Richard Cordray, a former Obama administration official, is running against Republican Mike DeWine for the seat left open by term-
limited Gov. John Kasich (R).
Former governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, said party leaders are cautiously optimistic that the party’s standing in working-class communities has improved.
“A lot of people went for Trump for a variety of reasons — frustration, resentment, some sexism and racism — but there is now just a different climate than there was two years ago,” Strickland said. Still, Strickland said he’s “surprised” the governor’s race remains as close as it is.
In Wisconsin, most polls have shown Democrat Tony Evers with a small lead over Gov. Scott Walker (R), who is vying for a third term. But a poll released Tuesday by Marquette University showed the candidates deadlocked at 47 percent, and Republicans note Walker has a history of outperforming expectations during the final days of a campaign, including surviving a 2012 recall election.
Despite voter anger at the condition of Wisconsin’s public schools and highways, Walker appears to be benefiting from the state’s strong economy, including a 3 percent unemployment rate.
“I think the party and the base are now motivated and not like the malaise of midsummer,” said Thomas Schreibel, a Republican National Committeeman from Wisconsin. “And people are realizing it took Governor Walker eight years to turn this state around, and it could quickly turn around the opposite way.”
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) is locked in a close race against Democrat Fred Hubbell. The race has become a referendum on Reynolds’s management of the state’s health-care network, including a Republican-led effort to privatize Medicaid.
David Anderson, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, said Reynolds’s stance has cost her votes.
“Without the Democratic wave this year, Kim Reynolds would be doing much, much better, but I think it’s probably going to be enough to bring her down,” Anderson said.
But Republicans are more confident than they were a few weeks ago. GOP candidates like Walker have sought to neutralize Democratic attacks on health care by insisting they want to preserve protections for those with preexisting conditions — even though many also support repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
“It took us as a party a little while to get our message down in order to articulate that to voters,” said one GOP strategist closely involved in this year’s gubernatorial races.
One continuing surprise has been Republican difficulty in heavily red Oklahoma, Kansas and South Dakota.
In Oklahoma and Kansas, Democratic candidates have made inroads with voters angered by state budget cuts, and the Republican Party’s overall turn to the right in recent years. In South Dakota, the inspiring story of Democrat Billie Sutton — a former rodeo star who was paralyzed in a 2007 riding accident — has helped him remain competitive with Republican Rep. Kristi L. Noem.
Democrats are also reconsidering how many state legislative seats they can win this year. Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, or DLCC, said the party now expects to win control of a half-dozen chambers, with Iowa, Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Colorado and Maine being top targets. Earlier this year, the DLCC had been predicting Democrats could flip eight to 10 legislatures.
Catherine Vaughan, executive director of Flippable.org, formed after the 2016 election to try to boost Democrats’ chances in local races, said Democratic campaigns are benefiting from “a lot of homegrown grass-roots organizing” this year. But Vaughan said some groups are scaling back expectations because Democratic donors are directing the bulk of their money to congressional candidates.
“A lot of people haven’t put their money with their mouth is,” said Vaughan, whose organization has raised about $2 million this year.
But Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect GOP state legislators, said Republican nominees at the local level are proving to be surprisingly resilient at crafting an independent identity, despite Democratic attempts to link them to Trump.
“And here we sit, a week before the election, and after all that money and all the hype, there are still all of these states where we are highly competitive,” Walter said.