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Best GOP Gubernatorial Year Since 1920?

As reported in Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire, a University of Minnesota site called Smart Politics has done an analysis suggesting that Republicans are “Poised To Win Most Gubernatorial Seats in 90 Years.” A subtitle suggests the “GOP could challenge 100+ year Party mark of 29 seats won in 1920.”

A closer look at this eye-catching claim indicates that the “most gubernatorial seats” projection is technically correct, but a bit misleading, since Republicans are very unlikely to have a better gubernatorial year than in 1994, when they gained ten net seats; the higher level of wins, if it happens, will be attributable to the higher level of current GOP governorships going into this cycle. And the idea that Republicans could win 29 governorships, while possible, depends on placing a lot of credence in the Rasmussen surveys that dominate current gubernatorial polling.

Smart Politics gets to its predictions via Larry Sabato’s current projections of gubernatorial races, which show Republicans ahead (if in some cases only by a “lean”) in 19 of the 37 states up this year, with Dems ahead in 5 and indies in 1, leaving 12 toss-ups. Thus, it is reasonably suggested, if GOPers just pick up half the toss-ups, they’d win 25 governorships, the best performance since 1920.

First of all, it’s useful to compare Sabato’s projections with those of another, and more cautious, leading authority, Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy, who shows Republicans leading in 12 contests (four of them “leans”), Democrats in seven (four of them “leans”) with 18 toss-ups. Using the same method but applying them to Duffy’s ratings, Smart Politics would have shown Republicans likely to win 21 seats, not 25, which would fall well short of the seats won in 1994 and 1966–a fine year, no doubt, but not exactly a record dating back 90 years.

But the bigger question is whether performance in gubernatorial races should be measures by total seats won, or net gains. By the latter standard, and using the Sabato projections, while splitting the toss-ups, the results would show Republicans with a net gain of seven seats–not that much different than the net Democratic gain of six seats just four years ago, and considerably less than the 10-seat gain in 1994. Using the Cook projections, and again, splitting the toss-ups, we’d be looking at a net gain of just three seats, which is hardly historic at all.

As for the tantalizing idea of a 30-seat year that would shatter the 1920 record, Smart Politics throws that possibility out based on analyzing Sabato’s 12 toss-up races using the latest polling. Turns out Republicans are ahead, if in some cases just barely, in nine of them. But naturally, eight of those nine are in states where the latest polling is from Rasmussen, in whose world this has always been a huge GOP landslide year in the making. Even by that measure, Republicans would only be “poised” to win 28 seats, not 29 or 30, but we’re obviously into the realm of wave theory and not hard projections. And in the remote contingency of Republicans winning 28 of 37 contests, their net gain would be 10, equalling, but not exceeding, the 1994 harvest.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of close gubernatorial races, and while Republicans are in very good shape in this arena, it’s a bit too early to talk about 90-year records.

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