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Democrats Had A Big Night In Governors Races, But It Could Have Been Bigger

Midterms 2018: FiveThirtyEight reacts to election results

The Democrats made substantial gains at the gubernatorial level, as we expected. They won control of the governor’s offices from Republicans in Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Connecticut is still too close to call, but Republican Bob Stefanowski is narrowly trailing Democrat Ned Lamont, and a Stefanowski comeback there is the GOP’s only remaining shot at picking up a state from a Democrat. The majority of Americans are likely to have a Democratic governor when the results are finalized.

That said, the Democrats did not have the banner gubernatorial night that our forecast suggested was possible. Let me run through the details.

Obama-Trump states: There are six states Obama won in 2012 that flipped to Trump in 2016 — Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Our model suggested Democrats had a great chance to win all six, which would have been a huge coup for the party. Instead, Republicans won in Florida, Iowa and Ohio, while Democrats won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Republicans entered this election with control of both the state legislature and the governor’s office in all of these states but Pennsylvania. They will remain totally in charge in Florida, Iowa and Ohio. That gives them virtually unfettered power not only on policy but also in drawing district lines for state and federal legislative races. But it’s big for Democrats to have won in Michigan and Wisconsin and broken up so-called trifectas in those states.

The Midwest: The win in Illinois gives the Democrats total control of that state. The wins in Kansas and Wisconsin will be morale-boosting for Democrats, as they defeated Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Trump ally, in Kansas, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who’s known for his anti-union initiatives. That said, Republicans held on not only in Iowa and Ohio, but also in South Dakota, where Democrats looked like they had an opportunity for an upset.

Black candidates: Only two African-Americans have ever been elected governor in U.S. history. Democrats had three black candidates running this year alone. Maryland’s Ben Jealous lost badly, as expected, to Larry Hogan, a popular and moderate Republican. But Florida’s Andrew Gillum, who led in most polls of his race and had emerged as a favorite of party activists, was defeated by Republican Ron DeSantis in one of the more surprising results of the night. No winner has been declared yet in Georgia, but Stacey Abrams trails Republican Brian Kemp and seems unlikely to make up the margin in that race. She is refusing to concede for now, likely hoping the final count puts Kemp below the 50 percent mark required needed for victory there and pushes the two into a runoff.

Trump-aligned Republicans: DeSantis, Kemp and Kobach got the president’s endorsement to help boost them over more establishment Republicans during this year’s primaries and then aligned closely with Trump during their general elections. The jury is still out on this approach, but Kemp looks likely to win, making these candidates 2-1.

The Northeast: Before last night, this region was equally split, with Democrats controlling five states (Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island) and Republicans five (Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont). Democratic governors won re-election in New York and Rhode Island (Delaware and New Jersey did not have gubernatorial elections this year), but so did Republicans in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Maine moved into Democratic hands, so if the party can also hang on to Connecticut, the balance of power in the region will shift to six-four in favor of the Democrats. It helped Maine Democrat Janet Mills that she was running in an open-seat race, since outgoing Republican Gov. Paul LePage couldn’t run again because of term limits. In Connecticut, Stefanowski was buoyed by the unpopularity of outgoing Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy, though it’s not clear yet whether that will prove to be enough to carry him past Lamont.

Upsets: Kansas is a traditionally red state, but Kobach’s loss was not particularly surprising. He had his own controversial reputation, plus the baggage from the unpopular outgoing administration of Sam Brownback, a Republican who was the state’s governor from 2011 until he resigned earlier this year to take a post in the Trump administration. Others I thought might be vulnerable, like Oregon Democrat Kate Brown (leading by about 6 points) and New Hampshire Republican Chris Sununu (also leading by 6) won relatively comfortably.

We should note a few historic victories. Colorado Democrat Jared Polis become the first openly gay man to be elected governor in the U.S. New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, will become the second-ever Hispanic female governor and the first from her party. Republican Kristi Noem will be South Dakota’s first female governor. Kay Ivey of Alabama became the first GOP woman to be elected governor in her state, and Kim Reynolds of Iowa, also a Republican, last night became the first woman of any party to be elected governor there. (Both were already serving as governor after their predecessors resigned.)

CORRECTION (Nov. 9, 2018, 5 p.m.): An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect title for Kris Kobach. He is the Kansas secretary of state, not the governor.

Midterms 2018: FiveThirtyEight reacts to election results

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.