Democrats had an election night to forget last month. They lost the presidency and a net of two governor’s mansions,1 and gained fewer seats in the House and Senate than was expected. But those disappointments didn’t all occur the same way. Although the Senate elections were among the most nationalized of all time — Donald Trump won the states where GOP Senate candidates were elected — 2016’s 12 gubernatorial races didn’t follow suit. And the lack of a close tie between the gubernatorial races and the presidential race could be a good thing for Democrats in 2018 and going forward, but it might also shield Republicans if the Trump administration runs into problems.
The average difference between the gubernatorial and presidential results in 2016 was 17 percentage points on the margin. That compares with a difference of 5 percentage points between the results of the 13 most watched Senate races and the presidential results in those states.
Indeed, if all you were looking at was the presidential lean of a state, you’d never see the outcomes of several gubernatorial races coming. Democrat Jim Justice won the race to be governor of West Virginia by 7 points even as Trump won there by 42 percentage points.2 Republican Phil Scott carried Vermont by 9 percentage points even though Trump lost there by 26 points. Of the seven gubernatorial elections that were held in states where Trump was victorious, Democrats won three — in addition to West Virginia, the Democratic candidate won outright in Montana, and in North Carolina, Republican incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory hasn’t conceded but is likely to lose to Democrat Roy Cooper.
Republicans, meanwhile, won two of the five gubernatorial elections that were held in states that Hillary Clinton carried — along with Vermont, the GOP won in New Hampshire. Overall, that means that only a little more than half of the governor races up for grabs this year went the same way as the presidential races in their state. Even in the states where the same party won both the gubernatorial and presidential race, there were big differences in the margins, often more than 10 percentage points.
The 2016 gubernatorial results reflect a phenomenon we’ve seen in the past few election cycles. Like House and Senate races, gubernatorial races have grown increasingly tied to the presidential results in a given district or state — but they have done so at a far slower pace. In 2014, just 36 percent of variation in gubernatorial results could be explained by the 2012 presidential result in that state. For 2014 Senate races, that figure was 76 percent. This year, even as presidential races told us more about the Senate results than ever before, only 12 percent of the variation in gubernatorial results by state can be explained by the 2016 presidential result.
There’s a logic to this, of course. Senators serve in Washington, along with the president — so voters may be choosing candidates for those offices on similar criteria. In gubernatorial races, more Americans appear to be voting on local issues. Sometimes, states diverge from their presidential preferences because voters are frustrated with the sitting governor, as in Vermont this year — or like the job he or she is doing, as was the case in Montana. Sometimes, gubernatorial candidates do a good job of separating themselves from the national brand, as Justice did in West Virginia (he said he couldn’t support Clinton). Sometimes, voters want to check the power of the state legislature, like they did in Massachusetts in 2014. In North Carolina this year, voters didn’t like efforts to implement toll roads or the controversial law that overturned a Charlotte city ordinance allowing transgender people to use their preferred bathroom in public buildings.
That voters aren’t just going along with how they vote in presidential elections (mostly determined by party identification) in governor’s elections is potentially good news for Democrats heading into 2018. That’s because for them to win a majority of governor’s mansions, they’re going to need to win in states that Trump won. Right now, Democrats hold only 16 of 50 governorships and only nine of the 36 up for a vote in 2018. Just 16 of those 36 races (44 percent) are being held in states Clinton won. That a Democrat won in Montana in 2016, for example, means that one might be able to win in 2018 in Kansas, where Republican Sam Brownback continues to be despised. Or maybe Democrats can pull of a victory in Arizona, where Clinton nearly won and where longtime Republican Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County lost his re-election bid this year.
But the lack of a relationship between presidential and gubernatorial results could be good for Republicans, too. It could mean that Republican gubernatorial candidates might not be as vulnerable to being dragged down by Trump if he remains unpopular (or becomes more unpopular). Republicans may be able to retain the seats they hold not only in purple states such as Ohio and Florida, but also in blue states like Maryland and Massachusetts, where Republican Govs. Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker remain popular.
So as Democrats look to rebuild the party, they won’t be able to rest assured that an unpopular Trump will help them pick up governor’s mansions. And winning back governorships should be a top priority for the party. Here’s why:
First, much of the legislating that affects Americans happens on the state level. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican, remade union laws in his state. Brownback made big cuts to higher education in Kansas. Voter identification laws that Democrats have decried were pretty much exclusively signed by Republican governors. And if you’ve seen lower taxes in Maryland and Massachusetts over the past few years, those states’ GOP governors have something to do with that.
Second, governors provide a bench for future presidential and Senate candidates. Part of the reason Clinton faced so little competition for the Democratic nomination in 2016 was that the party had few nationally known, popular prospects. Democratic governors were wiped out in 2010 and 2014. If Democrats want to have good presidential candidates in 2020 and beyond, they probably need more governors. And even if governors don’t go after the presidency, they could run for Senate. In this year’s Senate elections in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, Democrats were plagued by candidates who weren’t top tier. In the only state where a sitting Democratic governor ran for Senate (New Hampshire), she won a close race.
Third, governors play a big role in the redrawing of districts for the U.S. House after each decennial census, which is one factor behind the disadvantage that Democrats have in that body. After the 2010 Census, GOP governors helped draw district lines to their party’s advantage. If Democrats could win governorships in states they don’t currently control, they would have more of a say over how those lines are drawn after the 2020 Census. And that would give them better odds of taking back and holding the House.
Of course, Democrats need to actually win some governorships in 2018 to do any of this. Because the elections are nearly two years away, it’s way too early to say what might happen. Still, Democrats would be wise to concentrate on governor’s mansions. Because Republicans control so many states, Democrats have a realistic shot at picking up some governorships. And because of the lack of a close relationship between presidential and gubernatorial results, Democrats have a chance of winning in some red states where Republicans are currently in charge.