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Election Update: Democrats Are Likely To Make Big Gains In Governors Races

Welcome to our final Election Update for the 2018 governors races!

The big story about the 36 governors races this year is that Democrats are very likely to win control of several governorships from Republicans — and the GOP may not pick up any from Democrats. Indeed, it’s almost certain that more Americans will have a Democratic governor than a Republican governor in 2019. According to FiveThirtyEight’s “Classic” forecast,1 195 million Americans will have a Democratic governor after the 2018 elections, compared to 134 million with a Republican one. Democrats are forecasted to control 24 states, on average; Republicans to control 26. (Currently, 33 states have Republican governors, 16 states have Democratic governors and one (Alaska) an independent.)

If the election goes as expected, the GOP’s grip on policy at the state level is likely to be severely weakened. According to Ballotpedia, about 48 percent of Americans currently live in states where Republicans have total control of the state government,2 compared to 21 percent where Democrats have full control. (The rest live under divided government at the state level.) If things go according to our governors’ forecast, the Republican number will decline to about 32 percent and the Democratic number will increase to about 26 percent — and that’s not even considering expected gains by Democrats in state legislatures.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates in 2018 are benefitting from two broad factors: Voters tend to reject the party that controls the presidency in both state and federal elections, and Trump is a particularly unpopular incumbent president.

That said, Americans are more willing to cross party lines in a governor’s race than in races for the presidency or for Congress, so Republicans will almost certainly win at the gubernatorial level in some places that don’t jibe with national politics — but so might Democrats. Individual candidates and local factors matter a lot in governors races. So what will we be watching for on Tuesday? And, with less that 24 hours left until Election Day, what does our forecast say?

Here are eight overlapping questions that Tuesday will answer …

How well will Democrats do in the six “Obama-Trump” states?

How will Democrats do in the Obama-Trump states?

Forecasted average vote margin according to the three versions of FiveThirtyEight’s 2018 governors forecast as of Nov. 5

Forecasted vote margin
gov. Race Lite classic deluxe
Florida D+4.2 D+4.1 D+3.4
Iowa D+0.5 D+0.4 D+0.9
Michigan D+9.6 D+10.3 D+9.8
Ohio D+2.6 D+1.6 D+1.2
Pennsylvania D+14.8 D+15.4 D+15.6
Wisconsin D+4.3 D+2.0 D+1.4

Trump won Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016. All six states had voted for then-President Barack Obama in 2012. Now, however, Democrats are clear favorites in two of these states, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf is a near lock in the Keystone State, according to our forecast, and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer isn’t far behind, with a 19 in 20 chance in the Wolverine State. The Democratic candidate in Florida, Andrew Gillum, is a more modest favorite, with a 3 in 4 chance of winning. But he has a clearer lead than the Democratic candidates in the other three Obama-Trump states — Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin. Iowa is almost a perfect 50-50 toss-up, Ohio leans a hair more Democratic than that, and Wisconsin, where Democrat Tony Evers has a 5 in 8 chance of ousting incumbent Gov. Scott Walker, another hair.

If Democrats are having a good night overall, six-for-six is a real possibility, and would be a huge coup for the party. But Democrats going three-for-six is very much possible too. And it should delight Republicans if they win governors races in Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio in such a pro-Democratic year like this one is likely to be.

The policy implications are huge in these contests. Republicans right now have total control of the government in all of these states except for Pennsylvania. So Democrats can block conservative legislation and prevent redistricting that could entrench GOP control at both the state and federal legislative levels if they win.

Will Democrats dominate in the Midwest?

Who will win governor races in Midwestern states?

Forecasted average vote margin according to the three versions of FiveThirtyEight’s 2018 governors forecast as of Nov. 5

Forecasted vote margin
gov. Race Lite classic deluxe
Illinois D+17.9 D+9.2 D+10.3
Iowa D+0.5 D+0.4 D+0.9
Kansas D+0.5 R+1.3 R+0.8
Michigan D+9.6 D+10.3 D+9.8
Minnesota D+7.2 D+9.3 D+9.7
Nebraska R+28.0 R+21.7 R+22.1
Ohio D+2.6 D+1.6 D+1.2
Pennsylvania D+14.8 D+15.4 D+15.6
South Dakota D+1.8 R+3.2 R+2.5
Wisconsin D+4.3 D+2.0 D+1.4

Five of the six states I just mentioned are in the Midwest, where Democrats are set to have a very good 2018.3 They are also likely to retake the governor’s mansion in Illinois and keep control in Minnesota. If all goes according to the forecast, all the post-2016 handwringing among Democrats about their collapse in the Midwest will look overwrought. Republicans are favored in Kansas, but just barely, and even South Dakota is not a shoo-in for the GOP. Nebraska’s Pete Ricketts is the only overwhelming Republican favorite in this region.

Combining their strength in the Midwest and in Obama-Trump states, Democrats on Tuesday could take control of the governor’s mansion from Republicans in five of America’s 10 most-populous states (Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio) — states that, not coincidentally, have a big haul of votes in the Electoral College.

Will it be a banner year for black gubernatorial candidates?

How black Democrats might fare

Forecasted average vote margin according to the three versions of FiveThirtyEight’s 2018 governors forecast as of Nov. 5

Forecasted vote margin
gov. Race Lite classic deluxe
Florida D+4.2 D+4.1 D+3.4
Georgia R+2.4 R+2.3 R+1.9
Maryland R+18.8 R+17.6 R+15.7

With Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Florida’s Gillum and Maryland’s Ben Jealous, America has a chance this year to elect more black governors (three) than it has in all of U.S. history combined (two.) But don’t bet on that. Our model has Jealous as a big underdog in Maryland, with about a 1 in 100 chance of winning.4 Gillum is a narrow favorite, as I mentioned, and Abrams is a narrow underdog. She has a 3 in 10 chance against Republican Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Secretary of State. It’s an extremely close race — 16 of the 18 polls released there since the start of October found it 2 percentage points or closer. And it may not end on Tuesday; if neither neither candidate wins a majority, there will be a run-off between the two on Dec 4.

How will the most Trumpy gubernatorial candidates do?

Where the most Trumpy Republicans are running

Forecasted average vote margin according to the three versions of FiveThirtyEight’s 2018 governors forecast as of Nov. 5

Forecasted vote margin
gov. Race Lite classic deluxe
Florida D+4.2 D+4.1 D+3.4
Georgia R+2.4 R+2.3 R+1.9
Kansas D+0.5 R+1.3 R+0.8

Trump and his style of politics appear to be gaining influence in the Republican Party. But the more traditional Mitch McConnell-ish approach remains relevant too. So one thing we’ll be watching on Tuesday is how those two approaches fare. Florida’s Ron DeSantis, Kansas’s Kris Kobach and Georgia’s Kemp are three gubernatorial candidates who have clearly embraced the Trump model.

As I mentioned, voters are more likely to cross partisan lines in gubernatorial elections, and almost universal support from GOP voters was key in Trump’s victory — making using his playbook more difficult to pull off for DeSantis, Kobach and Kemp. Kemp and Kobach are the slightest of favorites — Kemp has a 7 in 10 chance and Kobach a 4 in 7 chance. But all three races are close enough that we really shouldn’t be surprised by anything from a Republican sweep to a shutout.

Will Republicans keep their foothold in the Northeast?

The races in the Northeast

Forecasted average vote margin according to the three versions of FiveThirtyEight’s 2018 governors forecast as of Nov. 5

Forecasted vote margin
gov. Race Lite classic deluxe
Connecticut D+4.7 D+5.1 D+5.0
Maine D+9.8 D+12.3 D+8.8
Maryland R+18.8 R+17.6 R+15.7
Massachusetts R+39.6 R+34.1 R+34.0
New Hampshire R+5.2 R+8.3 R+7.7
New York D+16.6 D+19.0 D+20.2
Rhode Island D+12.2 D+20.3 D+16.5
Vermont R+11.3 R+11.5 R+15.6

At the presidential and congressional level, Democrats are dominant in the Northeast. But there are more Republican governors in Northeastern states (Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont) than Democratic ones (Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island). Republicans are still doing well in governor’s races, in part, because their candidates in the Northeast are much more liberal than in other regions. For example, Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker’s views and positions are essentially those of a conservative Democrat.

Republican governors are very likely to be reelected in four of these states: Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. The Democrats are heavy favorites in New York and Rhode Island. And they’re clear (if not overwhelming) favorites in Maine, where Incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage is leaving office because of term limits.5

Democrats are favored in Connecticut too, but I would not rule out a GOP upset there. The Democratic candidate there, businessman Ned Lamont, has only a narrow lead in most polls, and our model puts him as a 7 in 9 favorite. He’s likely being dragged down by the deep unpopularity of outgoing Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy, who opted against seeking a third term in part because he was so unpopular.

Democrats and Republican are currently tied 5-5 in governorships in the Northeast. If all they favorites in our forecast win, Maine would flip parties and Democrats would lead 6-4.

What happens in Nevada?

The odd-duck Nevada race

Forecasted average vote margin according to the three versions of FiveThirtyEight’s 2018 governors forecast as of Nov. 5

Forecasted vote margin
gov. Race Lite classic deluxe
Nevada R+0.3 R+0.4 D+0.3

The race between Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, and Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican, doesn’t really fit into the national narratives of this election cycle. But according to our model, it’s one of the two closest gubernatorial contest in the country — with Sisolak very very slightly favored. And there’s another reason to watch Nevada. It wasn’t an Obama state that flipped to Trump, but Democrats barely held on there in 2016.6 If Laxalt and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, also a Republican, win this year, Democrats should be pretty worried about Nevada in 2020.

Will the Democrats get an upset in a really red state?

The red states where Democrats have a chance

Forecasted average vote margin according to the three versions of FiveThirtyEight’s 2018 governors forecast as of Nov. 5

Forecasted vote margin
gov. Race Lite classic deluxe
Alaska R+4.7 R+4.1 R+4.6
Kansas D+0.5 R+1.3 R+0.8
Oklahoma R+4.6 R+7.2 R+6.2
South Dakota D+1.8 R+3.2 R+2.5

Kansas, Alaska, Oklahoma and South Dakota all have somewhat competitive governors’ races, even as Republicans are favored in all four states. These four states represent Democrats’ best opportunity to pick up a governorship in a ruby red state, according to our forecast. The Republican candidates in Kansas and Oklahoma, in particular, are likely suffering from unpopular outgoing GOP administrations in their states.

Will the Republicans get an upset in a really blue state?

The blue states where Republicans have a chance

Forecasted average vote margin according to the three versions of FiveThirtyEight’s 2018 governors forecast as of Nov. 5

Forecasted vote margin
gov. Race Lite classic deluxe
Connecticut D+4.7 D+5.1 D+5.0
Oregon D+3.9 D+6.5 D+4.9
Rhode Island D+12.2 D+20.3 D+16.5

If Republicans are going to pick off a true-blue state, it’ll likely be one of these three. Our model suggests Democrats are pretty heavily favored in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Oregon. It’s an anti-Republican year after all. But Rhode Island incumbent Gov. Gina Raimondo, who is seeking reelection, had a bumpy first term. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is not polling particularly well either for an incumbent in a fairly liberal state — and she has never before won an election for a full four-year term for the job.7 I think these Democrats are also vulnerable because they are running in states that don’t have high-profile U.S. Senate races to drive up Democratic turnout — and they are running against fairly moderate Republican opponents.

Will there be a big upset we didn’t see coming?

Where might we get an unexpected upset?

Forecasted average vote margin according to the three versions of FiveThirtyEight’s 2018 governors forecast as of Nov. 5

Forecasted vote margin
gov. Race Lite classic deluxe
Alabama R+14.8 R+16.2 R+18.2
Arizona R+13.4 R+13.5 R+12.9
Arkansas R+30.3 R+27.4 R+27.4
California D+17.3 D+18.8 D+20.1
Colorado D+9.2 D+12.3 D+10.6
Hawaii D+24.4 D+30.0 D+30.1
Idaho R+9.9 R+14.8 R+17.3
Maine D+9.8 D+12.3 D+8.8
Maryland R+18.8 R+17.6 R+15.7
Massachusetts R+39.6 R+34.1 R+34.0
Michigan D+9.6 D+10.3 D+9.8
Minnesota D+7.2 D+9.3 D+9.7
Nebraska R+28.0 R+21.7 R+22.1
New Mexico D+8.6 D+9.0 D+8.3
New York D+16.6 D+19.0 D+20.2
Pennsylvania D+14.8 D+15.4 D+15.6
Rhode Island D+12.2 D+20.3 D+16.5
South Carolina R+14.7 R+13.7 R+15.5
Tennessee R+14.5 R+13.6 R+15.5
Texas R+16.9 R+16.9 R+18.6
Vermont R+11.3 R+11.5 R+15.6
Wyoming R+32.8 R+29.8 R+29.8

In 2014, everyone was stunned when Republican Larry Hogan was elected governor in Maryland. That victory seemed to come from nowhere: Polls showed him down, and Maryland is a pretty Democratic state. Our model suggests there are 22 states where one party or the other is favored by more than 90 percent. Democrats are such heavy favorites in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island; Republicans in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming,

I suggested earlier that Rhode Island has a potential for a big upset. The other two states I’ll be paying especially close attention to are New Hampshire and Vermont — both of which have a Republican governor (Chris Sununu and Phil Scott, respectively). Scott and Sununu are running in Democratic-leaning states in a Democratic-leaning year — and neither has the kind of enormous projected advantage of say, Baker.

CORRECTION (Nov. 5, 6:54 p.m., 2018): An earlier version of this article incorrectly excluded New Jersey in its listing of states in the Northeast. New Jersey has a Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, who is not on the ballot this year. Including Murphy, the Northeast is equally divided between the two parties — five Republican governors and five Democratic governors — not 5-4 titled toward the GOP.

Footnotes

  1. All forecast numbers cited here are as of 10 a.m.

  2. That is, the state legislature and governor’s office.

  3. Yes, we are including Pennsylvania in the Midwest. Send your emails complaining about this decision to the decider, FiveThirtyEight Managing Editor (and Pennsylvania native!) Micah Cohen.

  4. Of course, in all we’re forecasting more than 500 races on Tuesday — so we’d expect a couple very, very longshots to win.

  5. Delaware and New Jersey do not have a gubernatorial elections this year.

  6. Clinton won by 2.4 percentage points, compared to Obama’s 7-point victory in 2012.

  7. She became governor when her predecessor resigned amid an ethics scandal in 2015, and then was elected in 2016 to serve the final two years of his term.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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