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Governors Update: Democrats Could Win In Some Very Red States

Welcome to our Election Update for governors races for Friday, Nov. 2!

Democrats really could win the gubernatorial races in Alaska and Kansas next week. Victories in those traditionally red states would have major policy implications, but they would also provide a psychological boost to a Democratic Party always worried that it doesn’t have enough appeal outside of big cities and the two coasts.

The last time we checked in on Alaska, incumbent Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, had just dropped out of the race and endorsed former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, the Democrat. This fundamentally altered the race, according to our governors model; it went from showing Republican Mike Dunleavy as a heavy favorite to only a modest one.

That was all somewhat hypothetical, however — based on the idea that the non-Dunleavy vote, which was split about evenly between Begich and Walker, would consolidate behind Begich. The polling has now borne that out. A survey released this week showed Dunleavy, a former state senator, at 43 percent and Begich at 42 percent.

The “Classic” version of our governors model shows Dunleavy with a 2 in 3 chance of winning, or about 67 percent. He’s still the favorite. But Alaska is not, say, Florida, where there are a lot of polls being conducted. I would not be at all surprised if Begich won. Americans are much more willing to cross party lines in governors races, compared with congressional contests, so Democrats often have a chance in gubernatorial races in red states and Republicans in blue ones. One big local factor in Alaska, for example: Walker expanded Medicaid under Obamacare. Begich has said that he will continue that policy, while Dunleavy has been non-committal. The Medicaid expansion is popular in Alaska (and most everywhere else too).

The race in Kansas between state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, has always been close. But it’s gotten closer. A poll released this week showed Kobach at 44 percent and Kelly at 43 percent.

When we launched our governors forecast on Oct. 17, Kobach was leading by 2.4 percentage points, on average, and Kansas fell into our “lean Republican” bucket. The Classic version of our model now suggests that Kobach has 1.4-percentage-point lead and is only a 4 in 7 favorite. The race has just edged into our “toss-up” category.

And Kobach has a new reason to be worried. Tim Owens, the campaign treasurer for Kansas’s top independent gubernatorial candidate, resigned this week and endorsed Kelly. Owens said the danger of having Kobach as governor was too great to risk splitting the anti-Kobach vote. The independent candidate, Greg Orman, has not dropped out; he sounds determined to stay in the race. But if even a small number of Orman’s backers follow Owens’s lead, that could tip this race to Kelly. Orman was at 8 percent in the poll released this week, and our model shows him winning between 5 percent and 15 percent of the vote. Where he falls in that range, and where his voters go if he’s toward the lower end of it, could make the difference.

I’ve focused on Alaska and Kansas here, but I wanted to note the Democrats’ fairly strong chances in two other traditionally red states: Oklahoma and South Dakota. The most recent poll in South Dakota, from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, found Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem with a 47-44 advantage over Billie Sutton, the Democratic leader in the South Dakota state Senate. It’s the third in a row to show a close race there. In Oklahoma, Republican businessman Kevin Stitt had a 46-42 lead over Democrat Drew Edmundson, a former Oklahoma attorney general, in the most recent survey. The Classic version of our model shows Noem with a 4 in 5 chance of winning and Stitt with a 6 in 7 chance, but a Democratic victory in either state would be a coup for the party and can’t be ruled out.

CORRECTION (Nov. 2, 2018, 11 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly described FiveThirtyEight’s governors forecast for Kansas when the forecast launched on Oct. 17. The Republican candidate, Kris Kobach, had a 2.4-percentage-point lead over the Democratic candidate, Laura Kelly, not a 2.8-point lead.

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2018 midterms, as well as our House and Senate forecasts.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.