Skip to main content
Menu
The 18 (!) Governorships Democrats Could Pick Up This Year

If the much-ballyhooed “blue wave” does materialize this fall, it could be Republican governors who suffer the most losses.

The other day, we ran down the seven governorships held by Democrats or independents that could fall to the GOP in November. Today’s list of vulnerable Republican seats is more than twice as long. According to qualitative assessments by nonpartisan handicappers — The Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Inside Elections,1 — only eight GOP-held governorships are completely safe in 2018.2 That leaves 18 Republican-held governorships in some degree of danger. Although it’s still too early to fully trust the polls in these races, here is a 30,000-foot rundown of Democrats’ potential 18 in ’18:

Arizona

Cook Political Report rating: likely Republican
Sabato’s Crystal Ball rating: likely Republican
Inside Elections rating: likely Republican

Even as Democrats are arguably slight favorites to flip Arizona’s U.S. Senate seat, the state’s gubernatorial race has received surprisingly little buzz. Incumbent Republican Doug Ducey is seeking re-election despite a lukewarm 42 percent to 36 percent approval/disapproval spread. Two credible Democrats are vying to face him in the general election: state Sen. Steve Farley and Arizona State University professor David Garcia, who in 2014 came closer to winning statewide office in Arizona (within 1.1 percentage points) than any Democrat has since 2006. Unfortunately for them, they have both already spent most of the $800,000 combined that they raised in 2017, while Ducey can count $2.7 million cash on hand.

Florida

Cook: toss-up
Sabato: toss-up
Inside Elections: toss-up

The GOP will try to make it six Florida gubernatorial elections in a row even though its incumbent, Rick Scott, is term-limited. State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has been eyeing the job for years and gradually amassed a $16 million war chest, but his carefully laid plans may be dashed by the late entry of GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis, who barreled into the race last month with President Trump’s endorsement.

For Democrats, ex-Rep. Gwen Graham has likewise long been seen as the front-runner, but Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is already using his personal fortune — he says he’s willing to spend up to $25 million — to blanket the state’s airwaves with ads. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who has enthralled the state’s progressive grassroots, was competitive with Graham in early polls, but his campaign has struggled to raise money and fight off headlines about an FBI investigation into city government.

If the nominees are indeed Putnam and Graham, the handful of polls so far all point to a tight race — they’ve been separated by, at most, 3 percentage points.

Georgia

Cook: solid Republican
Sabato: likely Republican
Inside Elections: likely Republican

As in Arizona, demographic shifts have Democrats champing at the bit to turn Georgia blue — but after promising opportunities in 2014, 2016 and 2017 all fell flat, the party should exercise caution in 2018.

Democrats will almost certainly nominate a former state representative named Stacey: either Stacey Evans, a white moderate, or Stacey Abrams, an African-American progressive who admits that it’s her goal to run for president in 2028. Their competing visions for how to win in Georgia are just one reason this is such a fascinating primary; another is that Abrams is trying the unorthodox strategy of spending most of her money up front on a massive field operation. With endorsements from national progressives, Abrams had raised a healthy $2.3 million by the beginning of February, but she had only $180,000 on hand to spend on the primary. By contrast, Evans, who has mostly self-funded, had $1.5 million cash on hand.

But the best-funded candidate in the race is Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, running to succeed his term-limited boss, Nathan Deal. Cagle’s insider connections have paid off with $6.7 million in donations but also inspired an outsider challenge from businessman Clay Tippins, who has pulled in $2.1 million. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and former state Sen. Hunter Hill have also both surpassed $2 million raised. Polls indicate that a July runoff is likely, with front-runner Cagle facing off with whoever finishes second in the May primary.

We’re short on general-election polls, but we do know that Trump’s job approval rating is underwater in the Peach State — maybe far underwater — and Georgia Republicans are reportedly conducting focus groups to ascertain whether white suburban voters are disillusioned enough to jump ship and vote for a Democrat.

Illinois

Cook: toss-up
Sabato: toss-up
Inside Elections: tilt Democratic

It may become the most expensive gubernatorial election in the nation’s history; decade-old phone calls recorded by the FBI have thrown the field into disarray; and no one knows how much to trust a flurry of new polls. In other words, it’s Illinois politics as usual.

Despite a meager 31 percent approval rating, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has remained competitive in this blue state thanks to his immense personal fortune. Through the end of 2017, he had raised $74 million (not a typo) for his re-election bid, including $50 million from his own pocket. So what might Democrats do to beat him? Nominate someone even richer. Leading Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker — an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune who is indeed even wealthier than Rauner — has self-funded more than $56 million. That’s left second-tier Democrats Chris Kennedy (yes, the millionaire son of Robert F. Kennedy is somehow second-tier) and state Sen. Daniel Biss gasping for air.

Biss and Kennedy, however, may have an opening in a pair of recorded telephone conversations from 2008 between Pritzker and now-jailed ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In them, Blagojevich discussed appointing Pritzker as state treasurer, and Pritzker advised the governor to appoint Illinois’s black secretary of state to the U.S. Senate because it would “cover you on the African-American thing.” Pritzker apologized, but his lead is now down to just 3 points over Biss in the Democratic primary, per an early February poll. That said, the pollster who conducted that survey was convicted of signature fraud in 2008, so caution is advised. (Again, Illinois politics!)

General-election polls have been few and far between. A Public Policy Polling survey claims that Rauner is losing by double digits to both Pritzker and Biss — but that poll was conducted on behalf of Biss’s campaign, meaning it may overstate his position. Another wrinkle could be that Rauner faces an unexpectedly spirited primary challenge from the right in state Sen. Jeanne Ives, who has hit Rauner for charting a centrist course on issues like abortion. Ives got a cash infusion from a disillusioned former Rauner donor that allowed her to air ads like this one, which was derided by both parties for being sexist, racist and homophobic and may have short-circuited the very campaign it was intended to jump-start.

Iowa

Cook: likely Republican
Sabato: lean Republican
Inside Elections: lean Republican

Republican Terry Branstad, the longest-serving governor in American history, has finally departed Iowa’s political scene to become ambassador to China. His former lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds, will likely represent the GOP in the fall, although former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett isn’t letting the new incumbent off primary-free.

The Democratic primary, meanwhile, is a seven-candidate free-for-all, with Fred Hubbell, the scion of a prominent Des Moines family,3 local union president Cathy Glasson and state Sen. Nate Boulton standing out from the pack. But there’s a wrinkle: If no one receives 35 percent of the vote in the primary, state Democrats will hold a convention to pick their nominee.

Although Iowa has been moving right in recent years, Democrats have reason for hope about the general election. Iowa is one of the states where the party has overperformed its presidential performance the most in special legislative elections since Trump’s election. All-star pollster Selzer & Co. has also found that Trump has just a 44 percent approval rating in the Hawkeye State. If Iowans remain soured on Trump, the eventual Democratic nominee might be able to overcome the state’s recent rightward lurch.

Kansas

Cook: likely Republican
Sabato: lean Republican
Inside Elections: likely Republican

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback was so unpopular in Kansas that he resigned in January to accept an ambassadorship in the Trump administration. His No. 2, Jeff Colyer, is now governor and running for a full term, albeit with less time to define himself than originally planned.

Colyer raised the most money from donors ($630,000) of any candidate in 2017, nearly doubling up Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the presumed GOP front-runner. Moreover, Kobach’s national notoriety for pursuing voter fraud hasn’t translated to support at home; he trailed Colyer 23 percent to 21 percent in a poll conducted this month. Three other Republicans also bested Kobach’s financial intake — businessman Wink Hartman, former state Rep. Mark Hutton and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer — but they are all polling in the single digits.

With former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, state Sen. Laura Kelly, former state Rep. Josh Svaty and House Minority Leader Jim Ward all in the running, it’s Kansas’s first contested Democratic gubernatorial primary since 1998. However, none has so far raised serious cash (Svaty leads with $193,000), and whoever wins the Democratic nod may end up dwarfed in the general election anyway by independent candidate Greg Orman, who has plenty of name recognition from his narrow loss as Democrats’ de facto nominee for U.S. Senate in 2014. The wealthy Orman raised $453,000 in 2017 without doing any self-funding.

Maine

Cook: toss-up
Sabato: lean Democratic
Inside Elections: lean Democratic

Gov. Paul LePage is term-limited, but Trump’s near win in the Pine Tree State — he lost it by 3 points — showed that the Republican’s wins were no accident. Even so, Democrats are optimistic that LePage’s 53 percent disapproval rating will augment a friendly political environment and bring this blue state more securely back into the fold.

The race for Blaine House is packed to the gills and includes attorney Adam Cote, former state House Speaker Mark Eves and Maine Attorney General Janet Mills for Democrats; former Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, businessman Shawn Moody and state Sen. Michael Thibodeau for Republicans; and independent Terry Hayes, the state treasurer. There are no polls yet, even of the primary, but that’s OK — they’d be of limited value anyway, as Maine’s 2018 gubernatorial primaries will be the first anywhere in the nation to use instant-runoff voting after the passage of a 2016 ballot measure. That could make a big difference with such a large field of candidates.

Maryland

Cook: likely Republican
Sabato: lean Republican
Inside Elections: lean Republican

Of the three uber-popular Republican governors in dark blue states, Maryland’s Larry Hogan appears to be in the most danger — although with double-digit polling leads and $9 million in the bank, that’s still a relative term.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker led the Democratic field with 24 percent in the latest primary poll, but 33 percent were still undecided. At 14 percent each, Baker’s closest rivals are Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and former NAACP President Ben Jealous. And they’ll both have the resources to close that gap: Kamenetz leads all Democrats with $2 million cash on hand, and Jealous, a progressive favorite, has parlayed endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Democracy for America into strong fundraising as well. Also keep an eye on attorney James Shea, a relative unknown who nevertheless led Democrats in fundraising in 2017 with $2 million.

Massachusetts

Cook: likely Republican
Sabato: likely Republican
Inside Elections: solid Republican

Gov. Charlie Baker is a Republican, but you’d never know that from his public comments, which have consisted pretty much entirely of expressing his displeasure with Trump and national Republican priorities. As a result, the leader of one of America’s bluest states has consistently been the country’s most popular governor.

Top Democrats have all but ceded the Corner Office to him for four more years, leaving the primary to former state budget chief Jay Gonzalez, activist Bob Massie and Newton Mayor Setti Warren. Beginning the year, the three had a combined $173,000 cash on hand; Baker had $10.5 million. In a November MassINC poll, Baker led Warren, his closest rival, by 34 points. Basically, Massachusetts’s Democratic base partisanship is the only reason this race could become competitive, and even then, the Bay State is known for electing Republican governors.

Michigan

Cook: toss-up
Sabato: toss-up
Inside Elections: toss-up

Republican incumbent Rick Snyder can’t run again, and it’s just as well for the GOP — in the wake of the Flint water crisis, his approval rating sits at just 37 percent. Snyder is tacitly supporting his second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, to succeed him, while Attorney General Bill Schuette has Trump’s support. So far, Schuette is winning that battle; a December survey gave him an 11-point lead over Calley, similar to other polls of the Republican primary.

In the Democratic primary, former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer enjoys double-digit polling leads over wealthy businessman Shri Thanedar and Detroit health official Abdul El-Sayed. Despite Whitmer’s 7-point lead over Schuette in the most recent poll of the race, some Democratic Party leaders are still trying to recruit a stronger candidate. Although it’s something of a Michigan tradition for Democrats to second-guess their gubernatorial nominees, some are blaming sexism for the anti-Whitmer effort.

Nevada

Cook: toss-up
Sabato: toss-up
Inside Elections: toss-up

Brian Sandoval leaves office with sky-high popularity after charting a center-right course as Nevada governor for eight years. However, the leading Republican candidate to replace him, Attorney General Adam Laxalt, has a more hard-core conservative vision for the state. Dan Schwartz is also running in the GOP primary, but his is more a personal quest than an ideological one; the maverick state treasurer has taken positions all over the spectrum but definitely doesn’t like Laxalt.

For Democrats, Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak has the backing of Nevada political boss Harry Reid, which would usually be enough to clinch the nomination. However, fellow commissioner Chris Giunchigliani is challenging Sisolak from the left, and with an endorsement from Emily’s List and $1 million on hand, she can’t be counted out.

Both parties’ polling says November will be close no matter who is nominated. A poll conducted for Giunchigliani’s campaign found Laxalt ahead of Sisolak by 3 points and ahead of Giunchigliani by 5; Laxalt’s pollster put those leads at 6 and 9 points, respectively. Both polls, however, registered high numbers of undecideds, so this race is still fluid.

New Hampshire

Cook: lean Republican
Sabato: lean Republican
Inside Elections: lean Republican

New Hampshire is one of just two states that elect governors to two-year terms, and when first-termers seek re-election, they almost always win. Gov. Chris Sununu is following the pattern so far: He’s enormously popular (61 percent approve of his performance), and he leads former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand 42 percent to 28 percent in the most recent University of New Hampshire poll.

The Democratic field has been slow to develop: Other than Marchand, the only “candidates” are people who have merely put out feelers, including state Sen. Dan Feltes, ex-U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes and former state Sen. Molly Kelly. Their very public flirtations with a campaign have done nothing to dispel the notion that Marchand, whom Sununu had outraised $438,000 to $116,000 as of December, won’t get the job done.

New Mexico

Cook: lean Democratic
Sabato: lean Democratic
Inside Elections: lean Democratic

Both Trump and term-limited Republican Gov. Susana Martinez are unpopular in the Land of Enchantment, but New Mexico is more of a swing state than people realize. (Hillary Clinton won it by just 8 points, and Martinez was re-elected by 14 in 2014.) This year, two of New Mexico’s three U.S. representatives are setting their sights on the Roundhouse: Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce. Pearce has the GOP primary to himself, but Lujan Grisham faces Jeff Apodaca, the son of a former governor, and two other candidates in what has already been a nasty Democratic primary. (Just a taste: The day after Apodaca called for an investigation into Lujan Grisham for allegedly firing a transgender intern, a woman with ties to the Lujan Grisham campaign accused Apodaca of an unwanted sexual advance.)

There’s no question which one is the underdog, though. A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll from October gave Lujan Grisham a dominating 65-point lead over Apodaca in the primary.

Ohio

Cook: lean Republican
Sabato: lean Republican
Inside Elections: tilt Republican

The initial lineup of candidates in Ohio’s open-seat gubernatorial race was a murderer’s row of Ohio politicians: Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor for Republicans; former state Attorney General Richard Cordray, 2014 state treasurer candidate Connie Pillich, ex-U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley for Democrats. But after an active invisible primary, five of those names have now dropped out, and each side has a clear likely nominee.

Husted joined DeWine’s campaign as his running mate, and the ticket earned the official endorsement of the Ohio GOP earlier this month. Taylor is the only other Republican still soldiering on, which she does with outgoing Gov. John Kasich’s endorsement. DeWine led Taylor 54 percent to 14 percent in a January poll by Fallon Research.

The Democratic field started to thin after Cordray left his job as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and raised $2 million in his first month of campaigning (virtually matching DeWine’s entire six-month haul).4 The departures of Pillich, Sutton and Whaley left the primary without a female candidate (although Sutton is now Cordray’s running mate), but it does still feature Dr. Jon Heavey (who gave his own campaign $1.5 million) and former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the erstwhile far-left presidential candidate.

According to the Fallon poll, Cordray (23 percent) and Kucinich (16 percent) are the two front-running Democrats. The same poll also projected that DeWine would beat Cordray in November 49 percent to 28 percent, inspiring the Ohio Democratic Party to release an internal poll that put DeWine ahead by 1 point.

Oklahoma

Cook: solid Republican
Sabato: likely Republican
Inside Elections: likely Republican

Quietly, aggressive tax cuts and low oil prices have plunged Oklahoma into a budget crisis so dire that a fifth of the state’s school districts now operate on a four-day school week. The situation has made term-limited Republican Mary Fallin one of the least popular governors in the country, and it has breathed new life into the state Democratic Party, which has outperformed Clinton’s 2016 performance by an average of 18 percentage points in 2017-18 special legislative elections. If that happens in the 2018 governor’s race, likely Democratic candidate Drew Edmondson, the former state attorney general, would receive 46 percent. In other words, Oklahoma may very well be a competitive race.

In the Republican primary, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb leads the money race with $3.1 million raised in 2017, but a January SoonerPoll put Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett in front in terms of popular support with 24 percent. (Lamb was the runner up at 18 percent.) Former independent candidate Gary Richardson and businessman Kevin Stitt are two other names who could make the GOP race interesting after using their own wealth to vault themselves into the financial top tier.

Tennessee

Cook: likely Republican
Sabato: likely Republican
Inside Elections: likely Republican

With Gov. Bill Haslam ineligible to run again, U.S. Rep. Diane Black leads the Republican contest to succeed him, according to a Triton Polling & Research survey from December — although more than half of Republicans were still undecided. Black’s main rivals, Randy Boyd and Bill Lee, are already targeting these voters with TV advertising months in advance of the primary. Both wealthy businessmen, Boyd and Lee are trying to follow in the footsteps of Haslam, the nation’s richest officeholder, by self-funding their campaigns with donations of $4 million and $2.2 million, respectively. State House Speaker Beth Harwell is also running and also lent her campaign $3.1 million.

Democrats will put up either state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh or former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (who is by far the better-funded of the two).

General-election polling suggests that Black and Dean would be their parties’ strongest nominees. Per a January poll, Dean would be an 11-point underdog in that scenario, though he was down to Boyd and Harwell by similar margins.

Vermont

Cook: likely Republican
Sabato: likely Republican
Inside Elections: solid Republican

First elected in 2016, Gov. Phil Scott is the final member of the “Democratic states love their Republican governors” club. The noted stock-car racer will take his 61 percent approval rating into battle with a potentially historic opponent: Democrat Christine Hallquist, a former utility executive, is the country’s first openly transgender major-party gubernatorial candidate.

Local observers seem to think either Hallquist or clean-water advocate James Ehlers would run a competent campaign but, ultimately, not one that could beat Scott. New Hampshire’s rule about imperviousness of one-term governors is even more bulletproof in Vermont: F. Ray Keyser Jr. (1961-1963) not only is the last Vermont governor to serve only one term, but he is also the last incumbent governor to lose a re-election attempt, period.

Wisconsin

Cook: lean Republican
Sabato: lean Republican
Inside Elections: likely Republican

Republican Gov. Scott Walker is a survivor: After winning office by 6 points in 2010, he faced a bitter recall election in 2012 after Democrats took up arms against an anti-collective-bargaining law he had signed. He won that race by 7 points, then followed it up with another 6-point win in 2014.

If you squint, you can see signs of both optimism and pessimism for Walker’s announced re-election bid in 2018. Trump flipped Wisconsin red in 2016, but a solidly Republican state Senate district shockingly flipped to Democrats in a January special election. (Let no one say Walker isn’t heeding the warning; he called it “a wake-up call for Republicans in Wisconsin.”)

Walker’s own failed presidential bid drove his approval rating back home into the ground, but his standing has since recovered somewhat (43 percent approval, 50 percent disapproval in Morning Consult’s latest survey). He’s generated positive headlines by luring electronics manufacturer Foxconn (and thousands of jobs) to the state and even embracing Democratic ideas like stabilizing Obamacare and a $100 child tax credit.

For their part, a small army of Democrats are betting that Walker is beatable: Candidates include state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, former state party chair Matt Flynn, union leader Mahlon Mitchell, nonprofit leader Mike McCabe, state Rep. Dana Wachs, former state Rep. Kelda Roys and businessman Andy Gronik. Evers leads in a primary poll, but his campaign paid for it — and we haven’t seen any polls pitting Walker against a specific Democratic candidate.

UPDATE (Feb. 22, 6:02 p.m.): This article has been updated to replace Selzer & Co.’s poll of Iowa with its most recent edition. The Sabato rating for Maine, originally “tossup,” was listed incorrectly on the Crystal Ball web site; it has been updated to “lean Democratic.”

Footnotes

  1. Where I am also a contributing analyst.

  2. Those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

  3. How prominent? His family owned the Iowa governor’s mansion before donating it to the state.

  4. Although the Republican has much more cash on hand after inheriting Husted’s war chest.

Nathaniel Rakich is a politics and baseball writer whose work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic and The Boston Globe.

Comments