A Lot of Governor Seats Are Up for Grabs in November — and Democrats Could Make Big Gains

Illinois Republican governor Bruce Rauner is looking mighty toasty heading toward November. Photo: Antonio Perez/TNS via Getty Images

A combination of open seats and late primaries has made it hard to get a fix on the country’s 36 gubernatorial elections. As chief executives with the ability to command instant media attention and the peculiar dynamics of state government, incumbent governors are perfectly capable, moreover, of bucking national trends — for example, Massachusetts loves its Republican governor, Charlie Baker, in spite of the fact that it hates President Trump.

Still, as we get nearer to November, the picture is getting clearer, and a new batch of quarterly gubernatorial approval numbers from Morning Consult helps us better understand the races involving incumbents. Several of them are not looking very politically healthy at the moment.

The man in most dire straits at present is Illinois Republican governor Bruce Rauner, whose second-quarter approval ratio is 27/60 — third-worst in the country, behind term-limited Republican Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and retiring Democrat Dan Malloy of Connecticut. Rauner’s popularity has not improved a whit since his very narrow March primary win over little-known conservative legislator Jeanne Ives. And his fabulous wealth won’t save him against his even more fabulously wealthy Democratic opponent, J.B. Pritzker (who outspent the incumbent by a $20.1 million to $7.8 million margin in the second quarter). Aside from his poor numbers (in both approval ratings and horse-race polls), Rauner must also deal with a minor-party conservative candidate sure to deny him some votes, particularly given his rare-for-a-Republican pro-choice stance.

A more nationally famous Republican governor in a marquee race is struggling with low popularity as well. But Wisconsin’s Scott Walker is used to it, having survived two tough challenges and a recall effort since 2010. Still, his 43/50 approval ratio is troubling for him; his election in 2010 and reelection in 2014 came in strongly Republican years, very unlike this one. A recent poll did show him leading his most likely Democratic opponents, but they lacked the name ID the winner of an August Democratic primary will surely get locally and nationally. But the environment isn’t great for any Republican; Trump’s approval ratio in this state, which he carried in 2016, has deteriorated to 41/55 in the latest Morning Consult survey of presidential ratings.

Two incumbent Democrats and two Republicans are struggling with both mediocre approval ratings and serious primary challenges. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island (44/46) faces a September Democratic primary against former secretary of State Matt Brown. Hawaii’s David Ige (39/46) is in trouble in an August primary with fellow Democrat U.S. Representative Colleen Hanabusa, a fixture in the state’s politics. And Kansas Republican Jeff Colyer, who ascended to the position when Sam Brownback accepted a diplomatic position, is at a lukewarm 41/23 in approval, but could definitely lose an August primary to the much better-known Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Trump’s favorite vote suppresser. And Vermont Republican Phil Scott suffered from a calamitous drop in approval ratios (from 65/21 in the first quarter of 2018 to 47/42 in the second) after self-described libertarian Keith Stern announced a challenge to him as a Republican-in-Name-Only, enlivening Democratic hopes for November.

A couple of other incumbents running for reelection are in a sort of popularity gray zone. Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, who like Colyer inherited the governorship when the incumbent took a diplomatic gig, is at 40/39, and faces wealthy Democrat Fred Hubbell in a state where Trump’s popularity has notably deteriorated. Oregon’s Kate Brown is at a meh 44/41, and the latest poll showed a surprisingly close race with Republican legislator Knute Buehler. But unlike Reynolds, Brown will benefit from a friendly environment in a very blue state.

One of the oddest situations in the country is in Alaska, where there is an independent governor, Bill Walker, whose 29/54 approval ratio is terrible. But he’s still rated a pretty good bet for reelection if he again gets the support of both independents and Democrats—though that scenario is threatened by the current plans of former U.S. senator Mark Begich to run as a Democrat.

The overall balance of power between the parties in governorships will depend a lot, of course, on the 16 open seats where incumbents are either term-limited or retiring. Three open Republican seats (in Maine, Nevada, and New Mexico) are in states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and another (Michigan) is in a state Trump carried narrowly but where he isn’t maintaining anything like that level of support today. It’s notable that in one big battleground state, Florida, incumbent Republican governor Rick Scott is enjoying career-high popularity (54/35) that he hopes will take him to the Senate.

Donald Trump is a direct as well as an indirect factor in open gubernatorial races in both Florida and Michigan, where he has endorsed underdog primary candidates against the wishes of the local party Establishment. That worked out well for his endorsee in Georgia, Brian Kemp, earlier this week. But it’s unclear Trump will be much of an asset in general elections in any of these states. The landscape for governorships remains in flux as the dog days approach. But with Republicans defending 26 seats and Democrats defending just nine (and one for indie Bill Walker), the odds of Democratic gains are high. Prognosticator Harry Enten thinks they could be big:

If you get tired of staring at the same swing House districts between now and November, governors’ races will be a nice diversion. And they matter a lot in the real world of governance.

Democrats Could Make Big Gains in Governor Seats This Fall