With 36 governorships up for grabs in midterm elections, Republicans have most to lose

  • Governors elected this fall will preside over congressional redistricting following the 2020 census.
  • Of the seats up for grabs, 26 are held by Republicans, 19 by Democrats, and one is held by an Independent.
  • Republicans dominate state governments nationwide, but that also means they have the most to lose.

In this midterm election year, the battle for control of Congress is getting most of the attention. But it is not all that is at stake. Voters in 36 states will choose governors this year, and more than 80 percent of state legislative seats are up for grabs.

“The most important work done in the country in public policy is done in the states by governors and state legislatures,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Virginia Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is locked in a tight battle to retain GOP control of the Illinois governorship after angering unions with his support of the Janus v. ASCFME case. The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the plaintiff, a huge blow to public-sector unions' ability to raise funds.
Anthony Souffle | Chicago Tribune | Getty Images
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is locked in a tight battle to retain GOP control of the Illinois governorship after angering unions with his support of the Janus v. ASCFME case. The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the plaintiff, a huge blow to public-sector unions' ability to raise funds.

Often, Sabato said, state officials work on matters that more directly affect people’s lives than members of Congress do. Governors are typically the public face of state efforts to attract business and jobs. Plus, the politicians elected this fall will be in place in 2021, when states redraw their congressional maps following the 2020 decennial U.S. census.

“The governors and the legislatures in most of the states that have partisan forms of redistricting will redistrict every single U.S. House seat except in those states that have only one representative, and will also redistrict all of the state Senate seats and State House of Representative seats,” Sabato said. “This has tremendous potential for party gains on both sides.”

Republicans overwhelmingly control U.S. statehouses. The GOP holds 33 governor’s seats, compared to 16 for the Democrats (Alaska’s Bill Walker is an Independent). And Republicans had outright control of 24 state legislatures at the start of 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats control just seven. In 18 states each party controls one house (Nebraska’s legislature is nonpartisan). Sabato said that means Republicans have the most to lose at the state level, especially because they hold 26 of the 36 governorships up for grabs.

“This gives Democrats a tremendous opportunity to make up ground that they lost over the last 10 years,” Sabato said.

Five tight governor races to watch

FLORIDA

Current control: Republican

Primaries: Aug. 28

With Florida Gov. Rick Scott term-limited and seeking to move on to the U.S. Senate, this crucial seat in a bellwether state is open, and there is no shortage of candidates to fill it. Both parties hold primary elections on Aug. 28, and both are crowded. The Republican field includes U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The Democratic primary features two mayors — Philip Levine of Miami Beach and Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee.

OHIO

Current control: Republican

GOP nominee: Mike DeWine

Democratic nominee: Richard Cordray

Ohio is another open seat in a swing state, with Gov. John Kasich term-limited. The race pits state attorney general and former U.S. Senator Mike DeWine against former consumer financial protection bureau director — and former state attorney general — Richard Cordray. Democrats are hoping for a pickup in Ohio, but most observers — including Sabato — rate the race as a toss-up.

ILLINOIS

Current control: Republican

GOP nominee: Bruce Rauner (I)

Democratic nominee: J.B. Pritzker

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner has had a rocky first term. First, he angered his fellow Republicans by signing a bill to allow Medicaid funding of abortions. Then he enraged Democrats by pushing the Janus vs. AFSCME case, recently decided by the Supreme Court, barring public employee unions from requiring non-members to pay fees. Organized labor has declared all-out war against Rauner. Democrats are pinning their hopes for a pickup on hotel magnate and venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker. But the Illinois race is muddled by third-party candidates, including conservative State Sen. Sam McCann, who also enjoys union support.

COLORADO

Current control: Democrat

Democratic nominee: Jared Polis

GOP nominee: Walker Stapleton

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is term-limited. Republican hopes of a pickup may depend on whether Coloradans are resistant to moving left of Hickenlooper’s more business-friendly tenure. Democratic nominee Jared Polis, a five-term congressman from Boulder, would be the first openly gay Colorado governor. He has proposed a regional single-payer health-care system across the West. The Republican nominee, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, has called for an end to sanctuary cities in Colorado and has promised to fight against burdensome regulations.

ALASKA

Current control: Independent

Independent candidate: Bill Walker (I)

Primaries: Aug. 28

Both major parties see a chance for a pickup in Alaska, where Independent Gov. Bill Walker faces an uphill battle for a second term. The sharp decline in oil prices early in Walker’s term plunged the state into a deep fiscal crisis. Last month Walker and the state legislature managed to trim a $2.4 billion budget shortfall down to $700 million. But to do so, they reduced the popular Permanent Fund Dividend, which represents Alaskans’ share of the state’s oil wealth. The major parties will hold their primaries Aug. 28 to determine who will take on Walker. Candidates include Democratic former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, as well as former State Sen. Mike Dunleavy and former Lieutenant Gov. Mead Treadwell, both Republicans.

CNBC Special Correspondent Scott Cohn will reveal the winners and the losers in our 12th annual rankings of America's Top States for Business live on "Squawk Box," Tuesday, July 10. For full coverage of this year's study, you can visit CNBC.com.

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