The battle over the House majority has taken center stage in Washington. But Democrats face another critical test at the state level in 2018, with the party hoping to rebuild its power in governor’s mansions around the country after several years of decline.
Republicans hold 33 governorships, to just 16 for Democrats, heading into 2018 — but that could change rapidly next November. The political environment looks bad for the GOP, and the current governors are term-limited in a number of key states, giving Democratic candidates an opportunity to run for open seats in blue states like New Mexico and Maine. The party has also been energized by the opportunity to win seats at the table in the next round of redistricting, which was controlled by Republicans in most states the last time congressional and state legislative district lines were drawn, in 2011 and 2012.
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Republicans still have some opportunities to expand though, eyeing both Connecticut and Alaska — the only state with an independent governor — as pickup opportunities in 2018. Here are POLITICO’s 10 governorships most likely to change parties in the 2018 elections:
1. Illinois — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is running for reelection.
Years of strife with Illinois Democrats has left Rauner in a weak position. A Morning Consult poll released in late October found Rauner’s approval rating at 30 percent, while a 55 percent majority said they disapproved of him — and the Democratic Governors Association has had a laser-like focus on Rauner for years ahead of his blue-state reelection run. One of the governor’s strengths is his wealth, which Rauner has poured into advertising in Illinois. But billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker has emerged as the front-runner to face Rauner and will be able to match the governor in spending if he wins the nomination. It could be one of the most expensive state races ever.
2. New Mexico — Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is term-limited.
Martinez is term-limited in New Mexico, leaving an open gubernatorial race in a state that’s trending blue with a large Hispanic population. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham is the front-runner in a crowded, divided Democratic primary. She could face a House colleague in the general election: Republican Rep. Steve Pearce, who lost a previous bid for statewide office in 2008. Martinez’s approval ratings are underwater and Democrats see New Mexico, a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, as one of their best gubernatorial pickup opportunities in 2018.
3. Maine — Republican Gov. Paul LePage is term-limited.
There are nearly a dozen candidates in the Maine Democratic primary for governor, including state Attorney General Janet Mills, former state House Speaker Mark Eves, and attorney Adam Cote. Some Republicans were hoping Sen. Susan Collins, who floated running for governor, would jump into the primary. Collins decided not to run for governor in October, leaving a handful of lesser-known Republicans, including state Senate President Mike Thibodeau and former state Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, to vie for the nomination. Democrats are eager to tie whoever emerges from the primary to the controversial LePage, whose disapproval rating is over 50 percent.
4. Connecticut — Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy is retiring.
Deep-blue Connecticut is actually one of Republicans’ best opportunities in 2018. Malloy’s approval ratings were some of the worst among any governor in the country, and he decided not to run for a third term. But Republicans hope that environment in the state will clear the way for their candidate next fall. There are almost a dozen candidates running in the Republican primary and it’s unclear who will emerge as the nominee. A Tremont Public Advisors LLC poll conducted in mid-December found a generic Republican candidate beating a generic Democratic candidate — 35 percent to 23 percent, with 42 percent undecided — despite the fact that Connecticut has not voted Republican at the presidential level since 1988.
5. Nevada — Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval is term-limited.
Sandoval is leaving the Nevada governor’s mansion as one of the most popular governors in the country, and the Republican front-runner to replace him is state Attorney General Adam Laxalt. But Laxalt, a rising star in national Republican circles who has clashed with Sandoval in the past, still faces a tough road ahead in 2018. Nevada has been getting more Democratic, and operatives from both parties say the state Democratic Party is one of the most organized in the country. They are hoping to ride momentum from electing a Democratic senator and carrying the state for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Either Clark County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak or Vice Chair Chris Giunchigliani could prove formidable in the general election after a 2018 primary.
6. Florida — Republican Gov. Rick Scott is term-limited.
Crowded primaries on both the Democratic and Republican sides in a state that often elects politicians by narrow margins makes Florida difficult to predict. Most polling of the Republican gubernatorial primary has shown state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam leading the field, but President Donald Trump may have scrambled the field by tweeting support for Rep. Ron DeSantis just before Christmas. Since Trump’s tweet, DeSantis has won the support of a number of billionaire Republican donors, calling into question just how strong a hold Putnam has on the primary field. The Democratic primary is even hazier, with former Rep. Gwen Graham and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum are often mentioned as top tier candidates. Most head-to-head matchups between Putnam and one of the four Democrats running in the primaries have shown a single-digit race, and Democrats are bullish about winning the governor’s race for the first time in two decades given the political environment.
7. Alaska — Independent Gov. Bill Walker is running for reelection.
Walker is an independent, which means he doesn’t enjoy the support of either the Republican Governors Association or the Democratic Governors Association. No Democrat has jumped into the race to challenge Walker from that side, although former Sen. Mark Begich’s name has been floated. On the Republican side, the RGA and a trio of declared GOP gubernatorial candidates — former state House Speaker Mike Chenault, businessman Scott Hawkins and former state Senate President Charlie Huggins — are eager to unseat Walker. The Alaska Republican primary is late, on Aug. 21, so the field could get bigger or change before then. But the bottom line is that Alaska is a reliably Republican state, and the GOP likes its odds against one of the more unusual governors in the country.
8. Michigan — Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is term-limited.
Democrats are eager to paint whoever emerges out of the Republican primary as a carbon copy of the term-limited Snyder. Polling has shown former state Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer leading the Democratic primary field over Abdul El-Sayed, a physician and favorite of the progressive left, and engineer Shri Thanedar. On the Republican side, state Attorney General Bill Schuette is running against Lt. Gov Brian Calley and state Rep. Patrick Colbeck. Trump has already endorsed Schuette, and polling has shown him with a comfortable lead over the Republican primary field. General-election polls show tight races between the major candidates.
9. Ohio — Republican Gov. John Kasich is term-limited.
A late entrance by former CFPB Director Richard Cordray into the primary has added a Democrat with a national profile to the list of about five candidates competing for the nomination. But Republicans in Ohio for months have been gearing up for an aggressive primary and general election to succeed Kasich. State Attorney General Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted have united under one ticket, while Rep. Jim Renacci, a former businessman first elected to the House in 2010, is running as a Trumpian outsider. Cordray’s presence in the race has already attracted the support of high profile Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who endorsed Cordray shortly after he jumped into the race.
10. Maryland — Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is running for reelection.
Hogan has remained popular and kept his distance from Trump in deep-blue Maryland. But a crowded Democratic primary with progressive energy in a Democratic leaning state likely heralds a difficult reelection battle for Hogan. No clear front-runner has emerged from the primary which includes former NAACP President Ben Jealous, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and former State Department official Alec Ross. Polling has shown Hogan with low-double digit leads against a generic Democrat, but that’s before an actual nominee has been picked.