The Off-Off-Year Governors' Races

[ Posted Thursday, October 19th, 2017 – 17:20 UTC ]

In a few weeks, there will be elections for two governorships, in New Jersey and Virginia. These off-off-year contests are always closely watched, especially by those hoping for a shift in the balance of power. However, no matter the outcome, these two states aren't always accurate harbingers of how the midterm elections will turn out in the following year. Still, it being an off-off year, political pundits don't have any other key election results to talk about, so expect to be hearing lots of opinionating over the next three weeks or so.

As things currently stand, one Republican and one Democrat are leaving office, meaning an open race in both states. Chris Christie is stepping down in New Jersey, and Terry McAuliffe is leaving office in Virginia. Both were precluded from running for re-election by term limits, it is worth noting.

Chris Christie has the lowest public approval ratings any governor of New Jersey has ever posted (he hit a dismal 15 percent approval this summer). This has made the race a virtual shoo-in for the Democratic candidate. Now, it's hard not to feel at least a little bit sorry for Christie, since if Donald Trump hadn't run for president, Christie might have done a lot better. Christie was going to be the brash, New York City guy who eagerly trash-talked both the press and his many critics. His brand was rough-and-tumble "straight talk" without all the political correctness. Sound familiar? If Trump hadn't been in the race, who knows whether Christie could have effectively corralled what became the Trump base of voters? The electorate was angry, and Christie could have played to that better than anyone on the Republican side other than perhaps Ted Cruz. However, Trump did run and proved a much more entertaining trash-talker than Christie ever was (even on his best day).

Now, however, Christie isn't so much a rising star within his party as a meteor falling swiftly to Earth. New Jersey reliably votes Democratic in presidential years, so it won't be any big surprise to see them elect a Democrat to replace Christie. It will, however, slightly shift the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans in gubernatorial offices across the country. But more on that in a moment.

Virginia's race is shaping up to be a lot closer. Both sides have brought out the heavyweights to campaign (Barack Obama is leading a rally in Virginia as I write this, in fact), and it will likely come down to which side has the more impressive turnout effort on Election Day. Right now, the Democrat is up slightly in the polls, but they haven't been consistent (ranging from seven points up to one point down in three recent polls). Democrats had a big edge in primary turnout (543,351 to 366,274), and they're hoping that will translate into a big turnout for the general election, but there's really no guarantee of that happening. Virginia has to be considered a purple state at the moment, transitioning from deep red (not so long ago) to reliably blue (at least, in the last three presidential election cycles). But even if the Democratic candidate wins here in a few weeks, this will not change the balance of power, since the outgoing governor is also a Democrat.

So, in terms of likely outcomes, either the Democrats will pick up one governorship (if both states go Democratic) or the balance of power will remain even (if New Jersey goes Democratic, but Virginia flips to the Republicans). Right now, that balance is pretty lopsided towards the GOP. Of the 50 current governors, one (Alaska) is an Independent, 15 are Democrats, and a whopping 34 are Republicans. That's a better than 2-to-1 GOP advantage. And governors' offices are about to become very important, as we get closer and closer to the redistricting of the House of Representatives after the 2020 Census. Barack Obama is even leading an effort to improve this situation for Democrats, because it will be crucial for the entire following decade.

Due to the losses Democrats have suffered since Obama became president, there are a lot of good opportunities for Democratic pickups in the next few gubernatorial election cycles. There are at least five states that would otherwise be classified as deep blue who currently have Republicans sitting in the governor's mansion: Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Vermont. These are big targets for Democratic takeovers, in other words, but they're not the only ones.

There are other states that are more purple, but where Democrats should have at least a decent shot of winning a pickup: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, and Wisconsin. And there is at least one other state (Georgia) whose demographics are shifting so fast that a Democrat might be able to chalk up a big surprise win.

So, taking a look at the possible scenarios, Democrats could either continue their dismal minority status, make some solid gains, or even flip the balance of power. The first would happen if Democrats ran uninspiring candidates and continued to see states which they really should be winning wind up voting Republican again.

The second possibility is that Democrats begin a wave of taking back governors' offices. If Democrats win Virginia and New Jersey early next month, look for many to overconfidently predict this, in fact. The scoreboard would still only be 33-to-16, which isn't much of an improvement, but if such a wave did develop and if Democrats picked up those five blue states, then this would change to a much more balanced 28-to-21.

If the Democratic optimists turn out to be correct, then they might have a good shot from that second list of the eight possible pickups. At this point, they'd only need four more wins to shift the balance to 24-to-25, and achieve some parity once again. If a true wave did develop (and they swept the entire list of pickups), Democrats could even move to a 20-to-29 clear advantage.

That's a lot to hope for, obviously. A shift of 14 governors' offices would likely be accompanied by a historic midterm wave election which might even hand Democrats control of the House once again. It's hard to see that many governorships changing hands without also seeing the same effect on House races, in other words.

But this is all making a whole lot of stew from one oyster, so to speak. Only two states will be voting in November (that's why they call it an off-off year). Chris Christie has to be seen as severely damaged goods by Garden State voters, and even though he won't be on the ballot, his party looks likely to pay the price. But even coupled with a Democratic victory in Virginia, this will only change the political balance nationwide by one.

Such a double victory will have a more intangible effect, though. Democrats didn't have much luck in all the special House elections which happened this year, despite record levels of interest (and, in Georgia, a record level of spending on campaign ads). Winning two state governorships could change this perception in a big way. Democrats could rightly say they felt a wind at their backs, heading into the 2018 midterm season.

What I'll be watching for is the turnout levels, in both states. Will Democratic turnout be larger than usual in off-off years? How much larger? Or has voter enthusiasm waned? While state contests hinge on state and local issues -- and thus cannot be seen as "national referenda" (no matter what the pundits say about them) -- seeing whether Democratic voters (especially young ones) actually show up at the polls or not is going to be very interesting. After Donald Trump was elected, there was a huge public outcry (the women's march, the "Resist!" movement, etc.) from the left. The question smart political-watchers asked at the time was whether this level of engagement could be sustained, or whether it was fleeting and people would quickly get disillusioned. That is still an open question, and the two off-off-year gubernatorial elections are going to be the first chance anyone has to see some data which might begin to provide an answer.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “The Off-Off-Year Governors' Races”

  1. [1] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    CW: What I'll be watching for is the turnout levels, in both states.

    Me too. I've been saying for awhile now, that if Democrats don't wake up and get to the polls now, one wonders what it would take to ever get them out.

    Heard this morning that Russian bots are active on Twitter. They're laughing at us.

  2. [2] 
    John M wrote:

    Did anyone see or watch the debate between Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz on CNN? If so, what did you think of it?

  3. [3] 
    John M wrote:

    Don Harris [5]

    I agree, taxes can be very boring. On the other hand, they do tend to impact your life more than almost anything else that government does. So they can be pretty important. I thought it was fascinating to watch. Ted Cruz at one point even tried to make a joke that was almost too painful to watch. Overall I thought, at least from my perspective, that Bernie Sanders did a pretty good job of refuting most of the positions that Ted Cruz tried to make. I wish in fact that more Democrats would get on a soap box and directly challenge Republican positions in the way that Bernie Sanders did.

  4. [4] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: Now, it's hard not to feel at least a little bit sorry for Christie, since if Donald Trump hadn't run for president, Christie might have done a lot better.

    Interesting. I don't find it the least bit hard not to feel sorry for Chris Christie.

  5. [5] 
    Paula wrote:

    [7] Kick: Interesting. I don't find it the least bit hard not to feel sorry for Chris Christie.

    Same here.

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