Outside of Washington, Republicans dominate state politics. That’s especially true when it comes to governors’ mansions: The GOP holds 31 out of 50 seats.
And if they pick up just one more Tuesday, Republicans will tie a modern-day record for the most seats controlled by their party, set in 1998.
Democrats aren’t going to let that happen without a fight. Despite a challenging election cycle in which they are defending five open seats, Democrats are in a position to hold on to most of those and even knock off a Republican governor.
Still, even the worst-case scenario for Republicans on Tuesday has them with a solid, 29-seat majority. With 12 seats up for this cycle – only six of those competitive – there’s not a lot of opportunity for Democrats to change the GOP-heavy map, said Louis Jacobson, who handicaps gubernatorial and other state races for Governing magazine.
“At the end of the day, it’s not going to be a dramatic difference,” Jacobson said. “The GOP is going to be far ahead in terms of governors’ seats.”
But there will likely be some shuffling of which party controls which state. Here’s a rundown of the top six governors’ races, in order of least to most likely to flip parties.
– West Virginia: The race to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is all about the Crocs-wearing, coal-loving,Hillary Clinton-critical, Democratic billionaire Jim Justice. Justice would be a Republican in any other state, and he’s a favorite to win this open seat. He’s up by double digits in every quality poll in the past month. Republican Bill Cole, president of the state Senate, hasn’t been able to nudge his way into the conversation with such a colorful character. But with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump up from 20 to 25 points in this state, it’s still an open question how many Republicans will vote for Trump and cross the ballot for Justice. If Republicans can turn this mansion red, they could hold on to it , they could hold on to it for a long time.
– New Hampshire: Even though Republican Chris Sununu, an executive councilor and the son of a former popular governor, has the name recognition, Republicans acknowledge that he hasn’t run a pitch-perfect campaign in this open race to replace Gov. Maggie Hassan (D), who is running for Senate. For one, if you’re a Republican trying to win the governor’s seat in a state that has had mostly Democratic governors since 1997, suggesting the election is rigged might not be the best campaign strategy. Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern (D) isn’t nearly as well known, but he has a solid progressive grass-roots network and will probably benefit from Clinton’s turnout machine. Polls are all over the place, suggesting the result could be unpredictable.
– Indiana: The decision by Gov. Mike Pence (R) to leave his seat to run as Trump’s vice president was both a blessing and a curse to Indiana Republicans. Republicans concede that they probably would be down if Pence were in the race, but they also had just 100 days or so to introduce voters to his less-tarred replacement, Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb. Most polls show former state House speaker John Gregg (D) leading, but this is a state Trump is expected to win by as much as 10 points. Republicans are hopeful that undecided voters will vote Republican further down the ballot, too, despite not really knowing who Holcomb is.
– Missouri: Both sides say this race to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon is basically tied. Since Missouri is a red-leaning state, a tie would generally favor Republicans and, thus, hand the race to former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens. (This is another state Trump is expected to win, by six to 10 points.) That means Missouri is one of Republicans’ best pickup opportunities. But Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster is doing what he needs to in his bid to keep this out of reach for Republicans. The former Republican got an endorsement from the National Rifle Association, and he has consistently led in polls as the percentage of undecided voters dropped from 8 percent in October to 5 percent in November.
– Vermont: The surprise of the cycle may be Vermont, which is Republicans’ best pickup opportunity. After the September primary, the state rocketed to the top of our most-likely-to-flip list. Vermont likes to switch up which party holds the governor’s mansion, and, unfortunately for state Transportation Secretary Sue Minter (D), she’s running in the shadow of Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), who is retiring after three terms amid a struggling economy and anemic approval ratings. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (R) was up seven points in a WCAZ-Burlington poll out Monday.
– North Carolina: One of the hardest things to do in politics is unseat a sitting governor. But Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper looks poised to do it. Cooper is leading or tying Gov. Pat McCrory (R) in almost every public poll. He got help from the governor himself: Polls show that the transgender “bathroom bill” McCrory signed into law in the spring is still hurting him. And Cooper will get a boost from the presidential race and Clinton’s aggressive turnout machine in the state.
Democrats may pick up one or two seats Tuesday, but so could Republicans. That means Republicans will continue their dominance of governors’ mansions – at least until 2018, when 36 seats are up and the GOP is playing defense.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Amber Phillips