National political attention has focused on the 2018 races with the most short-term impact: the battles for about 60 House seats and a dozen Senate seats that will determine whether Democrats can regain control of one or both houses of Congress and start holding the Trump administration to account for its corruption and damaging policies.
But the most significant long-term impact will stem from the contests for 36 governorships and 87 legislative bodies that will play a significant role in redistricting congressional and legislative seats after the 2020 census.
Numerically, this year’s gubernatorial results may be divided fairly evenly. But more important, Democrats have an excellent prospect of winning virtually all of the nation’s biggest states, reversing the results of 2010 and putting them in position to undo the one-sided congressional redistricting the GOP enacted.
Of the 10 biggest states, the Democrats are heavily favored to retain California, New York and Pennsylvania. They also hold North Carolina’s governorship. Polls indicate they are favored to win in Illinois and Michigan, and have a good chance in Florida and Ohio, and a possibility in Georgia. Texas is virtually certain to remain Republican.
That could give Democrats virtually every politically key state across the Midwest from Pennsylvania to Iowa, where Donald Trump won the presidency with inroads among Democrats. Gubernatorial victories likely will bring significant Democratic legislative gains. Republicans control both houses in 21 states, including six crucial redistricting battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida.
Trump carried all but one of the six in 2016, but all generally have been closely contested in recent elections. The GOP’s post-2010 control of governorships and legislatures in those six states produced a 61-33 advantage in U.S. House seats. Recently, Pennsylvania’s Democrat-controlled Supreme Court wiped out the state’s 12-6 GOP margin, ensuring narrowing even before the November election.
In addition, procedural changes could further level some key playing fields after 2020, including a complex new redistricting system approved by Ohio’s voters and a plan for an independent commission, which Michigan’s voters will consider in November.
Meanwhile, though legislative battles receive far less attention than contests for the House, Senate and governorships, Republican strategists are concerned because they see the same Democratic enthusiasm there as in the more publicized races.
“There is more Democratic enthusiasm than I have seen in the last few cycles,” Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, said in an interview with The Hill. “That’s a reality I can’t ignore.”
Such enthusiasm enabled Virginia Democrats to make big legislative gains last November.
In all, of 36 governorships being contested, Republicans hold 26, Democrats 9 and an independent 1 (Alaska). The GOP also holds 68 of the country’s 99 legislative chambers, including Nebraska’s unicameral body.
Many smaller states are likely to remain Republican, and GOP governors likely to be re-elected include four moderates in states Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in 2016: Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. All but New Hampshire have Democratic legislatures.
The principal 2018 battlegrounds are the states with the biggest potential future impact on both legislative and congressional redistricting, including three where two-term GOP governors retired.
In Ohio, early polls show Democrat Richard Cordray slightly ahead of Republican Mike DeWine to succeed Republican John Kasich. In Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer begins the general election with a lead over Republican Bill Schuette to replace Rick Snyder. In Florida, the likeliest Democrat, Gwen Graham, leads the leading Republican, Ron DeSantis. Current GOP Governor Rick Scott is running for the Senate.
And in Wisconsin, the Real Clear Politics average of polls shows two-term GOP Gov. Scott Walker trailing the Democratic nominee, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers.
Results of governors’ races generally parallel those of congressional contests in mid-term elections. In 2006, when Democrats regained both houses of Congress, they also won most governorships. In 2010, when Republicans made big congressional gains, they won a majority.
The only question this year seems to be how many state houses will turn blue — and how great the impact will be after 2020.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at [email protected] The Tribune News Service distributes his column.