Governors: Democrats' Silver Lining?

We all know by now that, barring something dramatic happening, this will be a very good year for Republicans. But how good depends to a huge degree on the office you're talking about. In fact, when it comes to governorships Republicans might not gain at all -- if you define a gain like I do.
by | August 13, 2010

We all know by now that, barring something dramatic happening, this will be a very good year for Republicans. But how good depends to a huge degree on the office you're talking about.

Republicans will make very large gains in the U.S. House and in state legislatures. Those are races where voters often don't know a lot about the candidates, meaning the national environment plays a larger role. Those are also races where every seat that is up was up in either 2006 or 2008 (or both), so Democrats have to defend all the turf they won in a wave election.

The U.S. Senate is a different story. With six-year terms, the G.O.P. is trying to build off 2004, a favorable year for the party. Republicans have had some striking recruitment successes (in North Dakota and Delaware) and they've managed to put surprising seats into play even where they haven't had recruitment successes (in Wisconsin and California), but the party's right flank also has jeopardized seats by rejecting more electable candidates (in Florida, Nevada and Kentucky). Democrats actually have several good pickup opportunities. I suppose that I wouldn't be shocked if Republicans won the Senate, but I also wouldn't  be surprised if Democrats have 56 members in their caucus come January.

Then there are the governors' races, where Republicans might not gain at all.

At least, they might not gain if you define gaining how I do. Republicans almost certainly will have more governorships in January than they do now. My current forecast, as you'll see below, is that if the elections were held today Republicans would net six governorships.

But, other than for bragging rights, the number of governorships a party controls isn't very important. U.S. senators from Wyoming have virtually all of the political power and policy importance of U.S. senators from California. Plus, the difference between 49 senators and 51 senators for a party is massive. In contrast, the governor of California has vastly more political power than the governor of Wyoming. And 24 governorships versus 26 governorships? It doesn't matter. If you want to know which party has an upper hand in governorships, you have to look at population.

Here are my educated guesses of what would happen if the elections took place right now, along with the population of each state.

Governors' Race Forecast

You're welcome to quibble with some of the forecasts, but overall these are very conventional predictions. Among the tough calls, I gave Republicans the benefit of the doubt in Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont, while I gave Maine, Maryland and Rhode Island to the Democrats.

If these are the results, Republicans will end up netting gubernatorial control of 8.2 million people. That isn't much at all. Republicans gained far more last year when they won in Virginia and New Jersey.

Even small gains like that aren't anywhere close to guaranteed. With an election held in November rather than on August 13, I tend to think that Roy Barnes actually is a narrow favorite. Barnes is a great fundraiser and Nathan Deal has the taint of being a longtime congressman (and one with ethical complications to boot). If Barnes wins and you keep all the other states the same, Democrats actually gain population. If they prevail in winnable races in places like Ohio and Texas, their gain could be quite a bit bigger.

However, Democrats' position also is deeply precarious. If you keep all of the results the same and then give Republicans California and Florida, where the party has a solid chance to prevail, suddenly the G.O.P. is netting 60 million people. The situation with governors, then, is pretty close to the situation in the Senate, except with an even wider range of possible outcomes -- from massive Republican gains to no gains at all.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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