What Would a G.O.P. Congressional Landslide Mean for Governor's Races?

Yesterday's Massachusetts Senate election confirmed what, really, everyone already knew. November 2, 2010 could be a tremendous night for Republicans and a terrible night for Democrats. ...
by | January 20, 2010

Yesterday's Massachusetts Senate election confirmed what, really, everyone already knew. November 2, 2010 could be a tremendous night for Republicans and a terrible night for Democrats. Plenty could change over the next 10 months, but dramatic Republican gains in Congress don't just look possible. They appear likely.

If that were the case, would Republicans be guaranteed to have a big night in gubernatorial races too? To get a sense of that, I looked at the last three midterm election years that featured a substantial shift in power in Congress (meaning at least a 25-seat net gain for one party in the U.S. House).

Here's a chart summarizing what happened in the gubernatorial elections each of those years.

Gubernatorial Elections 1982, 1994, 2006

As you'd expect, when a party makes substantial gains in Congress, it also makes substantial gains in gubernatorial elections. For Democrats, 1982 and 2006 were great years at both the federal and state level. The same was true for Republicans in 1994. Here is some additional commentary on each of these election years:

1982: It's worth noting that 28 years ago Democrats were still dominant in state politics in the South. So, it's not quite as shocking as it seems that they would win three-fourths of the races for governor.

Still, Democrats won some major victories. In Texas, Mark White beat the Republican incumbent, William Clements (Clements would win a rematch four years later). In Arkansas, Bill Clinton's comeback bid succeeded after he had lost the governorship two years earlier. Democrats even defeated the Republican incumbent in Nebraska. They generally cleaned up in the open-seat races too.

Republicans did have a few good wins, beating the Democratic incumbent in New Hampshire and winning in California in the famous "Bradley Effect" election. So, the national environment wasn't completely determinative, but it did have a huge impact on the races for governor.

1994: As bad as the 1994 elections were for Democratic candidates for Congress, they were every bit as bad (maybe even worse) for Democratic candidates for governor. Only four Democrats even made it to 53% of the vote. Every one of them was an incumbent seeking reelection.

Republicans won marquee victories over Democratic incumbents in Texas (where George W. Bush defeated Ann Richardson) and New York (where George Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo). They also won lots of other major victories.

Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota all are politically competitive states, right? Well, Republican candidates won every one of them with more than 60% of the vote. Scott Brown's 52% is nothing to sneeze at, but Massachusetts Republican Gov. William Weld won reelection in 1994 with more than 70% of the vote.

The best Democratic candidates did survive 1994. But, it's hard to imagine a playing field being more skewed toward one party.

2006: While Democrats were winning control of the U.S. House and Senate, their gains in gubernatorial races were comparatively modest. Democrats performed well in open-seat races, but the only incumbent they beat was Bob Ehrlich in Maryland (Republican incumbents barely survived in Rhode Island and Minnesota too). Republican governors had little trouble winning new terms in blue states such as Hawaii, Connecticut, Vermont and California.

Still, the national environment clearly benefited Democrats in governor's races. Early in the cycle, Democratic incumbents in Oregon, Maine, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois all looked vulnerable. All of them ended up winning by at least 7 points. Voters didn't love any of these governors (today they're all pretty much unpopular), but the national mood was enough to push them over the finish line.

What's worth remembering is that the events that gave Democrats an advantage in 2006 primarily were federal in nature, including the Iraq War and the Jack Abramoff scandal. The economy (at least superficially) was doing fine. Still, Democratic candidates for governor benefited.

There have been years when state and federal politics diverged. In 1986, for example, Democrats won back the U.S. Senate, but Republicans made big gains in governor's races.

But, those weren't years when one party had a dramatic advantage. The lesson from all of these elections, I think, is that if a congressional wave is big enough then gubernatorial politics becomes inextricably linked to congressional politics. At a time when the factors driving anxiety at the federal level (the economy, the budget) are also driving anxiety at the state level, that's probably even more true than usual this year.

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

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