What All the GOP Wins Mean for Governors

Democrats hoped to have the upper hand when it came to races for governor. Instead, Republicans pulled off some unexpected victories.
by | November 5, 2014

What was supposed to be a bright spot for the Democrats turned out to be a black eye.

While Democrats knew all along that they would likely lose the U.S. Senate, many thought they could cut into the GOP's sizable lead among governors, sweeping out at least some Republicans who won in blue and purple states four years ago. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, sounded more certain his party would take over the Senate Tuesday night than it would make gains in gubernatorial contests.

He needn't have worried. States that have been among the most reliable for Democrats -- Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts -- fell to the Republicans. The GOP also picked up Arkansas, where Asa Hutchinson's victory gives Republicans total control of the state's political apparatus for the first time since 1874.

A percentage point or so worth of votes shifting in the other direction would have rung up the score even higher for Republicans, with Democrats barely clinging to power in Colorado, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The only state where Democrats were able to unseat a Republican was Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett's loss to Tom Wolf had long been assumed.

Republican Gov. Sean Parnell also appears to have lost in Alaska to an unusual unity ticket headed by Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-Independent who ran with a Democrat as his running mate.

Democrats were unable to take out any of the governors they had targeted in states where Obama won two years ago, such as Florida, Michigan and Maine.

Many of the Republicans who have just won new terms looked vulnerable at certain points. Some, like John Kasich in Ohio, looked beatable the first year or two after taking office. Others, including Kansas' Sam Brownback, looked like they might lose even at start of this week.

Democrats were deeply disappointed not to unseat Brownback, who has turned Kansas into a tax-cutting "experiment," or the union-busting Scott Walker in Wisconsin. He may have survived a recall, but Democrats poured millions into the renewed attempt to remove him.

None of the main Democratic messages -- that Republicans are hostile to women and minorities, caring only for their rich allies -- were enough to win a majority of voters over to their side. Instead, Republicans can now be confident that their calls for restraint on government and lower tax rates have gained traction outside the usual group of safely red states. Democratic complaints that Republican governors had slashed spending on education did not convince voters. "My instinct is that, especially in the Republican states, you're going to see an acceleration of what they've been doing," said James Conant, a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia.

That's not to say that the new governors are all going to have an easy time of it. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Larry Hogan in Maryland will each have to contend with big Democratic legislative majorities. "They're going to continue to struggle, fiscally, even though we've come back from the recession," said Ray Scheppach, a former executive director of the National Governors Association.

Some Republican governors will be pushed by some constituency groups to accept the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and to spend more on infrastructure. But GOP governors working with enhanced Republican majorities in a number of states will pursue ambitious tax reduction programs, along with conservative social policies regarding issues such as abortion and immigration, without any fear of facing a backlash in the near future.