In 2018 State Races, Partisans Retreated to Their Corners

Most red states will stay red, and the blue states will remain the minority. But voters did reject several more ideological candidates in favor of politicians who presented themselves as more pragmatic.
by | November 7, 2018
Democrat Laura Kelly waved to the crowd after she won election Tuesday to become the next Kansas governor. (AP/Topeka Capital-Journal/Thad Allton)

It wasn't so much a wave as an affirmation. The parts of the country that back President Trump supported Republicans at the state level, while the parts that disdain him helped down-ballot Democrats.

Democrats gained a total of seven governorships, assuming current results hold. They also picked up a half-dozen legislative chambers.

None of that was nearly enough to bring to an end a decade of Republican dominance at the state level. Republicans still hold a majority of governorships, as well as 62 of the nation's 99 legislative chambers.

Both parties, in fact, added to their strongholds. Republicans preserved their supermajorities in most chambers where they had them. The same was true for Democrats.

But even as the red states stayed red and the blue states remained a minority, voters signaled that they don't want state politics to be purely oppositional. In several races for governor, they rejected the more obviously ideological candidates in favor of politicians who presented themselves as more pragmatic.

That was certainly the case in Kansas, where state Sen. Laura Kelly became one of the few Democratic statewide candidates to out-perform the polls this year. Kelly defeated Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a lightning rod for criticism from the left due to his leadership roles on voting restrictions and immigration issues.

Kansas is one of the reddest states, but Republicans within Kansas are divided between staunch conservatives and moderates who, as it turned out, couldn't abide the thought of Kobach as governor.

"The strength that Kelly brought to the race is that she is a moderate, who genuinely has had appeal to Republicans in her own district," says Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. "Despite the Republican lean of the state, Kobach did not skate through just on being a Republican."

Kobach has closely aligned himself with President Trump, leading a short-lived and controversial commission on voter fraud with Vice President Mike Pence.

"One wants to be a media star with a national profile and one is a policy dork interested in talking with legislators about bills," Miller says, describing Kobach and Kelly, respectively. "There were times in the race that she seemed to be the only one who was interested in being governor, especially with the focus on national issues."

Although loyalty to Trump was a key issue in many Republican primaries this year, some of the most prominent Trumpists lost races for governor, including Scott Wagner in Pennsylvania and Bill Schuette in Michigan.

Ron DeSantis, who narrowly won the Florida race, was perhaps the most strongly Trump-linked candidate of all, airing an ad showing him teaching his young children how to "build the wall" and "make America great again. But, as in Georgia next door, Florida ended up being a base vs. base contest, with the Democratic contenders running races that appealed predominantly to voters on the left.

"DeSantis did not run a very good campaign by any objective measure, but it did not seem to matter," says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. "Republican enthusiasm and turnout to support Trump slightly exceeded Democratic enthusiasm to oppose Trump."

Andrew Gillum, DeSantis' opponent, ran on a highly progressive platform, calling for Trump's impeachment and the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Gillum was too liberal to close the deal, as Florida does not typically vote for tax increases, and he was suggesting a billion-dollar increase," Jewett says.

The most progressive candidates -- the ones running on some combination of ideas such as free college tuition, an increased minimum wage, paid family leave and universal health care -- primarily lost, including Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Christine Hallquist in Vermont, Ben Jealous in Maryland and David Garcia in Arizona. Gavin Newsom, in the blue state of California, and Jared Polis, in the increasingly blue state of Colorado, were the exceptions.

In Connecticut, Ned Lamont -- who was a darling of the "netroots" left during his campaign for the U.S. Senate a dozen years ago -- stressed his credentials as a businessman this time around. He appears to have narrowly held the state for his party. In Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer beat Schuette by talking more about how to "fix the damn roads" than devoting her attention to hot-button national issues.

Democrat Tony Evers appears to have narrowly defeated GOP Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin -- the razor-thin race is likely heading to a recount -- by stressing education. Evers avoided taking liberal positions embraced by his primary rivals on issues such as health care and tuition, insisting that his intention was to address problems on a bipartisan basis.

Much of the game was played on Democratic turf, with Walker pledging to protect coverage for people with preexisting conditions and calling himself the "education governor."

Something similar happened around the country. Republican governors won reelection in the blue states of Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont and New Hampshire by running as pragmatists a bit divorced from Trump. Republicans in states as red as Arizona and Oklahoma talked up their devotion to health care and education.

In Idaho, Nebraska and Utah, voters approved ballot measures that will lead to the expansion of Medicaid in their states. The election of Democrat Janet Mills as governor of Maine will have the effect of fast-tracking a Medicaid expansion approved by voters last year, but fought every step of the way by outgoing GOP Gov. Paul LePage.

Other progressive ballot measures fared well, including initiatives addressing redistricting, campaign finance and ethics and voter registration in states such as Missouri, Nevada, Michigan and Maryland. Even as Florida voters narrowly elected DeSantis, they approved a highly-publicized amendment that will restore voting rights to most ex-felons.

Not every liberal measure prevailed. New voter ID restrictions were approved in Arkansas and North Carolina. In Alabama and West Virginia, voters agreed to add abortion bans to the state constitutions, preemptively assuming a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court may overturn or weaken Roe v. Wade.

California voters rejected a measure that would have made it easier for cities to impose rent-control restrictions. Washington state voters once again turned down the idea of imposing a tax on carbon.

Republicans were able to preserve large legislative majorities in states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. But Democrats were able to make inroads into nearly all of them.

As in congressional races, legislative Democrats performed best in suburban areas that are home to lots of educated professionals, picking up seats in places such as Chester County, Pa., and Wake County, N.C.

"The Minnesota House is the poster child for that," says Tim Storey, director of state services at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Democrats retook the House by winning suburban districts outside the Twin Cities."

By and large, both parties ended up winning where they were already strong. New Republican governors were elected in favorable states such as Idaho, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee, while Kansas was the only state that voted Democratic for governor without having previously voted for Barack Obama for president.

In the swing states, the ones that switched their allegiance from Obama to Trump, it was mostly the pragmatists who won.

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