'The Midwest Is Swinging Again': Democrats' Best Chances to Flip Governor Seats

Only one Republican in the region looks like a certain winner. The rest are at some risk.
by | September 26, 2018
Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic candidate for governor in Michigan, is polling ahead of her Republican opponent, Attorney General Bill Shuette. (AP/Carlos Osorio)

Republicans enjoy nearly total dominance of the Midwest. The GOP holds every governor's office in the region, save for Minnesota, as well as every legislature except Illinois.

That looks likely to change soon. The Midwest this year offers the Democratic Party its best opportunities for cutting into the Republicans' 2-to-1 advantage among governors nationwide.

"The Midwest has arguably been the most competitive region in America for a very long time," says Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia. "It may be that the Midwest is swinging again."

Democrats hold clear leads in the races for governor in Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota. Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is seeking a third term, has been trailing in recent polls by modest but clear margins.

"Walker seems to be aware this is going to be a tough year for him," says Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. "He really has not faced an electorate that has been as hostile to his party as this electorate is going to be."

The races in Iowa, Ohio and Kansas all look like tossups at this point. The only Republican in the entire Midwest who looks like a certain winner is Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. Even in South Dakota, which hasn't elected a Democratic governor since 1974, a poll back in July showed Republican Congresswoman Kristi Noem with just a four-point edge over rancher Billie Sutton. That has kept prognosticators from writing off the Democrat's chances entirely.

"After eight years of Republican governors in most of these states, voters are ready for a change," says Jared Leopold, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. "Democrats in the Midwest are running on bread-and-butter issues, focusing on jobs and health care and education."

President Trump was elected largely because he performed better in the Midwest than prior Republican candidates. He won Michigan and Wisconsin, which hadn't voted Republican since 1984, while easily carrying Ohio and Iowa, which had supported Barack Obama twice. The 206 counties that swung from Obama to Trump in 2016 were heavily concentrated in the Midwest. Iowa had the most, with 31 counties moving from the Democratic column to the Republicans'.

But now Trump is a drag on Midwestern GOP hopefuls.

"The bottom line is you truly have a Trump effect in Michigan," says Ed Sarpolus, a Republican pollster in the state. "Right now in Michigan, they don't like what's happening in D.C."

The president's approval ratings are low around the country. In the Midwest, voters aren't happy with the effects his tariffs are having, particularly on agriculture, despite the administration's plan to subsidize farmers who have been hurt.

"What's happened in China has been just an unmitigated disaster," says Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "Farmers are furious that they've lost these markets that took them decades to build, and now they're losing money."

A poll released Saturday showed Democratic Iowa businessman Fred Hubbell in the lead -- albeit by a statistically insignificant two points -- over GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds. "To say it's a tossup is good for Democrats," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. "The fact that [Reynolds] has been running negative ads in her own name suggests that they're nervous."

Following in the footsteps of Terry Branstad, who was serving his sixth non-consecutive term as Iowa governor before being appointed ambassador to China last year, Reynolds still faces the challenge of how to "craft her own narrative," says Christopher Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa.

She has emphasized her small-town Iowa roots, while seeking to paint Hubbell as an out-of-touch rich guy. "The Democrats still haven't figured out, here at least, how to penetrate these rural areas," says Goldford, the Drake professor. "They won't even listen to the Democratic message, let alone be persuaded by them."

Health care has been a resonant issue elsewhere.

Republican Attorneys General Bill Schuette of Michigan and Mike DeWine of Ohio, who are now their party's gubernatorial nominees, have both been critical of the Affordable Care Act. Although they have softened their stances since winning their respective primaries, Democrats are warning that they'd put their states' Medicaid expansions at risk. Neither Schuette nor DeWine has been endorsed by the outgoing GOP governor of his state (Rick Snyder in Michigan and John Kasich in Ohio).

"Schuette may be perceived as a bit too conservative for the state," says Edie Goldenberg, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan. "He's taken positions that are definitely more conservative than Snyder. That's not going to help him."

In the Midwest and across the country, outcomes will be determined by Democrats' ability to win over wavering suburbanites while earning a strong showing from their backers in bigger cities.

"The main population centers in Minnesota, Michigan and Madison, [Wis.], these are all hotbeds of progressive fury at Trump," Jacobs says.

Democrats are hoping that turnout will be stronger among their voters than has been the case in recent midterms. But an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday showed that 73 percent of seniors are interested in this year's elections, while only 35 percent of young people are.

"It seems like several groups are interesting in moving younger voters," Larimer says. "In the last midterm in Iowa, their turnout was 23 percent."

In short, this year's elections may shape up to be "a slightly more intense plain vanilla midterm election," Jacobs says. "You've got a president who's a bit less popular, and an opposition party that looks pretty intense."

The president's party nearly always loses seats in midterms. It looks like that will translate for Democrats into more Midwestern governorships. That's certainly welcome news for the party. Given the party's weakness in the South and Mountain West, if Democrats continue to be shut out in the Midwest, their strength would be almost entirely coastal in nature.

But a comeback in the gubernatorial ranks doesn't necessarily predict that they'll reverse Trump's gains in a presidential year, when the electorate will look a lot different.

"The Midwest frequently swings between the parties, depending on national conditions," says the University of Virginia's Kondik. "If it does, don't assume it won't swing another way in 2020."

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