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Midwest Turns Bluer as Local Concerns Outweigh National Issues

A handful of Democratic wins in governors' races resulted in a Midwest that's more politically balanced than in recent years.

Gretchen Whitmer1
Michigan Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer at a press conference on Wednesday.
(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Last updated at 3:40 p.m. Eastern time.

After nearly a decade of boasting some of the most prominent Republican governors in the country, the Midwest returned to its old form Tuesday, with a new crop of governors that has decidedly more partisan balance.

Democrats had hoped for a “blue wave” throughout the country, but especially in the industrial and agricultural powerhouses in the middle of the map. They hoped they could punish Republican candidates for what they saw as mismanagement and hubris at the state level, along with unpopular positions staked out by President Trump and a Republican Congress at the national level.

They racked up more wins than losses, but the result was less of a wave than a shift. Democrats picked up governorships in Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin. They held on to the top spot in Minnesota. But they fell short in their bids in Iowa, Ohio and South Dakota.

Democrats’ enthusiasm could also be tempered by the fact that, in the Midwest, Illinois is the only legislature under Democratic control. Minnesota’s two chambers are split: The House will be Democratic after last night’s election, and the Senate will remain Republican. Nebraska’s single-chamber legislature is officially non-partisan but functionally Republican. The rest of the legislatures remain firmly under GOP control, which severely limits the ability of new Democratic governors to push their party’s pet issues.

When it comes to governor’s offices, though, the partisan landscape doesn’t look much different than it did after the 2002 election, the last time most of the offices turned over before a new class of Republicans stormed to power in 2010. The 2010 class elevated state-level disputes into national controversies, on issues such as curbing union rights, blocking high-speed rail expansion and expanding Medicaid health insurance coverage.

This year, though, several of the contests in Midwestern states seemed to revert to a local, rather than national, focus.

Here is a look at several of the high-profile Midwestern races:


Tony Evers, Wisconsin

Wisconsin voters seemed tired of Gov. Scott Walker, who sought a third term, especially after he mounted an unsuccessful presidential bid. Tuesday’s election was actually Walker’s fourth gubernatorial contest, because he had to defend his seat in a 2012 recall election, when unions tried to oust him for pushing a law that severely curtailed labor power in the state.

“Walker lost in part because he had served a long time and built up opposition as he went along,” says Cynthia Rugeley, the head of the political science department at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. “There was a lot of belief that he had let roads and education go, in order to paint himself as a frugal leader in his presidential bid.”

Walker initially touted a massive Foxconn factory that he lured to southern Wisconsin as an example of his ability to bring 13,000 jobs to the state. But that became more of a liability, as the cost of the LCD manufacturing plant ballooned to $4.1 billion.

Democrat Tony Evers, the state school superintendent, campaigned on expanding Medicaid coverage, increasing transportation spending, rolling back the restrictions on unions and boosting funding for K-12 schools and state universities.


Tim Walz, Minnesota

While Wisconsin voters had an eight-year itch with Walker, voters in neighboring Minnesota kept the governor’s office in the hands of the Democratic Party. It was the first time one party has kept control of the Minnesota governor’s office for three terms since the 1950s, according to the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.

Democrat Tim Walz, a congressman from a rural district, bested Republican Jeff Johnson, a county commissioner from the Minneapolis area who lost a bid for governor four years ago. Walz will succeed Gov. Mark Dayton.

At the same time, Democrats took control of the state House by winning several suburban districts. Republicans still hold a one-vote majority in the state Senate.

Walz promised to increase spending on schools and transportation. But he will face big budget challenges, such as finding money for health care subsidies and reconciling the state tax code with federal laws, Rugeley says.


Mike DeWine, Ohio

Ohio was one of Republicans’ brightest spots in the Midwest Tuesday, as Mike DeWine, the state’s attorney general, beat Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general and Obama administration official.

In effect, Ohio was just following through its tradition of being a bastion of Republican strength at the state level, says Nancy Martorano Miller, a political science professor with the University of Dayton. She notes that the last time a Democrat won the governorship there in 2006, it was at a time the scandal-plagued incumbent pled guilty to a campaign finance violation and had single-digit approval ratings.

Today, the situation is vastly different. “Right now, things in Ohio are pretty good, from an economic point of view,” Martorano Miller says. “The state’s recovery has been slow and steady. It’s lagging just slightly behind the nation as a whole, but not too far off from neighboring Rust Belt states.”

On top of that, the current Republican governor, John Kasich, is leaving with high popularity ratings, she adds. Even though DeWine is seen as more conservative than Kasich, DeWine promised to follow Kasich’s policy of expanding Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

“Unlike governor’s races in Florida, Georgia and maybe just a bit in Wisconsin, the Ohio race was never nationalized,” Martorano Miller says. “The Ohio governor debates and campaigns were much more focused on Ohio issues, such as the opioid crisis, a state-level constitutional amendment and an on-line charter school scandal.”

“Also, DeWine never campaigned as a ‘Trumper,’” she says. “He happily accepted presidential endorsement tweets, but he was typically very quiet about Trump while on the campaign trail. DeWine is a seasoned, long-term Ohio politician and elected official. Voters knew more about him from the get-go.”


Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan

Gretchen Whitmer’s signature issue in Michigan was about as local as they come: “Fix our damn roads.”

With that campaign promise, the former state Senate minority leader from East Lansing defeated Bill Schuette, the Republican attorney general, ending eight years of Republican control of the Michigan governorship.

Potholes are a perennial problem in Michigan, both because of its harsh winters and because of the state’s reticence to raise taxes and fees to pay for road improvements. Whitmer says that the state ought to be spending more -- $2 billion a year more -- on infrastructure projects, but she hasn’t said where exactly the state would get that money.

Whitmer wants other spending increases, too. She wants to provide universal pre-K for 4-year-olds and called for increases in other school spending as well.

Schuette, who was endorsed by Trump, warned that her spending plans would lead to higher taxes and drive Michigan into another “lost decade,” like the one it suffered from in the early 2000s when the auto industry collapsed between two recessions. (Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat and the state’s first female governor, presided over the state during much of that decade.) Schuette called for cuts to state income taxes to help improve the economy.

Whitmer will succeed Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican and former businessman who billed himself as “one tough nerd” who could fix the state’s problems. But Snyder’s political standing plummeted after the Flint water crisis, when a state appointee switched the city’s water supply without ensuring that the new water would not corrode lead pipes in homes throughout the city.

As attorney general, Schuette led the state investigation into the crisis, including bringing criminal charges against some of Snyder’s political appointees. Snyder endorsed one of Schuette’s opponents in the Republican primary, but never made an endorsement in the general election.


J.B. Pritzker, Illinois

In Illinois, voters unceremoniously ditched their first-term Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, as part of a bigger purge of Republican officeholders throughout the state.

Democrat J.B. Pritzker beat Rauner at his own game. Both candidates are extremely wealthy. Pritzker is an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, while Rauner built a fortune in venture capital. But Pritzker’s pockets are deeper than Rauner’s, which became apparent this campaign season. Pritzker spent $171 million of his own money on the contest, while Rauner put up nearly $70 million.

“Once Pritzker assumes office,” Forbes observed, “he will be the richest sitting politician in the country, worth an estimated $3.2 billion, surpassing President Trump, who currently holds that title with a net worth of $3.1 billion.”

Four years ago, Rauner narrowly defeated an unpopular Democrat with a largely self-financed campaign.

But Rauner’s political fortunes suffered from a two-year budget stand-off he had with the Democratic-controlled legislature. The Republican governor tried to use the budget as leverage to squeeze anti-union measures out of Democratic lawmakers, but the Democrats refused to budge. The lack of a budget devastated human services in the state, along with public universities, and legislative Republicans eventually blinked in the game of chicken.

A handful of GOP lawmakers backed a budget two years ago that included a tax hike, which restored services and narrowly avoided having Illinois’ bonds rated as “junk” by Wall Street.

Things quickly got worse for Rauner after that. He suffered from high-profile staff turnover, fights with conservatives over abortion and immigration, and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at a state veterans hospital that killed 12 patients.

Pritzker won Tuesday with 54 percent of the vote, compared with 39 percent for Rauner and less than 5 percent for two minor-party candidates.

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