After nearly a decade in the wilderness, Democrats are bullish about winning a bevy of governorships in big swing states next week — a result that would not only return them to power in key battlegrounds but give Democrats a much better chance at competing for the House in the next decade.
With the election just over a week away, Democrats are feeling confident about winning governorships in Michigan and Florida. They’re in dogfights in Wisconsin and Ohio. They are almost certain to hold serve in Pennsylvania, and already won a governor’s mansion in Virginia last year. Those six states represent a treasure trove of House seats.
“Democrats are in good shape to win a lot of governorships in important states and be able to force through fair lines after the next census,” said John Hagner, a Democratic strategist and redistricting expert who is involved in a number of gubernatorial races this year.
If Democrats win all five governorships up this year that could yield 15 to 20 more winnable seats for House Democrats in the average election year starting in 2022, Hagner said — with another 10 or so seats that could go to Democrats in states like Texas where minority growth could force Republicans to draw new minority-majority seats.
“The combination of Democratic governors and reapportionment takes 25 to 30 [House] seats and makes them more winnable,” he said.
Those swing states all had unified GOP control in 2010, allowing Republicans to gerrymander maps that have lopsided congressional delegations over the past decade. Democrats won all five states in at least two out of the past three presidential elections. But Republicans hold 49 of the states’ 75 House seats, nearly two thirds of them, largely because of aggressive gerrymanders.
If Democrats can sweep the governors’ races in those states — a real possibility — that could lead to huge gains and a much more even playing field in the battle for the House after the decennial census and redistricting play out before the 2022 elections.
Democrats are expected to pick up a number of House seats across these states this election, but they’ll be tough holds in a non-wave year for their party.
If the states’ maps are dramatically redrawn by 2022, however, that will change. Rather than having a perennially uphill challenge at winning House control, Democrats will only be looking at a small disadvantage largely driven by the tendency of Democrats to cluster in more densely populated areas and the drawing of minority-majority districts.
Currently, Democrats are projected to need to win the national popular vote for the House by roughly seven points in order to win House control. That’s something it appears they might achieve this year, but is hardly sustainable. If they can win these big governors’ mansions they’re currently expecting or hopeful they can win, however, that could cut that percentage in half.
THE BIG STATES
Florida and Ohio are the biggest political prizes for redistricting purposes.
Florida is traditionally the most closely divided state in the nation. A landslide win statewide there is no more than four points. And yet the state’s delegation is currently 16-11 Republican.
Heading into the campaign’s homestretch, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) has held a steady lead over Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) in public polling. Private polls from both sides have found a much closer race, but with Gillum still in the lead.
If elected, Gillum will force the GOP to draw competitive maps for Congress as well as the statehouse.
In Ohio, former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Richard Cordray (D) and state Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) are locked in a pure tossup race, say strategists in both parties. The state’s current delegation has 12 Republicans and just four Democrats, a redistricting Rembrandt crafted by former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in 2011. The state recently passed some minor reforms designed to undercut gerrymandering, but they’re largely toothless, so the victor here will determine what the state’s maps look like for the 2022 elections. If Cordray wins and can force compromise or court-drawn maps, that could yield some major Democratic gains — especially since the state is likely to lose at least one House seat, which almost certainly will have to be a Republican at this point.
In Michigan, state Rep. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has a big lead over state Attorney General Bill Schuette (R), and Democrats think they have a chance to flip one state legislative chamber, with the other looking like a remote possibility. The state’s voters are also expected to a pass an anti-gerrymandering ballot initiative, all but guaranteeing the current nine-to-four state delegation will be a thing of the past.
In Wisconsin, state schools superintendent Tony Evers is in a close race with Gov. Scott Walker (R), who is seeking a third term. That race has tightened up over the past two months, but Democrats are slightly more confident than Republicans about their side winning. Democrats are also hopeful about winning at least one chamber of the state legislature, and have a very slim chance of winning unified control of the state between now and 2020. A fair map could turn the current five-to-three GOP edge into a four-to-four split, and a Democratic gerrymander, which is unlikely, could even produce a one-seat Democratic advantage.
Pennsylvania’s old GOP gerrymander was tossed out by the courts before this election, giving Democrats a huge opportunity to pick up a number of seats in the state this election. The state will likely lose one House seat in reapportionment after 2020, but a compromise map could help Democrats keep their House majority should they win it this month.
Virginia’s GOP gerrymander has also been weakened a bit by the courts, giving Democrats one more House seat last election cycle. And Democrats are hoping to flip three GOP-held seats, two of which are drawn to protect Republicans. But a compromise map could turn the current seven-to-four GOP advantage into a map where each side has four or five safe seats, with a few competitive ones.
THE OTHER STATES
The big swing states aren’t the only ones where local elections may have a big impact on Democrats’ ability to win the House next decade, though it’s unclear if Democrats will be willing to be as cutthroat in gerrymanders as their opponents were last decade given how much the party has talked about “fair maps” in recent years.
If Democrats can win the tossup race for Georgia’s governorship and get a court-drawn map they could win one to two more House seats there as well.
Businessman J.B. Pritzker (D) is heavily favored to defeat Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), which would return unified control of Illinois to Democrats. They drew a gerrymander a decade ago that turned out to be ineffectual in spots, but a new gerrymander, should partisans decide to pursue one, could yield a few more seats for their party.
New York Democrats also look likely to win unified control of their state after seeing a bipartisan gerrymander last redistricting cycle, though it’s less clear that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) would be willing to support an aggressive partisan gerrymander given his past inclination to back moderates and empower Republicans in the state.
Colorado and Minnesota similarly could give Democrats another House seat or two if they win unified control and gerrymander what had been fair-fight maps. Democrats have a better shot at unified control over Colorado than Minnesota by 2022, but both are possibilities.
A win for Democrats in Kansas’ hard-fought gubernatorial race could also let them keep the GOP from drawing a gerrymander that could return the state’s current four-to-zero delegation to its current form (Democrats think they’ll win one or two of the seats this year).
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is coasting to reelection, so the Democratic gerrymander that’s led to a seven-to-one delegation there is likely to be undone. But a six-to-two Democratic delegation is likely even with a fair map.
The huge 2010 GOP wave election handed Republicans the ability to control these states — and dominate their congressional delegations — for much of the decade. That appears to be about to end.
“Democrats across the country have realized this isn’t just a battle for winning races in 2018 but winning races across the country at the legislative and congressional level for the next decade,” said Democratic Governors Association spokesman David Turner. “You’re going to see much more evenhanded representation after a fair map.”
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