The Democrats Have a Lot of Governors' Mansions to Protect

Republicans already dominate governors' mansions around the country. Twenty-nine states have GOP governors, thanks largely to 2010, when the party took 11 governorships away from the Democrats. Given those numbers, it might not seem like there's much left for Democrats to defend. But, as it happens, this Democrats must play defense in all but three of this year's gubernatorial elections.

Of the 11 states electing governors this year, eight currently have Democrats doing the job. (That's Delaware, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.) A Stateline report offers a handy rundown. Many of the races will be competitive, and with a serious disadvantage in fundraising, Democrats face an uphill battle to simply hold their ground.

As I argued in my latest print column, many national debates are currently getting fought at the state level, and who controls the legislative and executive branches of a state has huge implications for the direction of public policy:

States’ refusal to expand Medicaid could derail Obama’s health-care plan. Anti-immigration laws will continue to proliferate in the states while Congress hems and haws about comprehensive reform. Republican lawmakers will continue to push for charter schools and private-school vouchers at the cost of traditional public education. Fights over civil-rights issues like gay marriage and voting rights, not to mention women’s rights, will play out almost entirely in the halls of state capitols. 

In 2010, Republicans saw overwhelming state-level gains that gave them a decisive edge in these battles: along with the gubernatorial wins, they picked up 21 state house and senate chambers. Democrats have a good chance to win back some of the legislative chambers they lost then. But governors are important (ask any lawmaker who's seen her prize piece of legislation vetoed)—and the Republicans' prospects are much better in these races, particularly given the enormous fundraising gap: in 2010, the Republican Governors Association spent $132 million, compared with the Democratic Governors Association's $65 million. The RGA has only spent $35 million so far this year, but that number is almost sure to rise as things heat up over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, their Democratic counterparts are again being outspent—$23 million so far. The RGA has already made significant investments in North Carolina and Montana, both states where Democratic incumbents are stepping aside. 

Big money won't be the only factor determining the outcome, of course. Local and regional politics could make the results unpredictable—and the Democrats aren't all running as, you know, Democrats. In conservative West Virginia, incumbent Earl Ray Tomblin is staying as far away from Barack Obama as possible; he refused to endorse the president or go to the Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile, in liberal-leaning Washington state, Republican candidate Rob McKenna is pushing for more money for education while Democrat Jay Inslee has made clean energy a centerpiece of his campaign. 

With only a few weeks until Election Day, Democrats have a lot riding on these state-level races. They can't afford a repeat of 2010. But the odds favor the other side. 


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