Governors the key to party comeback
When West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced that he was leaving the Democratic Party and returning to the Republican Party, the move highlighted once again the dominance of the GOP at the state level — and signaled to beleaguered Democrats the importance that the 2018 gubernatorial elections could play in starting a comeback.
With Justice’s switch, announced Thursday at a rally with President Donald Trump, Republicans now hold 34 of the 50 governorships, tying the record for the most ever for the GOP. Democrats, who at the beginning of the Barack Obama presidency held 28 governorships, have seen their ranks dwindle to just 15. At some point over the past decade, according to the Republican Governors Association, there has been a Republican governor in 46 of the 50 states.
Republican control of the states is even more lopsided when the partisan balance of state legislatures is included in the statistics. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans now hold the governor’s office and control of the legislature in 24 states. Democrats enjoy total control in just seven, with 18 states having split control. (Nebraska has a Republican governor and a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature.) Eight years ago, Democrats held the upper hand, controlling 17 states to nine for the Republicans.
For Democrats, the rapid loss of power in the states is both cause for alarm and some reason for hope. Republicans posted enormous gains in the states and in Congress in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014. If it happened for the GOP, Democrats ask, why couldn’t it happen for them?
Midterm elections for a new president generally result in losses, sometimes substantial losses, and Trump currently suffers from the lowest approval ratings of any new president at this point in a first term. That’s compounded by the fact that the president and congressional Republicans have so far failed to enact a health care bill, which could dampen enthusiasm among many GOP voters.
GOP strategists believe they must prepare for a political climate like that of 2006, when Republicans lost the House and surrendered their majority among governors.
A year from now, the atmosphere might look better, if the economy continues to expand and Congress enacts major legislation. If not, look for Republican gubernatorial candidates to distance themselves from Washington.
Democrats plan to make an issue of Trump in the state races. They also hope to see more intraparty turmoil over allegiance to the president in Republican gubernatorial primaries.
Even if there are favorable conditions for the Democrats, it is difficult to overstate the significance of these 2018 contests for their longerterm implications for the party. Winning more governorships offers at least two potential dividends. First, it could bring new faces to a party desperately in need of a reinvigoration through fresh, younger talent. Second, it could give Democrats more power in the redistricting battles.