Competitive races abound as GOP plays defense in many open seats
April 20th, 2017,
Those looking for electoral drama in the 2018 cycle should pay attention to the 38 gubernatorial races being held this year and next. In our initial ratings of these contests, more than half of them — 20 of 38 — start in the competitive Toss-up or Leans Republican/Democratic categories. That includes a whopping 10 Toss-ups: five of those are currently controlled by Republicans, four by Democrats, and one by an independent (Bill Walker of Alaska).
Contributing to this slew of competitive ratings is the fact that so many of the governorships contested over the next year and a half are open: At least roughly half of them will not feature an incumbent, and an additional three (Alabama, Iowa, and South Carolina) will or are likely to feature an unelected incumbent seeking a first elected term. The high number of open seats should spur a considerable amount of party changes, which would be similar to the 2009-2010 cycle, another period where there were not a ton of incumbents on the ballot and when about half of the governorships contested changed party hands. These party changes largely broke in the Republicans’ direction, and the GOP has only increased its advantage since then. Republicans now control the governorships 33-16 (with one independent), the largest number of governorships the party has controlled in the post-World War II era.
Map 1 shows the current party control by state.
Map 1: Party control of state governorships being contested in 2017-2018
Overall, the Republicans are highly overextended. Crystal Ball friend Bruce Mehlman, a Republican lobbyist, recently released his latest presentation on national politics. The whole presentation is worth reading, but one of the slides caught our eye:
Chart 1: Party overexposure in this cycle’s Senate, House, and gubernatorial races
As we noted in our initial Senate ratings, Democrats are overexposed in the upper chamber: Including the two independents who caucus with the party, they are defending 25 of the 34 seats being contested this cycle, and as Chart 1 notes, they hold 10 seats in states President Donald Trump won while Republicans are defending just one seat in a state Hillary Clinton carried (Nevada). However, in the gubernatorial races, the overexposure is almost exactly flipped: Republicans will be defending nine governorships in states Clinton won — Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, and Vermont — while Democrats will be defending just one governorship in a Trump-won state (Pennsylvania).
So Democrats are hoping that they can win a substantial number of governorships over the next two years, given how many open seats the GOP is defending and the general tendency for the party that does not hold the White House to make gains down the ticket in a midterm year. The president’s party has netted governorships only once (1986) in 18 postwar midterms. As of now, we favor the Democrats in two Republican-held seats — New Jersey and New Mexico. Overall, the Democrats should start 2019 with more governorships than they hold now, but the high number of Toss-ups and otherwise potentially very competitive races combined with the unsettled national environment next year creates a high degree of uncertainty.
One final point before going through the races state by state: Democrats were able to win some red state governorships during George W. Bush’s presidency in places like Kansas, Tennessee, Wyoming, and elsewhere. Perhaps voters in these states will again be open to voting Democratic, particularly if President Trump remains unpopular — just like some traditionally Democratic states, like Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts, were open to voting for Republican gubernatorial candidates during President Obama’s tenure in part because of a more widespread backlash against the president’s party. So look out for one or more potentially competitive gubernatorial races in states where one might not necessarily expect them (we identify a candidate for a dark horse race like this below).
With that, Map 2 shows our initial ratings, followed by race-by-race analysis starting with the two 2017 contests in New Jersey and Virginia.
Map 2: Initial 2017-2018 Crystal Ball gubernatorial race ratings
2017 gubernatorial contests
New Jersey: Polling thus far in the Garden State shows clear leaders on both sides as the June 6 primary nears, suggesting a likely general election matchup between Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy (D). Still, with public financing available, it is possible that state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R), former U.S. Treasury official Jim Johnson (D), or others could make things interesting for the favorites. The problem for Republicans in the general election is that outgoing Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) approval rating is hovering around 20%, which makes a Democratic pick-up appear fairly likely at this point. If conservative comedian Joe Piscopo makes an independent bid, it’s easy to see how that could help the Democrats even more. Likely Democratic
Virginia: With New Jersey’s gubernatorial contest appearing less competitive, the Old Dominion’s race is probably 2017’s star political attraction. Because the state constitution forbids immediate reelection to the governorship, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is term-limited. The Democratic primary is sizzling, with multiple polls showing a tight race between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and former Rep. Tom Perriello (D). Both candidates have sizable war chests heading into the final two months before the June 13 primary. It’s hard to identify a favorite because polls show many undecideds: This is a race that has yet to be won or lost. Northam has overwhelming support among the state’s Democratic elected officials, and as McAuliffe’s second-in-command is presumed next-in-line to lead the party ticket. But Perriello is an energetic candidate and has backing from many prominent national Democrats, as well as a non-Democrat who appeals to many in the party: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The GOP primary is a bit less dynamic due to the fact that former Republican National Committee chair and 2014 U.S. Senate nominee Ed Gillespie (R) holds an appreciable lead over Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart (R) and state Sen. Frank Wagner (R). Gillespie has strong support from an array of Republican elected officials in Virginia, big-time donors, and grassroots organizers, and there’s little doubt that national Republicans would love for him to be their nominee. Stewart has tried to use ongoing debates over the future of Confederate symbols in Virginia to appeal to culturally conservative voters, but there isn’t much evidence that he’s making inroads. Trump’s relative unpopularity in Virginia and the state’s general tendency (outside of 2013) to elect the party not in the White House to the governorship would seem to augur well for Northam or Perriello. But the uncertainty on the Democratic side and Gillespie’s near-upset win over Sen. Mark Warner (D) in 2014 compel us to call the general election a Toss-up at this point.
Before we move on to the 2018 races, we want to set some expectations for 2017: Democrats need to sweep both New Jersey and Virginia in order to consider the year a success. Both states are more Democratic than the national average — the Old Dominion by a little, and the Garden State by a lot — and these are two states the party should be able to carry with a Republican in the White House who, at least for now, is not popular. Obviously, holding Virginia seems like a heavier lift for Democrats at the moment than flipping New Jersey. This year represents a golden opportunity for Democrats to make a dent, albeit a small one, in the GOP’s mighty roster of state governorships before turning the page to the packed 2018 gubernatorial calendar. Simply preserving the status quo — a split in these states — would represent a victory for Republicans and a setback for Democrats.
2018 gubernatorial contests
Alabama: In the aftermath of Gov. Robert Bentley’s (R) resignation, two key questions hang over the Yellowhammer State’s 2018 gubernatorial race: Will new Gov. Kay Ivey (R) run for a full term in 2018, and if she does, will she face serious opposition in the GOP primary? So far, Ivey says she’s focused on restoring the state’s image and that it’s too soon for her to decide on 2018. Staying above the fray seems politically wise if she intends to run, but Ivey is 72 years old, so it’s possible that she’s uncertain about running. As for the latter question, she could have many potential intraparty foes, such as state Public Service Commission President Twinkle Cavanaugh (R), Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle (R), and ex-Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville (R). Ivey could be vulnerable — she oversaw the failure of the state’s Prepaid Affordable College Tuition program as state treasurer — but she’s won four statewide races and has fans in Montgomery. Her performance in her first few months as governor will be important in determining answers to all of these questions. Regardless of who the GOP goes with in 2018, the party is a heavy favorite to retain the governorship in this very red state. On the Democratic side, 2010 nominee Ron Sparks and 2014 nominee Parker Griffith, both of whom lost to Bentley in one-sided contests, are considering runs, among others. Safe Republican
Alaska: Alaska’s budgetary and economic problems are wearing on Gov. Bill Walker, the only independent governor in the country. Walker, a former Republican who ran with a Democratic running mate, narrowly defeated a GOP incumbent in 2014. Questions abound: Will Walker even seek a second term? Will Democrats again give Walker essentially a free pass, or will they nominate a credible candidate, creating a three-way race that might benefit the eventual GOP nominee given the state’s Republican tilt? And who will the Republican nominee be? A possible challenger is state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R), who withdrew from the Republican majority in the state’s upper chamber in opposition to the state’s budget plan. A recent poll showed Joe Miller leading a fragmented GOP field, so perhaps the man who beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in the party’s 2010 Senate primary (but lost to her write-in campaign in the general) and finished second behind Murkowski in the 2016 Senate race (as the Libertarian nominee) might give it a go. Toss-up
Arizona: Hillary Clinton came close against Trump in Arizona, but Gov. Doug Ducey (R) is a relatively popular GOP incumbent in what is still a Republican-leaning state. Ducey’s support for a larger state school voucher system has prompted Arizona State University Prof. David Garcia (D) to enter the race. Garcia lost a close 2014 statewide contest for state superintendent of public instruction. Likely Republican
Arkansas: Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) should have little trouble winning reelection in the ruby red Natural State. Safe Republican
California: Democratic heavyweights such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) are in the race to replace term-limited Gov. Jerry Brown (D), as is state Treasurer John Chiang (D), a three-time elected statewide official. Delaine Eastin (D), the state’s former elected superintendent of public instruction, is also running. Other big Democratic names, such as current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) and environmentalist megadonor Tom Steyer (D), have also been mentioned as possibilities. The only way the GOP makes the Golden State interesting is if the party can find a credible nominee, which may be difficult. With the state’s top-two blanket primary system, it’s possible that the November general election could be another Democrat-versus-Democrat race, just like the 2016 U.S. Senate contest. Safe Democratic
Colorado: While the 2018 atmosphere might be advantageous for Democrats based on history, Centennial State Republicans could have a strong candidate field seeking to replace outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). George Brauchler (R), a suburban Denver district attorney who gained prominence prosecuting James Holmes after his 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, is running. State Treasurer Walker Stapleton (R) and state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman (R) are eyeing the race, though Coffman could run for reelection instead (Stapleton is term-limited). Lastly, ex-state Rep. Victor Mitchell (R) can self-fund, and he just reported giving his campaign $3 million. The leading Democrat may be Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D), though former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy (D) — who Stapleton beat by 1.4 points in 2010 — and ex-state Sen. Mike Johnston (D) are also running. Rep. Jared Polis (D), who is personally wealthy, could also run. Colorado leans a tad left these days, but the prospect of a strong Republican candidate and possible fatigue after three straight Democratic terms suggests to us that neither side starts as a favorite. Toss-up
Connecticut: Very unpopular Gov. Dan Malloy (D) isn’t seeking a third term, which actually might be good news for Democrats. Nonetheless, Republicans will probably be able to tie the eventual Democratic nominee to Malloy, which should help them in the blue Nutmeg State. There is truly a laundry list of possible Republican and Democratic candidates, so for now the race is a Toss-up. Like many other states in New England, Connecticut has historically been very open to electing Republican governors.
Florida: Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam (R) has been gearing up for a gubernatorial run for years, and he’s probably the favorite on the GOP side in the contest to succeed term-limited Gov. Rick Scott (R). Still, other Republicans might run too, so it’s hard to say just how clear his path to the nomination will be. The Democratic side may come down to Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) and ex-Rep. Gwen Graham (D), both of whom could be considered rising stars in the party. But there are some wealthy wild cards who could self-fund, such as 2010 Senate candidate Jeff Greene (D), businessman Chris King (D), and well-known attorney John Morgan (D). Democrats haven’t won a gubernatorial race in Florida since 1994 (although they came very close in both 2010 and 2014), so an extremely crowded field in a super-expensive state with a late primary could be problematic for them. Toss-up
Georgia: Trump carried the Peach State by five points, and it’s pretty clear that the GOP bench is much deeper than the Democratic one in the race to replace outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal (R). Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) is already in, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R) is almost certain to run. Campaign guru Nick Ayers (R), a protégé of former Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), might also run, as could former Reps. Jack Kingston (R) and Lynn Westmoreland (R). The Democrats may wind up nominating state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D), state Rep. Stacey Evans (D), or perhaps 2014 nominee and ex-state Sen. Jason Carter (D). Former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates (D) also gets mentioned, but no one really knows if she would run. Likely Republican
Hawaii: The Democrats completely dominate Hawaii — for example, they control the state senate 25-0 — so it will be hard for any Republican to win a statewide race there right now. But considering the drama of the 2014 cycle, which saw incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) lose renomination to now-Gov. David Ige (D) in the Democratic primary (the largest-ever primary loss by an incumbent governor), it would be wise to not ignore the Aloha State entirely. For now, it’s Safe Democratic.
Idaho: There could be a crowded GOP field to replace three-term Gov. Butch Otter (R), who has essentially said he’s not running again. Lt. Gov. Brad Little (R) and businessman Tommy Ahlquist (R) have already announced, as has ex-state Sen. Russ Fulcher (R), who gave Otter a scare in the 2014 primary. Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) could also run. The only hope for the Democrats might be a combative GOP primary. Safe Republican
Illinois: Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) is ready to spend millions to win reelection, but he might have a wealthy opponent in the general in either venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker (D) — who just injected $7 million into his nascent campaign — or businessman Chris Kennedy (D), a scion of Robert Kennedy. Pritzker and Kennedy seem to be the Democratic favorites, but there could be a very crowded field. Rauner has a weak approval rating, so he will be vulnerable in Democratic-leaning Illinois. Toss-up
Iowa: Presumably, Gov. Terry Branstad (R) will be confirmed as President Trump’s ambassador to China, though that seems to be taking a while. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) will be the next governor, but she may have primary opposition in the form of Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett (R). The Democratic field is very wide open at this point. Assuming Reynolds intends to run in 2018 — and there’s no reason to think she won’t — her party will start as a favorite in a state that took a sharp right turn in 2016. Leans Republican
Kansas: Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) awful approval rating, possibly the worst in the country, might provide an opening for Democrats, but the incumbent won’t be on the ticket in 2018. Looking ahead to the GOP primary, the party’s more moderate faction has had the upper hand as of late, which might influence the direction the party takes for its gubernatorial nominee. It’s unclear if Brownback’s possible appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for food and agriculture is still on, but it was being discussed openly a month ago. If he exits early, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) would become governor, but Colyer might have the most trouble running away from Brownback in the general. The other two big names appear to be Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) and state Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R), who present a contrast: the former is viewed as a hardcore conservative while the latter is less ideological. Other Republicans, including Rep. Kevin Yoder (R) and state Senate President Susan Wagle (R), might also run. As for the state’s minority party, the Democrats may go with former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer (D) as their standard-bearer, with 2014 nominee Paul Davis (D) looking instead at a run in KS-2, an open U.S. House seat. Considering Brownback’s unpopularity and the state’s uncertain politics, the Sunflower State gubernatorial contest starts out at just Leans Republican. Of the dark red presidential states holding gubernatorial races this cycle, Kansas seems like the best opportunity for Democrats to pull a surprising upset.
Maine: The race to succeed Gov. Paul LePage (R) in the Pine Tree State got its first shake-up this past Friday, when state Treasurer Terry Hayes (I) announced her candidacy. A former Democrat, Hayes won Republican support in the state legislature to be elected to two terms in her current office (the legislature elects the position). In the post-World War II era, Maine is tied with Alaska for the most independents elected to a state’s governorship (two), and the state currently has an independent in the U.S. Senate (Angus King, a former independent governor). So an independent with some bipartisan pull might be able to make a serious play for the executive mansion in Augusta. Whether Sen. Susan Collins (R) decides to run is a key unknown at this point. She seems to be entertaining the idea, and as one of the most popular statewide officials in the country, Collins would likely be a strong candidate and immediate frontrunner. Other possible GOP names include former state party head Rick Bennett (R), state Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason (R), state Sen. Roger Katz (R), and Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R). The first notable Democratic entrant, attorney and veteran Adam Cote (D), declared his candidacy on Wednesday. But other Democrats are also looking at the race, including Adam Lee (D), a well-known car dealer and environmentalist. A possible twist in all of Maine’s electoral machinations is the recent state referendum approving an instant-runoff electoral system. The new statute is tied up in court as it may violate the state constitution, but it could be in effect for the 2018 election. Toss-up
Maryland: Gov. Larry Hogan (R) starts off as a favorite to win reelection, but perhaps not as much of a favorite as his high approval ratings would seemingly imply. Fundamentally, it is hard for a Maryland Republican to win statewide. A recent Washington Post/University of Maryland survey found Hogan’s approval rating at 65%, but it also showed him leading a generic Democrat only 41%-37%. In the deep blue Old Line State, Hogan could be in danger, especially if Trump remains relatively unpopular or becomes even more so. Hogan has obviously tried to separate himself from Trump, but party ID is one heck of a drug. The potential Democratic field is large, with some notable names including Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D), Rep. John Delaney (D), state Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), and former state Attorney General Doug Gansler (D). Leans Republican
Massachusetts: Similar to Hogan, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) is a very popular incumbent and early favorite, but he could have problems in his super-blue state. So far, only ex-state budget chief Jay Gonzalez (D) has declared a challenge, but many other Democrats are mentioned, such as Newton Mayor Setti Warren (who briefly ran for the Senate in the 2012 cycle). The big name to keep an eye on is state Attorney General Maura Healey (D). Although Healey has previously said she wouldn’t run, Democratic insiders view her as the party’s strongest possible candidate. Healey has been a leading opponent of the Trump administration and some believe that she’s running something of a shadow campaign for governor. Leans Republican
Michigan: With Gov. Rick Snyder (R) term-limited out, there’s an open governorship for the taking in Lansing. Republicans have a much deeper bench to start out, led by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley (R) and state Attorney General Bill Schuette (R). One or both seems likely to run. An interesting distinction between the two is that Schuette wound up backing Trump during the general while Calley unendorsed after the Access Hollywood tape came out. Ex-Rep. Candice Miller (R) only recently started her job as Macomb County public works commissioner, but she is mentioned by some as a possible candidate. Jim Hines (R), a physician who leads the Christian Medical and Dental Association, is already declared on the GOP side. As for the Democrats, former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D) had long been expected to run and she’s declared. Joining her are Bill Cobbs (D), a former high-level Xerox executive, and Abdul El-Sayed (D), the former executive director of the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion. El-Sayed is a Rhodes Scholar who is just 32 years old but has made headlines as a leading health and environmental activist. Rep. Dan Kildee (D) may run as well. Toss-up
Minnesota: Considering the closeness of the 2016 election in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota is not as Democratic as sometimes thought. In fact, Minnesota Democrats have never won consecutive gubernatorial contests with two different nominees, which they would have to do with Gov. Mark Dayton (D) retiring. Still, the Democratic field is loaded and the midterm atmosphere may put a thumb on the scale for the out-of-White House party. So far, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman (D), three-term state Auditor Rebecca Otto (D), and Rep. Tim Walz (D) are running, and Rep. Rick Nolan (D) might join the Democratic field, too (there are other candidates as well). Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman (R) just announced his candidacy on Wednesday, but other Republicans are considering their options. We’re going to be cautious here and start the race as a Toss-up, but it’s easy to see the Democrats ultimately having the advantage.
Nebraska: Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) biggest problem might not be the general election but the primary election, where there are have been rumblings about a possible challenge from his predecessor, ex-Gov. Dave Heineman (R). Safe Republican
Nevada: The Silver State governor’s mansion will be open as Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is term-limited. On the Republican side, state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) is expected to run — he had $1.5 million sitting in his campaign account at the end of 2016 — but state Treasurer Dan Schwartz (R) may also seek the post, possibly setting up a competitive GOP primary. Recent polling suggests that Laxalt isn’t all that well-known after a little over two years in office, and Schwartz may see an opening to confound the seeming favorite. As for the Democrats, Clark County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak (D) may be the favorite, with a reported $3.8 million in his campaign war chest at the end of 2016. Silver State expert Jon Ralston half-jokingly tweeted in November 2016 that, with Sisolak’s fundraising prowess, Nevada “might as well not hold the election in ’18.” But Sisolak might not be the only Democrat running in 2018 who has money to spend. Resort mogul Steve Cloobeck (D) is pondering a run of his own that would be seeded with millions from his own bank account. Given the state’s baseline competitiveness and the many unknowns, Toss-up seems like the right place to start.
New Hampshire: Gov. Chris Sununu (R) was just elected in 2016, but the Granite State’s two-year gubernatorial terms really make holding the governorship a permanent campaign. The potential Democratic field to oppose him may include some of the same names as it did in 2016, with former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand (D) already in and ex-state securities regulator Mark Connolly (D) eyeing a bid as well. And there is always the possibility that Colin Van Ostern (D) might take another shot after losing a closely-fought contest to Sununu in 2016. Leans Republican
New Mexico: Gov. Susana Martinez (R) is term-limited, and the early action to succeed her appears to be mostly on the Democratic side. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has officially declared her candidacy, making her something of an early frontrunner, though wealthy state Sen. Joe Cervantes (D) is more-or-less in as well. Several other Democrats are considering their options, including Attorney General Hector Balderas (D). As for the Republicans, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry (R), Rep. Steve Pearce (R), and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez (R) are commonly mentioned. Berry isn’t running again for mayor in 2017, so he may be eyeing a move to Santa Fe, while Sanchez may instead challenge Sen. Martin Heinrich (D). Considering New Mexico’s Democratic lean and the fact the GOP has held the governorship for eight years, Democrats start with a slight edge in the Land of Enchantment. Leans Democratic
New York: Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is set to run for a third term in 2018, possibly setting up a 2020 presidential bid. Cuomo has drawn the ire of some progressive groups, so a challenge from his left in the Democratic primary is possible. Still, he seems all but certain to be the party’s nominee and will be heavily favored to win reelection. The GOP may turn once again to Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino (R), who lost by 14 points to Cuomo in 2014. Given Cuomo’s huge war chest of around $20 million and the state’s Democratic lean, this race starts at Safe Democratic.
Ohio: The Buckeye State’s race to replace outgoing Gov. John Kasich (R) looks to be the busiest gubernatorial contest so far. Ohio Republicans have a strong bench and it shows: Three big GOP names are already in — state Attorney General Mike DeWine (R, also a former U.S. senator), Rep. Jim Renacci (R), and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor (R) — and Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) is likely to run as well. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ most notable entries are 2014 state Treasurer nominee Connie Pillich (D), state Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni (D), and ex-Rep. Betty Sutton (D). Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley (D) is expected to run, too. Sutton and Whaley are probably the two most credible candidates in that group. Looming in the background is Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray (D), a former state attorney general and treasurer who may only run if Trump fires him from his current job, as well as former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D). Ohio turned sharply toward the GOP in 2016, and Republicans have a stronger field of candidates at the moment. At this early point, Leans Republican seems appropriate, though the environment will obviously matter.
Oklahoma: In yet another open-seat race, the Sooner State will be looking to replace term-limited Gov. Mary Fallin (R) in 2018. Given Oklahoma’s deep red hue, the GOP field may be crowded. Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb (R), wealthy attorney and former independent gubernatorial candidate Gary Richardson (R), and state Auditor Gary Jones (R) are just some of the GOP names being bandied about. For the Democrats, former state Sen. Connie Johnson (D) is running and state House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D) appears likely to run as well. This has to start out as Safe Republican.
Oregon: Gov. Kate Brown (D) won a special election in 2016 to serve out the rest of the current four-year term that she began in 2015 following the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber (D). Brown faced little opposition in the 2016 primary despite being an unelected incumbent, so it seems unlikely that she’ll face a serious intraparty threat in 2018. On the Republican side, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson (R) may be the strongest potential candidate, having won his office in 2016 to become Oregon’s first statewide-elected Republican in 14 years. Other GOP possibilities include state Rep. Knute Buehler (R) and 2016 nominee Bud Pierce (R). Republicans haven’t won a gubernatorial election in the Beaver State since 1982, but they view this as a dark horse pickup opportunity. Likely Democratic
Pennsylvania: For nearly 60 years, the two major parties traded the Keystone State governorship every eight years. But in 2014, that streak ended when then-Gov. Tom Corbett (R) lost to now-Gov. Tom Wolf (D). Now Republicans are hoping to return the favor in 2018 against Wolf, whose approval is only in the high 30s. Two GOP contenders — businessman Paul Mango (R) and state Sen. Scott Wagner (R) — have already more-or-less declared their candidacies. Mango and Wagner have personal wealth that they can bring to the table against the also-wealthy Wolf. The Pennsylvania GOP has a large bench, so that list of candidates could get much longer, though the concurrent U.S. Senate race may attract some of those possible entries. We’ve mostly been giving incumbents the benefit of the doubt to start, so this contest begins at Leans Democratic.
Rhode Island: Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) only won with 41% of the vote in a three-way race for governor in 2014. As governor, she has middling poll numbers and has struggled with the left wing of her party ever since backing pension reform as Rhode Island’s treasurer. So there are reasons to think that she could be vulnerable either to a primary challenge or in the general election. Perhaps that helps explain why the Democratic Governors Association already is spending six figures on her behalf. Two possible Democratic primary opponents are actually former Republicans: ex-state police superintendent Brendan Doherty and ex-Gov. Lincoln Chafee. Clay Pell (D), grandson of long-time Sen. Claiborne Pell (D), might also run again, having lost to Raimondo in the 2014 primary. As for the Republicans, 2014 nominee Allan Fung (R) might take another shot at Raimondo, having lost by only about four points last time around. Many other GOP names are floating around as well. Considering Raimondo’s struggles and the Ocean State’s openness to electing GOP governors, the incumbent only gets a slight edge to start. Leans Democratic
South Carolina: After President Trump appointed then-Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to become the ambassador to the United Nations, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster (R) moved up to the top rung in state government. But the newly-minted governor will face at least some primary opposition as former state Department of Health and Environmental Control head Catherine Templeton (R) and ex-state Sen. Yancey McGill (R, a former Democrat) are running for the Republican nomination, too. Given the long GOP bench in the Palmetto State, other Republicans are also considering a run. On the Democratic side, state Rep. James Smith (D) said he intends to run, but many others could conceivably run as well. In light of the GOP lean of the state, this race starts at Safe Republican.
South Dakota: Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) is term-limited, but the GOP will be heavily favored to retain the state’s executive mansion. Just after the 2016 election, Rep. Kristi Noem (R) made her bid official, while state Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) has also joined the race. Democrats have hardly any bench in the Mount Rushmore State, so former U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson’s (D) name has popped up just as it did for the 2014 Senate race to replace his retiring father, then-Sen. Tim Johnson (D). Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether was formerly a Democrat, but he recently became an independent and could conceivably run for governor as one. Safe Republican
Tennessee: Another ruby-red state with a term-limited governor — Gov. Bill Haslam (R) — the Volunteer State could have a crowded GOP primary. Republicans eyeing a run include Rep. Diane Black (R), state House Speaker Beth Harwell (R), state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R), and businessman Bill Lee (R). So far, only two Republicans have declared, one of whom might just as quickly exit the race as enter it. State Sen. Mark Green (R) was nominated by President Trump to become Secretary of the Army, meaning he would almost surely abandon his run for governor if confirmed by the Senate. The other Republican in the race is Randy Boyd (R), a wealthy former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. Green’s likely exit has encouraged state Sen. Mae Beavers (R) to consider a run as well. On the Democratic side, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (D) is officially in. He may be trying to emulate the path taken by former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), who was mayor of Nashville prior to winning two terms as governor in the 2000s. Other Democratic names include Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke (D) and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D). Dean is an actual candidate of note, so we’re starting Tennessee out at Likely Republican.
Texas: Incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is in a very strong position to win reelection as there seems to be little appetite to challenge him in a primary or in the general election. Safe Republican
Vermont: As in New Hampshire, retaining Vermont’s two-year governorship necessitates something of a permanent campaign. Gov. Phil Scott (R) won as a moderate Republican in the liberal Green Mountain State in 2016, and he is an early favorite to win reelection. Two other Republicans in very blue states that are up in 2018 — the aforementioned Baker (MA) and Hogan (MD) — each won by fewer than four points in 2014, but Scott won by nearly nine points in 2016 while the Democratic presidential nominee easily carried the state. However, Vermont is still a deep blue state and the national environment could impact Scott. Likely Republican
Wisconsin: It appears that Gov. Scott Walker (R) is very likely to seek a third term as governor. If he does, it seems unlikely that he will have serious opposition in the GOP primary. Walker has an approval rating in the mid-40s, so it’s possible that he could be vulnerable. Still, he has a long track record of winning tough races in Wisconsin. The Democratic bench in Wisconsin is meager, just like in many other parts of the country. Ex-state Sen. Tim Cullen (D) initially considered a run but then opted against it after he found out he had to call strangers to raise campaign cash. No, that’s not a joke. Democrats had hoped that Rep. Ron Kind (D) might get into the race, but he declined, as did another potential candidate, Dane County (home of Madison) Executive Joe Parisi (D). Just like in some other Midwest states, like Iowa and Ohio, Democrats may have a path to victory in Wisconsin but lack a clear candidate at the moment. So we’re starting the Badger State race at Leans Republican, with the potential for it to become a Toss-up if Democrats find a credible candidate.
Wyoming: Lastly, Wyoming will have an open-seat contest in 2018. Gov. Matt Mead (R) is term-limited (though there was debate about that), and the conservative Equality State will almost certainly elect another Republican to replace Mead. So far, ex-Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R), Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Murray (R), and state Treasurer Mark Gordon (R) are looking at the race. Safe Republican
GA-6 special election provides silver linings for both parties
April 19th, 2017,
Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the final results in GA-6 as of Wednesday morning, April 19.
The first round jungle primary in the nationally-watched special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District offered something for both parties. Republicans are pleased that they forced a runoff, and Karen Handel (R), the former Georgia secretary of state who has been foiled in two recent statewide primaries, probably has the best track record of the various Republicans who competed for what amounted to the GOP nomination there.
Meanwhile, former congressional aide Jon Ossoff (D) wasn’t able to get a majority, but his 48.1% of the vote blows away recent Democratic House performance in the district: Since GA-6 was redrawn following the decennial census, the three Democratic challengers to now-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (R), the former occupant of the seat, only won an average of 35.9% of the vote. So this was a big improvement on that, although Ossoff has raised an eye-popping amount of money (potentially eight figures now after he reported $8.3 million as of the end of March) and is clearly a real candidate, while Price’s previous opponents were not. Ossoff also outperformed polls that showed him only in the low 40s. Now we have something much better than polls — we have actual results. The combined Democratic vote in the district was about 49%, while the combined GOP vote was about 51% — close enough that it’s hard to see either side starting with a clear advantage.
Now that we have a runoff, we’re keeping our rating at Toss-up.
Ossoff slightly overperformed Hillary Clinton’s 46.8% showing in the district, which is a good sign for Democrats as they try to compete in heavily Republican suburban districts like GA-6 where Donald Trump vastly underperformed what Republican presidential candidates are used to winning (President Trump won the district by 1.5 points after Mitt Romney carried it by 23). But again, all of the caveats we expressed last week about this special election remain.
The race now changes: Democratic outside groups, who have largely refrained from running paid media thanks to Ossoff’s war chest and the lack of a clear Republican opponent, can now start attacking Handel, and GOP outside groups, who have already spent more than $4 million attacking Ossoff, will keep hammering away. Handel too is now freed up to go after Ossoff and consolidate GOP fundraising both inside and outside of the district.
The runoff is not even until June 20, so this has the makings of a very expensive and long slog. We also have no idea if the runoff will produce the same kind of turnout we saw on Tuesday, which at about 192,000 votes was not that far off from the most recent midterm House turnout of about 210,000 votes. In what is becoming a familiar pattern, Democrats dominated the early voting while Republicans roared back on Election Day: Ossoff only dropped below 50%, the runoff threshold, after some long-delayed results were reported late Tuesday night. This is another reminder to be cautious about drawing conclusions from the first votes that get reported in states with substantial early voting because those results may be too Democratic leaning. Runoff turnout often falls from a first-round election but we have to imagine that interest will remain strong. A recent exception was the epic Mississippi Republican Senate primary runoff in June 2014. Incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R) survived a stiff challenge by increasing turnout in the runoff (and attracting some crossover Democratic votes).
Meanwhile, keep an eye on the special House election looming in Montana on May 25. Musician Rob Quist (D) has raised an impressive sum (more than $1 million), and he’ll need every cent of it to truly threaten Greg Gianforte (R), the wealthy businessman who ran a credible challenge against Gov. Steve Bullock (D) last year. Leaving nothing to chance, national Republicans are starting to spend in the race, and national Democrats may get involved as well. We’ve got that race at Likely Republican for now.
Georgia’s Sixth District and the dangers of overinterpreting special elections
April 13th, 2017,
Whatever happens in the first round of voting in the special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District on Tuesday, it seems like a safe bet that the result will get a fair amount of national attention because of what it may tell us about the 2018 midterm. But before getting into what those lessons may be, let’s remember that this is a special election — and thus it features special circumstances.
Here are a few:
- The format for this election is different than most other races: It is an all-party primary where there will be a runoff unless one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. That means all of the candidates regardless of party run together in the same election. This is not how almost all House elections will be decided next year: With the exceptions of California, Louisiana, and Washington, all of which use some form of “jungle primaries” in their elections, other states will use a traditional primary and general election format next year. That includes all of the House races in Georgia — the jungle primary being used for this race is just used for special elections. And even in California and Washington, there still is a general election between the top two finishers even if one candidate exceeds 50% in the primary. So this electoral format won’t be replicated anywhere outside of Louisiana in November 2018.
- There are a whopping 18 candidates in this election, and 11 of them are Republicans. That includes several strong GOP contenders, such as former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, former Johns Creek City Councilman Bob Gray, and former state Sens. Judson Hill and Dan Moody, among others. Meanwhile, there is only one viable Democrat, former congressional staffer Jon Ossoff. Polling indicates that Ossoff is effectively guaranteed at least a spot in the runoff, and he has an outside chance to win outright — a possibility that this unusual election format allows him. The Republican field, meanwhile, is bunched with a number of contenders in high single or low double digits. So Ossoff can stay above the fray while the Republicans fight among themselves. Republican outside groups seeking to prevent Ossoff from winning before the runoff have spent millions on attack ads against Ossoff, some of which ask voters to only blandly “vote Republican” on Tuesday because, for the most part, these groups are not endorsing a specific candidate.
- While there have been a handful of state legislative special elections this year, and one House special (in Kansas’ very Republican Fourth District, where the Democratic candidate strongly overperformed the district’s partisan lean on Tuesday but did not win — more on that below), Democrats have circled this race for months as perhaps their first real opportunity to strike back at President Donald Trump and Republicans after their surprise victories last fall. Ossoff has emerged as a dynamite fundraiser, raising an unprecedented $8.3 million so far, which is a historic number for any House candidate. Other Democratic candidates will benefit from the small donors who have fueled Ossoff next year, but they won’t be raising such amazing sums of money because there will be much more competition for donor dollars when all 435 House districts will have elections.
- The suburban Atlanta seat is historically Republican. Its former occupant, now-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (R), never failed to win less than 60% in his seven general election victories. Mitt Romney carried the seat by 23 points in 2012. But Trump only won it by a point and a half, and it is the kind of district — suburban, well-educated, affluent, and somewhat diverse — that Democrats have increasingly targeted in recent years and where Trump came up well short of usual Republican showings. Of all the Republican-held districts in the country, in only one other district did Hillary Clinton run further ahead of Barack Obama’s 2012 showing — TX-7, a suburban Houston seat held by Rep. John Culberson (R). That GA-6 swung so hard in 2016 at the presidential level makes it something of an outlier too, even though nearly half of all congressional districts experienced at least some significant degree of change in 2016.
- This district is open, which won’t be the case in the lion’s share of House elections next year. In the post-World War II era, an average of about nine out of 10 House incumbents sought reelection in any given cycle. So we’d expect most House elections, and most competitive House elections, to feature incumbents next year. Generally speaking, incumbents have at least a little bit of a built-in advantage against challengers, an advantage the Republicans do not have in GA-6.
- Oh, and this election is taking place a year and a half before the midterm. President Trump is probably a drag on Republicans now — his disapproval rating is roughly 10 points higher than his approval rating, which is a bad sign for his party’s midterm performance historically — but it’s impossible to say what his standing will be in a year and a half.
So, to sum it up, the GA-6 special is indeed special: It uses an election format that hardly any other 2018 races will use; it features only one prominent Democrat who has used his unique position to harness an immense fundraising base while a giant Republican field fights for scraps; it is taking place in a district that changed dramatically at the presidential level from 2012 to 2016 in the Democrats’ favor; and it is an open seat.
This is all a way of saying that those who project the GA-6 outcome, whatever it is, onto the still-distant 2018 midterms do so at their own peril. History tells us that these special elections can be a harbinger of the future, although there are plenty of examples illustrating when special elections provide misleading or mixed signals of what is to come.
Greg Giroux, a political reporter for Bloomberg and one of the nation’s leading experts on electoral politics, has helpfully compiled every House special election held since the start of John F. Kennedy’s presidency in 1961. There have been 247 special elections in the five and a half decades since then, including Tuesday’s special in KS-4. Roughly a fifth of those elections — 47 of 247 — saw a party change, and generally speaking, the party changes broke against the White House. Of those 47 party changes, 35 of them involved the party that did not control the White House winning the seat from the president’s party, while the other 12 flipped in favor of the president’s party.
This makes some sense, given what history tells us about midterm elections. The president’s party typically loses ground in midterms, and a special election essentially amounts to a mini-midterm election: Turnout is significantly lower than a presidential election and the party that doesn’t hold the White House can be more motivated to vote.
It’s easy to find times when a special election party change seemed suggestive of an upcoming partisan wave in favor of the party that did not hold the White House. Here are some examples:
- As Richard Nixon’s presidency was collapsing amidst the Watergate scandal in 1974, Democrats won five special House elections in seats previously held by Republicans — a series of Democratic wins that “helped convince Republicans that Nixon needed to resign,” according to the Almanac of American Politics. Nixon would indeed leave office in August 1974, but that didn’t stop Democrats from netting 48 House seats and four Senate seats that fall, padding their majorities in both chambers in the early months of Republican Gerald Ford’s presidency. Two of those Democratic victories stand out. After Ford ascended from the House to the vice presidency following the resignation of scandal-plagued Spiro Agnew in 1973, Richard Vander Veen (D) surprisingly carried his typically Republican Grand Rapids-based district. A couple of weeks earlier, John Murtha (D) won a very close election in a Western Pennsylvania special. Murtha would go on to a long career in the House, but in the immediate aftermath of his victory by just one-tenth of a percentage point neither party knew quite how to react: Many expected Murtha to win by more despite the fact that he was the first Democrat to win the seat in a quarter-century: “The question most puzzling to Democratic strategists here is why Mr. Murtha’s margin of victory was so small — the slightest any one could remember in the 12th Congressional District’s modern electoral history,” the New York Times reported. In fact, the Republican National Committee chairman — a fellow by the name of George H.W. Bush — told the Times that the narrow result meant that “Republican chances for the rest of the year are greatly enhanced.” That ended up just being spin, but the result was not a clear indicator at the time: Murtha’s win was just the first of the five aforementioned Democratic special election takeovers in the first half of 1974.
- More recently, Republican victories in two long-time Democratic districts in May 1994 special elections in Kentucky and Oklahoma provided some early signals of the GOP wave to come, when Republicans captured both the House and the Senate in President Bill Clinton’s first midterm. Democrats would also pick up three Republican seats in the first half of 2008, including one held by departing former House Speaker Dennis Hastert as well as two dark red seats in Louisiana and Mississippi. Democrats added to their House majority later that year.
- AAnd sometimes a seat that does not flip can be taken as an indicator. In March 2014 — the most recent House special election that elicited major national attention — David Jolly (R) won a Tampa Bay-area House district against Alex Sink (D), a former state chief financial officer and gubernatorial nominee who appeared to be a favorite. Republicans would add seats to their already-substantial House majority that fall and win control of the Senate by running against an unpopular President Barack Obama. In 2005, there was a close call in the heavily Republican southwest Ohio House district future-Sen. Rob Portman (R) vacated to join President George W. Bush’s administration. That seemed like an early suggestion of GOP troubles the following year, when Democrats won the House and the Senate.
But in other instances, special elections can provide misleading or mixed signals:
- Democrats won two Republican-leaning seats in special elections in Kentucky and South Dakota in the first half of 2004, but Republicans ended up reelecting George W. Bush in a competitive presidential election and making small gains in the House and Senate.
- Democrats won three nationally-watched special elections in 2009 and early 2010: They held two vulnerable seats in New York and Pennsylvania — the latter was the one held previously by Murtha, who died in 2010 after more than 35 years in the House — and they flipped a historically Republican district in upstate New York thanks in large part to a split in the GOP. These Democratic victories perhaps suggested that Democrats could weather the storm in 2010 — but of course Republicans ended up netting 63 House seats, winning the lower chamber and making big gains in the Senate.
- In May 2011, Kathy Hochul (D) scored a surprising upset in a Republican-leaning seat in Western New York, which at the time suggested Democrats could run nationally against an austere budget proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan (R), the future House speaker who at the time was becoming one of the leading voices of the new Republican House majority. Later that year, Bob Turner (R) scored a similarly surprising upset in a Democratic-leaning New York City seat previously held by Anthony Weiner (D), who was forced from the House in what would become a series of social media-induced embarrassments. Hochul and Turner both ended up being done-in by new district maps in New York: Turner didn’t even bother running for reelection after his district was dismantled (he lost a primary for a Senate nomination that wasn’t really worth having in 2012) and Hochul, currently New York’s lieutenant governor, lost a narrow reelection to now-Rep. Chris Collins (R), who has become nationally prominent as a Trump ally and surrogate. The 2011 New York House swap perhaps presaged what would be a relatively status quo House election: Democrats netted a mere eight seats despite Obama’s reelection, on a national House map that had become generally more Republican thanks to the GOP’s 2010 victories and subsequent redistricting strength.
So as we assess GA-6, it’s certainly possible that Ossoff could win outright on Tuesday and that Democrats could end up having a disappointing midterm anyway. Or he could lose decisively in a June runoff and Democrats could come back and have a massive wave election next year. It’s ultimately just one election held amidst unusual and, dare we say it, special circumstances.
We’re calling GA-6 a Toss-up, a designation we applied to the race roughly two weeks ago after the National Republican Congressional Committee sounded the alarm bell and started aggressively spending money in the district. That’s in addition to the millions the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC that is close to Speaker Ryan, has also spent in the district. Since then, Ossoff’s huge fundraising has come to light, as have early voting statistics that seem to indicate heavy Democratic interest in the race (although Republicans, who have more candidate choices and thus perhaps waited longer to vote, are catching up).
So there’s a lot of uncertainty about the outcome: Polling, typically spotty in House races, generally shows Ossoff in the low 40s. If that’s all he gets in the first round of voting, and the combined Republican vote is over 50%, one would assume that Ossoff’s general election opponent would start with the upper hand: After all, the first round results are better than any poll — they are actual voting results that can be a preview of the runoff on June 20, if there is one. However, if Ossoff’s vote and the scattered votes for the four other Democratic candidates add up to a total approaching 50% (say, 45% or more), it may indicate that the runoff should be quite competitive. Obviously, a first-round win by Ossoff would be noteworthy because he would have exceeded Clinton’s 46.8% 2016 share significantly — and blown recent previous Democratic House performance in the district out of the water. Another factor: As of now, Ossoff and Democrats have not been attacking the Republicans because it’s anyone’s guess how the first round will play out, while outside GOP groups have been hammering Ossoff, hoping to drive down his numbers (and while Ossoff has been running lots of positive ads on his own behalf). Ossoff and national Democrats may be preparing to drop the hammer on whichever Republican emerges from the first round, again assuming Ossoff does not win outright on Tuesday. In other words, the dynamic changes on Tuesday in advance of a possible runoff: The GOP survivor goes from running against his or her fellow partisans to running against Ossoff, while Ossoff can shift into attack mode because he would have a clear opponent.
Perhaps the more useful way to interpret the results in GA-6, whatever they may be, is to put them in context of the other special elections that have happened so far in state legislative races as well as the KS-4 special.
In 10 special elections so far — nine state legislative races and the KS-4 U.S. House special — the Democratic candidate has improved on Clinton’s 2016 margin in eight of them. Across all 10 races, the average net improvement has been 11 points. Now, this is a small sample size, and the results vary dramatically — ranging from a Democrat doing a net 22 points worse in a deeply Democratic state Senate district in Connecticut all the way to one who did a net 34 points better in an Iowa special House election in a Democratic-leaning district. (Daily Kos Elections and Huffington Post are keeping track of these races.) If this trend continues throughout 2017 as the data accumulate, this could be suggestive of broader GOP problems and intensified Democratic enthusiasm.
Indeed, back during the last midterm cycle, the always-perceptive Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics (and a contributor to our new book on the 2016 election, Trumped) identified consistent Democratic underperformance in elections conducted in 2013. That year, the early tea leaves correctly suggested the midterm outcome — a weak Democratic performance in 2014 defined by poor Democratic turnout in many places. The 2017 tea leaves may not be such an accurate predictor, but at least looking at all the races as a group helps iron out the unusual circumstances of a given race — and, as noted, GA-6 features a lot of unique characteristics — and tells us more about the broader environment.
If that’s the way to project special election performance forward to the midterm, then GA-6 is but one data point that may or may not confirm national trends. So by all means, pay attention — but not just to a single race like GA-6. Remember Lester Freamon’s advice from The Wire: “All the pieces matter.”
And that includes many pieces that go beyond special elections: national House generic ballot polling, the president’s approval rating, candidate recruiting, and retirements. It may be on those latter two factors where special elections exert some influence — if the accumulated results suggest overperformance by one side, that party could have an easier time finding candidates, while incumbents from the party on the wrong side of the results could give stronger consideration to spending more time with their families.
Housekeeping: Other races and ratings changes
- Rep. Tim Walz (D, MN-1), who saw his swingy district move from one that Barack Obama won by a point and a half in 2012 to one that Donald Trump carried by 15 in 2016, recently decided to run for governor of Minnesota. Without a proven incumbent in the race, this seat becomes a top GOP pickup opportunity, so we switched the rating there from Leans Democratic to Toss-up. Republicans also must be hoping that Rep. Rick Nolan (D, MN-8) joins Walz in the gubernatorial race — he reportedly is strongly considering joining the already-large Democratic primary field. If he does make that leap, that will create another Toss-up race in Minnesota and improve the GOP’s odds in another district the party was already planning on targeting in 2018 (if Nolan opts against a gubernatorial bid, his race will remain at Leans Democratic for now). Just a few Republican pickups in seats where Trump significantly outperformed Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing, which was the case in both MN-1 and MN-8, could complicate Democratic hopes to net the 24 seats they need to win control of the House next year.
- Despite Rep.-elect Ron Estes’ (R) underwhelming performance on Tuesday, KS-4 starts as Safe Republican for the 2018 general election. Democrats have many other more competitive districts to target next year. Two of those Republican-held seats could be another open Kansas seat, KS-2 (held by retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins), as well as OH-1, a suburban Cincinnati seat held by Rep. Steve Chabot. Trump won both districts, but Democrats held prior versions of these districts last decade, and they could be competitive if Democrats can find strong candidates in each. We’re listing both as Likely Republican now instead of Safe Republican. A factor in the closer-than-expected KS-4 special — Estes won by seven after Trump carried the district by 27 in November — is that Kansas state government, led by Gov. Sam Brownback (R), is deeply unpopular, and the state has a long history of infighting between moderate and conservative Republicans. Local wrinkles might have made KS-4 more competitive than it otherwise would have been, and the same thing could impact KS-2. Trump carried OH-1 by seven and KS-2 by 18, so it’s not like these are obvious Democratic targets, and a Likely Republican rating doesn’t indicate immediate danger for the GOP in these seats. But the map might open a bit for Democrats if Trump’s numbers don’t improve.
- Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D, CO-7) opted to run for Colorado governor instead of seeking a seventh term in his suburban Denver seat. The district was swingy at one time but it has trended Democratic in recent years: Hillary Clinton won it by 12 points, a little bit down from Barack Obama’s 15-point win in 2012 but still several points more Democratic than the nation. We’re keeping this open seat at Safe Democratic for now, but if Republicans field a competent challenger it has the potential to move to a more competitive rating.
- President Trump appears poised to name Rep. Tom Marino (R, PA-10), as national drug czar, which will eventually prompt another special election, this time in his dark red Northeast Pennsylvania seat. Trump carried the seat by 36 points in 2012, 66%-30%, making it significantly more Republican than even KS-4. Again, watch the margin here — it’ll be another special election data point — but there’s little reason to think the race will truly be competitive. It remains Safe Republican.
Table 1: House ratings changes
*Note: We announced the changes in MN-1 and GA-6 on March 27 and March 30, respectively, on Twitter, but we had not previously mentioned them in our Crystal Ball newsletter. To stay up to date on our ratings changes, please bookmark our Ratings Change page.