Sabato's Crystal Ball

2018 Governors: The Battle Lines for Drawing the Lines

Republicans retain a big redistricting advantage as 2020 census looms, but Democrats have opportunities to chip away at that power

Geoffrey Skelley and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 23rd, 2017


Given the Democrats’ poor down-ballot performances in the Obama years, and the Republican dominance of redistricting following the GOP’s success in the 2010 midterm, it’s somewhat fitting that arguably the Democrats’ most marquee victory in 2016 will not help them in the redistricting battles to come after the 2020 census.

Despite losing the presidency and failing to capture the Senate, one silver lining for Democrats was taking back the governorship of North Carolina: Now-Gov. Roy Cooper (D) narrowly beat incumbent Pat McCrory (R).

The Tar Heel State will have another election, in 2020, before the census is finalized and redistricting will begin across the nation in 2021. Cooper, as the incumbent, may be favored in that election, although incumbency didn’t save McCrory from defeat. But even if Cooper wins, North Carolina is one of the only states that doesn’t give the governor any power over congressional redistricting. So long as Republicans keep control of the state legislature in Raleigh — they currently have big majorities in each chamber — they will draw new congressional district lines after 2020.

Midterm cycles feature most of the state governors’ races: Next year, 36 of the 50 states will have a gubernatorial race (two additional states, New Jersey and Virginia, hold their gubernatorial elections this fall). As all but two of those states have four-year terms (the exceptions are New Hampshire and Vermont), almost all of the governors elected in 2018 will be in office when the next round of redistricting begins, barring death or resignation. The 2020 census will determine which states will gain or lose House seats based on population changes, and then the states will draw new districts to account for population changes. Recent population data compiled so far this decade suggest that the pattern of the past several decades is likely to continue — several states in the Northeast and Midwest, which are growing at slow rates or even losing population, will lose House seats, while some states in the South and West are likely to add seats. (One notable regional exception, as noted by RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende, is that Alabama appears likely to lose a seat in 2020.)

In many cases, control of the governorship will be a crucial part of the remapping process. Overall, 36 of the 43 states with more than one congressional district give the state legislature responsibility for drawing district lines (Iowa is not included in the 36).[1] In 34 of those 36 states — Connecticut and North Carolina are the exceptions — the governor has veto power over the process, though veto overrides by the legislature are possible. Thus, the state executive is a potentially powerful redistricting ally or obstacle in about 70% of states. Of the 36 states with regular midterm gubernatorial contests in 2018, about three-fourths (26) are states where the legislature draws the map and the governor has some veto power. Presently, Republicans hold 26 of the 36 governorships up in 2018, including 20 of the 26 states where the governor has veto power as a part of redistricting (again excluding Iowa).

After the 2020 census, new maps will affect 98% of the 435 House seats, excluding only the seven states with one district (new maps should be in place for the 2022 midterm election). Table 1 lays out the redistricting state of play. If remapping occurred today, the Republicans would have complete control of the redistricting process in 20 states with 200 total congressional districts. In 21 states with 221 districts, power would either be split between the two parties or independent commissions would draw new lines. Meanwhile, the Democrats would hold full power over the process in just two states, Oregon and Rhode Island, with just seven total seats. And the Ocean State appears very likely to lose its second seat in reapportionment, though recent projections suggest that the Beaver State could gain a seat as well.

Table 1: Current status of redistricting control for the U.S. House of Representatives

Notes: The categorization of certain states in the table required some judgment calls. If you have any questions about individual states, please email us at 1.) State currently has a vacant House seat; delegation totals reflect 2016 election result. 2.) Nebraska technically has a nonpartisan unicameral state legislature, but a majority of its members identify with the GOP. 3.) Connecticut is categorized as “divided” because the state rules require a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature to implement a plan. Democrats lack a two-thirds majority in the legislature. 4.) Iowa is categorized as “commission” because both a nonpartisan advisory body and a bipartisan advisory committee are substantially involved in the map-making process prior to legislative authorization of a plan. 5.) Does not include the seven single-member states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming).

Sources: All About Redistricting, Ballotpedia, National Conference of State Legislatures

Compare these potential 2020 control figures to where the two parties were following the 2000 and 2010 censuses. The 2000 redistricting cycle saw relative balance between the parties: Democrats held total control over redistricting in seven states with 101 congressional districts, Republicans controlled the process in eight states with 98 seats, control was split in 22 states with 190 districts, and commissions of some type determined maps in six states with 39 seats. Based on the presidential vote in districts before and after redistricting, nine more total districts became Democratic-leaning on the new maps, normalized for the statewide vote (i.e., if a district’s two-party vote for Al Gore was 48% and he won 44% statewide, it was a Democratic-leaning district relative to the state as a whole.) Fast forward to the post-2010 remap, where the incredible gains by the GOP in the 2010 midterm left them in a great position: Republicans fully controlled the process in 18 states with 211 districts, Democrats held sway over just five states with 42 seats, 13 states with 83 districts were split, and commissions determined seven states with 92 seats. The GOP edge in redistricting control resulted in 21 more seats becoming Republican-leaning, based on the 2008 presidential vote and normalized for the statewide vote.[2]

It’s impossible to know what the political environment will look like in the fall of 2018, but it’s clear that there will be many gubernatorial contests vital to House redistricting. In highly competitive presidential states such as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the Republicans hold a solid majority of the House seats. In fact, the GOP’s 16-11 advantage in Florida might be larger if not for a court-ordered mid-cycle redistricting prior to the 2016 election (courts found that Republicans had violated a voter-approved constitutional amendment that sought to make the line-drawing process less political). The Republicans also have overwhelming majorities in right of center but still competitive states like Georgia and Ohio. For the Democrats, winning back executive power in states such as these (and holding onto the Pennsylvania governorship) is likely the most immediate route to leverage in the redistricting process. After all, the GOP controls all of the state legislative chambers in the aforementioned states, with large majorities in most cases.

Meanwhile, the GOP could benefit from holding onto some blue state governorships, but with caveats. For example, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) could conceivably hinder Democratic mapping efforts in their very blue states, which have a 7-1 and 9-0 Democratic House delegation, respectively. But it’s possible that the state legislatures in Maryland and Massachusetts could overcome a gubernatorial veto — Democrats currently have sufficient majorities to override in both states. In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) could also veto a plan from the Democratic-led state legislature. However, unlike Hogan and Baker, Rauner’s veto might hold up because Democrats are four seats short of a veto-proof majority in the Illinois House of Representatives. To the west, a Republican takeover of Minnesota’s governorship would give the GOP full control over the process in a state where there could be three endangered Democratic incumbent House members. And in Nevada, retaining the open-seat governorship could serve as a Republican check on the Democratic-controlled state legislature. With control of 33 of the 50 state governorships, the Republican mission is to hold as much ground as possible while possibly winning back the executive mansions in states such as Pennsylvania and Virginia.

We are a long way from November 2018, but both sides understand the importance of the election on the next cycle of redistricting. Having been trounced in 2010, the Democrats are focusing more resources on gubernatorial and state legislative contests, an effort that involves former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder. But the Republicans will likely have a war chest advantage, at least when it comes to their national gubernatorial organization: The Republican Governors Association raised $61 million in 2016, compared to just $39 million for the Democratic Governors Association (the RGA usually outraises and outspends the DGA). While both groups will raise and spend far more in the midterm cycle than in a presidential cycle, which has about one-third as many gubernatorial contests, the GOP’s national group could very well have a funding edge in 2018, helped out by having twice as many governors as the Democrats.

Democrats have complained about Republican control of redistricting this decade, most notably in 2012, when Democratic House candidates won more votes than Republican candidates but the party captured only 201 House seats. If Democrats want to avoid being at such a disadvantage in the next round of redistricting, 2018 may be their best opportunity to do something about it.


1. Iowa’s state legislature has the final say in redistricting, subject to gubernatorial veto, but we did not include it as a legislative-drawn state because both a nonpartisan advisory body and a bipartisan advisory committee are substantially involved in determining district lines.

2. We compared the presidential vote in a congressional district to the statewide vote rather than comparing it to the national vote in order to better draw out the greater overall change that occurred in the 2010 redistricting cycle than in the 2000 cycle. For example, after the 2010 midterm, North Carolina Republicans’ gerrymander changed the number of Tar Heel State seats that were more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole from nine to 10 (of 13 total), which appeared to be a small change. But prior to the 2010 GOP wave, Democrats held four of the nine districts in the state that were more Republic-leaning than the nation in 2008. By comparing the district presidential vote to the statewide presidential vote, we see that the GOP-drawn map changed the number of seats that were more Republican-leaning than North Carolina as a whole from seven to 10, which means that nearly a quarter of the states’ seats became notably more Republican. In the 2000 redistricting cycle, Democrats gerrymandered North Carolina. The post-2000 map shifted the number of seats that were more Democratic-leaning than the nation as a whole from two to three, but the state had gained one seat in reapportionment so the number that were more GOP-leaning remained the same (10). But the new lines shifted the number that were more Democratic-leaning than the state from four to seven.

Can Democrats Take Back the House in 2018?

2006 cycle suggests they could if they can expand the playing field

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 23rd, 2017


Democrats would appear to face long odds in the 2018 U.S. House elections. They need to pick up 24 seats to take back control of the House, and there are only 23 Republicans who hold districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. In this politically-polarized era, presidential election results strongly predict House election results, and Democrats also have to defend 12 of their own seats in districts carried by Donald Trump.

But in 2006, the last midterm election with a Republican in the White House, Democrats appeared to face even longer odds. At that time, there were only 18 Republican seats in districts carried by John Kerry in 2004, and Democrats had to defend 42 of their own seats in districts carried by George W. Bush. Nevertheless, Democrats were able to win back control of the House, making a net gain of 31 seats. In addition to winning 10 of the 18 Republican seats in districts carried by Kerry in 2004, Democrats won 20 Republican seats in districts carried by Bush and won an open seat previously held by then-Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

The lesson of 2006 for Democratic strategists is not to focus exclusively on districts carried by Hillary Clinton but to cast their net considerably wider. In a midterm election with an unpopular president, the out-party can win a considerable number of seats in districts carried by the president’s party in the previous election. In 2006, Democrats took back 10 of 41 Republican seats in districts in which George W. Bush won between 50% and 55% of the major-party vote and seven of 58 districts in which Bush won between 55% and 60%. They even captured three districts in which Bush won at least 60% of the vote.

Just before Election Day in 2006, George W. Bush had an approval rating in the Gallup Poll of 38%. According to Gallup as of Wednesday afternoon, President Donald Trump’s approval rating stood at 42%, which is historically low for a new president. His approval rating in a recent Pew Research Center poll was even a little lower (39%), though other surveys show more mixed numbers for the president. If Trump’s approval rating remains at this level or declines further, Democrats could have a good many opportunities to pick up Republican House seats in 2018.

In addition to 23 Republican seats in districts carried by Hillary Clinton, there are currently 32 Republican seats in districts that Donald Trump carried with less than 55% of the major-party vote, and 63 Republican seats in districts that Trump carried with between 55% and 60%. Based on the results of the 2006 midterm election, the combination of an unpopular Republican president and strong Democratic challengers could put enough of those seats in play to allow Democrats to win back control of the House of Representatives.

2018’s Initial Senate Ratings

Democrats start on defense but national environment will be key

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 16th, 2017


At first blush, one might think that the Democrats have a decent chance of taking control of the Senate in the 2018 midterm. After all, midterms frequently break against the president’s party, which has lost an average of four seats in the 26 midterms conducted in the era of popular Senate elections (starting with the 1914 midterm). Democrats only need to win three net seats to flip their current 52-48 deficit into a 51-49 majority, a gain that would be in keeping with the average midterm performance. Additionally, midterm elections often end up becoming a negative referendum on the president, particularly if he is unpopular or the country is undergoing some sort of trauma, economic or otherwise. It’s too soon to say what the public will think of President Trump in November 2018: His early approval rating is historically weak for a new president, and there have been a record number of controversies for the first month of a modern presidency. Still, there’s no way of knowing what his standing will be and what will be on the mind of the electorate more than a year and a half from now.

However, as we noted in a Crystal Ball piece in December, the Democrats are far overextended on this Senate map, which may preclude them from making gains even if the national environment is poor for Republicans in November 2018. Map 1 shows the 34 Senate seats up for election next year.

Map 1: Current control of Senate seats up for election in 2018

Note: This includes the 33 Senate elections regularly scheduled for 2018 along with a special election in Alabama, which was necessitated by former Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) recent confirmation as U.S. Attorney General. Gov. Robert Bentley (R-AL) appointed state Attorney General Luther Strange (R) to the seat. He will try to win the remainder of Sessions’ unexpired term in 2018 (and then, if he succeeds, presumably run for election to a full term in 2020).

Because independent Sens. Angus King (ME) and Bernie Sanders (VT) caucus with the Democrats, they are effectively defending 25 seats next year, while Republicans are only defending nine. Ten of the 25 Senate seats Democrats are defending are in states that voted for Donald Trump for president last year: Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Republicans are defending just one seat in a state that Hillary Clinton won (Nevada).

So there are conflicting forces at play in 2018. On one hand, the party that does not hold the White House often benefits from the midterm environment. History suggests that the Republicans’ dream of netting eight seats next year, thus creating a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority, is unlikely, even though they have many credible targets. On the other hand, the Senate map is so daunting for Democrats that just not losing any seats will require an enormous amount of effort and luck.

At the starting point, the three most vulnerable seats all belong to Democrats. Map 2 shows our initial Crystal Ball Senate ratings for the 2018 cycle

Map 2: 2018 Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Before getting into the specific ratings, it’s worth noting that no senator has retired as of yet (other than Sessions, who in any event was not up for reelection this cycle). This is important because four out of five senators who have sought reelection in the post-World War II period have won another term. The most obvious retirement possibilities heading into this cycle were Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), but both may end up running for reelection anyway. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) is another potential retiree, but in either California or Delaware a Democrat would be heavily favored to hold an open seat (and a Republican would be heavily favored in Utah). There’s always the possibility of a surprise retirement or resignation shaking up the playing field, though.

Any discussion of 2018’s Senate races have to start with the five Democratic incumbents who hold seats in states that Trump won by at least 18 points apiece last year: Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jon Tester (D-MT), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Joe Manchin (D-WV). These are the five top targets for the Republicans next year, although we see some subtle differences among this quintet of red state Democrats that prompt us to split them into two groups.

While one could argue that all five should be Toss-ups, we’re giving two of the incumbents an early edge and starting them as Leans Democratic in our ratings: Manchin and Tester.

The once-dominant West Virginia Democratic Party is fading fast. As recently as 2010, the party held every statewide elected executive office, both chambers of the state legislature, two of three U.S. House seats, and both Senate seats. Since then, they’ve lost all of those except the governorship, state treasurer, and Manchin’s Senate seat. Yet Manchin has demonstrated significant crossover appeal — he won by 24 points in 2012 even as Barack Obama was losing statewide by 27 points — and Gov. Jim Justice’s (D) seven-point open-seat gubernatorial victory last year even as Trump was carrying the state by an astounding 42 points shows that Mountain State voters are still willing to split their tickets in some instances. Tester, meanwhile, has benefited from Trump’s nomination of Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) as secretary of the interior. Many viewed Zinke, who represents the Big Sky Country’s lone House seat, as Tester’s most formidable potential challenger. Tester, a two-term incumbent, has never gotten a majority of the vote but has been helped by Libertarian candidates pulling votes from his GOP opponents.

We see Donnelly, Heitkamp, and McCaskill as being on shakier ground. Donnelly and McCaskill lucked out in 2012 when each faced GOP opponents who submarined their campaigns with extremely controversial statements on abortion. Presumably the Democrats will face stronger opposition from more competent candidates this time. Heitkamp, meanwhile, only won by about a point in 2012 and appears to be in for another hard race. These contests all start as coin flips. At the same time, we should note that incumbency makes them even bets at the outset; without incumbency, keeping these seats would be much harder, although some Democrats might actually prefer Jason Kander (D) to McCaskill in Missouri. Kander lost a close race to Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) last year.

The next tier of Republican targets is rated, like Montana and West Virginia, as Leans Democratic. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) all get the benefit of the doubt. Baldwin is probably the most vulnerable just because she’s only won statewide once (while Nelson and Brown have won several times) and because her political persona probably doesn’t fit the state quite as well as the other two. However, Nelson and Brown seem likely to face opponents with whom political watchers are familiar: Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) and state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R-OH). Both Scott and Mandel are term-limited in their current jobs and have been telegraphing Senate runs for some time (in fact, Mandel arguably never stopped running for Senate after losing to Brown in 2012). Each will assuredly be well-funded although they have question marks too: Scott’s two election victories were razor-thin, and he’s never been particularly popular, while Mandel underperformed Mitt Romney’s Ohio showing in 2012 and lagged a little bit behind the statewide ticket in his 2014 reelection (he still won easily). In any event, all of these races could be highly competitive next year. Also in this category, as Leans Independent, is Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with the Democrats. There are many unknowns in the race: Will outgoing Gov. Paul LePage (R) challenge King? Will the Democrats nominate a credible candidate, potentially creating a true three-way race? And will the state’s new instant-runoff voting system actually be in place next year?

Republican challenges to Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Tim Kaine (D-VA) are probably longer shots. Trump won Michigan and Pennsylvania last year and came close in Minnesota, but the Senate incumbents in all three states each have won multiple statewide victories and ran ahead of Obama in 2012. Kaine’s vice-presidential campaign, while not making much of a ripple nationally, probably contributed to Clinton running slightly ahead of Obama’s 2012 margin in the Old Dominion. All four Democrats start as clear favorites at Likely Democratic. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) also starts in this category. New Jersey should be an easy hold for a Democratic incumbent, but Menendez is under federal indictment in a corruption case. Democrats probably would be better off if Menendez just called it quits, but at this point it appears that he will seek reelection and may not face any strong opposition in a primary.

The other Democratic-held seats — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington — all start as safe for the incumbent party. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also starts in a very secure position.

Of the nine Republican-controlled seats, six start as Safe Republican: Alabama, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming. Most of these states haven’t elected a Democratic senator in decades: The Cornhusker State is the lone one that has been represented by a Democrat in the Senate this century. If Democrats make any of these seats competitive it likely will mean that Republicans are having an awful midterm.

Texas, where Sen. Ted Cruz (R) will be seeking a second* term, probably should also be listed as safe: The last Democrat to win a Senate race there was Lloyd Bentsen (D) way back in 1988 (he won reelection while also serving as Michael Dukakis’ vice-presidential nominee). But the sometimes abrasive Cruz is not a perfect candidate, and there’s a distant outside shot that Democrats could make the race competitive if the midterm environment is bad enough for Republicans, so we’ll call it Likely Republican to start. Clinton significantly improved on Obama’s 2012 margin in Texas, but she still lost the state by nine points.

Realistically, there are only two credible Democratic targets in the Senate — and that may be generous.

Arizona is another state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator this century — the last Democrat to win a Senate seat there was Dennis DeConcini, who won reelection in 1988. But the Grand Canyon State, like Texas, became more Democratic in 2016, and Clinton came within 3.5 points of carrying it. And Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who is running for a second term, has angered some Republicans with his criticism of President Trump. Flake might have primary trouble: Kelli Ward, a very conservative candidate who came within about a dozen points of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a 2016 primary, is challenging Flake, and it’s possible a more prominent challenger will enter the race, too (which could benefit Flake assuming there are multiple challengers splitting the anti-incumbent vote). A credible Democrat might possibly be favored in Arizona if Flake doesn’t win renomination. If Flake is renominated, his vulnerability will be determined by the national environment and the degree of division within the state GOP.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) is a clearer Democratic target, but he starts as a narrow favorite while Silver State Democrats, who saw much of their bench wiped out in their disastrous 2014 midterm, cast about for a candidate. Nevertheless, expect Democrats to find someone who can plausibly make the race. And then they’ll throw everything they’ve got at Heller, with so few other targets nationally.


We did not dwell much on possible challengers to the incumbents listed above: There’s plenty of time for that as the cycle develops.

However, among the many candidates to watch are several members of the U.S. House. Possible Republican challengers to Democratic incumbents include Indiana Reps. Jim Banks, Luke Messer, and Todd Rokita; Michigan Rep. Fred Upton; Missouri Reps. Ann Wagner and Sam Graves; North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer; Ohio Rep. Pat Tiberi; Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock; West Virginia Rep. Evan Jenkins; Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy; and perhaps many others. On the Democratic side, Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema; Nevada Reps. Ruben Kihuen, Jacky Rosen, and Dina Titus; and Texas Reps. Joaquin Castro and Beto O’Rourke are also possibilities.

For the most part, these House members have safe seats. So if a number of House Republicans jump into Senate races, it may be a sign that the party is feeling good about the midterms (and vice versa for the Democrats), because for most of these members a Senate race is riskier than running for reelection. As National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar recently argued, the number of House Republicans who decide to step up in Senate races will be a good barometer of how the party feels about Trump’s standing. A few House members have already passed on trying for the Senate: Zinke opted for a Cabinet spot over a Senate run, and Reps. Susan Brooks of Indiana, Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania, and Dave Brat of Virginia also have said no.

The candidate recruiting season has probably a year or more to go: While it’s become common for Senate candidates to announce their bids relatively early in the off-year before an election, there are plenty of examples of late-entering candidates who nonetheless won recent elections, such as Sens. Ron Johnson (R-WI) in 2010 and Cory Gardner (R-CO) in 2014, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who made a last-minute decision to run for reelection last summer. Also, late retirements can change the landscape: then-Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-ME) surprise decision to retire in 2012 opened the door to Angus King winning her Senate seat later that year.

Given the uncertainty about President Trump’s standing, there may be incentive for potential candidates to wait a little bit longer this time before taking the plunge, given how influential his approval rating is likely to be on the outcomes across the country next year.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Everyone’s still exhausted from the 2016 election, not to mention the first tumultuous month — or has it been a year? — of the Trump Administration. Yet here we are with another campaign barely underground, soon to spring forth like May flowers. For better or worse, that’s the way our system works.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of terms Ted Cruz has served in the Senate. He is in his first term and is seeking a second.