With just five days left before the 2018 midterms, homepages and TV screens are filled with fancy graphics that project how the battle for the majority in the House and Senate might turn out. Discussions of what split control of Congress could mean for President Donald Trump’s second term are legion.
What you see FAR less of in the coverage is conversations about the 35(!) governor races on the ballot – and the gains that Democrats are positioned to make in large population states, gains with huge reverberations not just in the 2020 presidential race but also in the decennial nationwide redistricting process that will begin in earnest after the 2020 Census is competed.
Wrote Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a very smart piece for The Atlantic earlier this week:
“No Democrat needs to be reminded why statewide elections in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin matter in presidential campaigns. But until now, the (Democratic National Committee) has seemed intent on letting everyone ignore the GOP’s biggest vulnerability, namely the fact that those three states—not to mention swing states like Florida, Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota—are electing governors next week. If Democrats end up flipping state houses in places Trump won in 2016, they will have proved themselves capable of winning in the places coastal elites derisively refer to as ‘flyover America.’ You can’t overstate how big a deal that will be.”
Look. It’s easy to see why the focus for most politically minded people is the House and Senate. We like the idea of a battle for control. We like the maps that show how close one side or the other is to getting that final seat it needs. And because so much of the political media is based in Washington, we know these people running for House and Senate. We see them. They are, in Washington, big deals.
But, but, but …
The simple fact is that with VERY few exceptions, a single governor has far more power on a day-in, day-out basis than the average senator. (Obviously that isn’t true if we are talking about members of the Senate leadership like Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer.) And if you look back at recent presidential history – Barack Obama excepted – the sort of politicians that people like to nominate to run for president tend to be chief executives of their own states, not House members or senators.
Which is why the case can be made that – when you are talking about the long-term health of the Democratic Party, for example – what is happening at the gubernatorial level matters even more than the increasing likelihood that Democrats will retake the House majority in five days. (Nota bene: Notice I said the long-term health of the Democratic Party. In the near-term, controlling one of the two chambers of Congress will help Democrats slow Trump’s agenda to a crawl.)
Consider this: Of the 10 largest states by population, nine of them will hold gubernatorial elections on November 6. (North Carolina won’t – and has a Democratic governor.) At the moment, six of those nine are controlled by Republicans, but there is a scenario in which eight of the nine could be held by Democrats on November 7.
Here’s who is in power now:
1. California (D)
2. Texas (R)
3. Florida (R)
4. New York (D)
5. Pennsylvania (D)
6. Illinois (R)
7. Ohio (R)
8. Georgia (R)
9. North Carolina (D) – not voting in 2018
10. Michigan (R)
With the exception of California, Pennsylvania, Texas and New York – where the party that currently hold the governorship is virtually assured of keeping control – and North Carolina ,which doesn’t vote until 2020 for governor, there are five extremely competitive races in five very big and very important states – all of which currently have Republican governors.
Of those five, Democrats have a very clear advantage in Illinois, and a smaller but still statistically significant one in Michigan. The other three – Florida, Georgia and Ohio – could well determine just how good this election will be for Democrats. Win all three, and it is a night like Republicans had in 2010. Win two of the three and it’s a night like Republicans had in 2014. Win none of the three and it’s a night like Democrats had in 2010 and 2014.
And remember this: All of the governors elected on Tuesday in these states will be in office through 2022, which means they will be their states’ chief executives during the once-in-a-decade redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines following the 2020 census.
If you need a reminder of why that matters, simply go back and read up on the 2010 election – and its aftermath. The massive gains Republicans made at the state level – governors and state legislatures – put the party firmly in control of the redistricting process in a slew of critical states, including many on my list above. That total control allowed GOP strategists and politicians to construct maps that made it very, very difficult for Democrats to retake the House – although, after eight years in the political wilderness, it now appears as though House Democrats will grab the brass ring.
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At the moment, Republicans control the state legislature and the governor’s office in Florida, Georgia, Michigan and Ohio. Democrats control the Illinois Legislature, but the state has a Republican governor. In each one of those five states, the legislature will be tasked with redrawing the congressional (and legislative) lines in 2021. In each of those states, the governor has veto power over the maps the legislature produces. So it matters a whole hell of a lot which party controls the governor’s mansion.
Want to raise the stakes even more? Early projections suggest that Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania are each expected to lose at least one congressional district – to slower than average population growth – after the 2020 Census. And that Florida, North Carolina and Texas are all slated to gain seats in that same process because they grew faster than the national average. Getting to draw those new lines – or at least having veto power over who draws those lines – matters HUGELY.
So on election night when you are glued to your TV trying to see if Democrats can win the House or if Republicans can hang on to the Senate, make sure you spare a little time to see who is getting elected in governor races across the country. Those people may matter more to the future of our party politics than anyone in Washington.