Democrats Top Focus in the Midterms Should be Governor’s Races

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Let’s face it, Democrats have had a pretty rough go of it lately.

Ever since President Obama’s route in 2008, the party has suffered devastating losses in three of the four elections since.

In 2009, Democrats had the White House, a majority in the House with 257 seats under party control, 58 seats in the Senate that later became 60 due to Arlen Specter switching parties and Al Franken finally getting sworn in later in the year, control of 29 governor’s mansions, and control of 27 state legislatures.

Then 2010 happened. Democrats lost a staggering 63 House seats, along with their majority, six seats in the Senate, six governors mansions, and 21 state legislative chambers. It was one of the most lopsided midterm losses in recent history.

2012 offered a brief reprieve when President Obama won re-election and the party increased their Senate majority and picked up a few seats in the House.

However, the key word was brief. 2014 brought on the second GOP wave of Obama’s presidency which saw Democrats lose nine Senate seats and their majority in the chamber, 13 seats in the House, which wiped out their modest gains in 2012, three more governors mansions, and 10 more state legislative chambers.

The real gut-punch for the party came in 2016. Democrats made minimal gains in both the House and Senate but they were overshadowed by Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, where several Rust Belt states voted for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since the 1980s. Adding insult to injury, the party once again lost governors mansions, two total, and barely made a dent in the GOP grip on state legislatures.

Today, Republicans have the White House, 241 seats in the House, 52 Senate seats, 33 Governors, and control of 32 state legislatures.

Democrats are now facing the same questions the Republican Party was facing just eight years ago. How are they going to pick up the pieces of a broken party and start winning elections again? Is the party relegated to the political wilderness for the next decade or more?

Time will tell.

Historically, the incumbent president’s party loses seats in midterms elections, so Democrats do have history on their side. The caveats however, are a) Democrats have a hard time turning out their voters in non-presidential years, and b) the 2018 Senate map is absolutely brutal for them. Take a look:

2018 Senate Map

That being said, they party does have an opportunity to make a comeback in 2018 if they play their cards right.

Knowing Democrats, their top priority will probably be to take back the Senate despite the aforementioned map. The party is defending 23 seats next year in states like Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Florida. Trump carried all of these states, many by a significant margin.

These seats were won by Democrats in 2006 and/or 2012, two good years for the party, especially the wave election of 2006 which put them in control of Congress for the first time since 1994. So they are pretty overextended in the Senate.

Anything can happen, especially with 2018 being the first midterm of Donald Trump’s presidency, but the goal for Democrats in terms of the Senate should be similar to what the Republicans goal was in 2016; minimize losses.

If the party can keep GOP pickups to three to four, and possibly knock of Dean Heller in Nevada, or Jeff Flake in Arizona, they can call it a success.

For the House, it is funny that despite all the talk about Republicans stranglehold on the chamber due to GOP-led redistricting after 2010, Democrats are in a better position to take it over than they are the Senate. Democrats need to pickup 24 GOP seats to regain a majority for the first time since 2010.

Even with heavily gerrymandered districts in the GOP’s favor, this is doable for Democrats. Typically, a sitting president’s party loses seats in midterms elections. In the nine midterm elections since 1980, the party in control of the White House has lost seats in seven of them; 1998 for Democrats and 2002 for Republicans being the exceptions. Here is how the opposition party fared in each:

2018 midterm results

Not only that, but there are currently 23 Republicans representing districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. One short of the number of seats Democrats need to win back control.

2016 Clinton GOP Districts

It’s hard to predict what will happen in 20 months, but with Trump in the White House, assuming he is still there, and his approval rating already in the low 40s, Democrats should be able to make some noise and enjoy some pretty significant gains.

Now they just need to focus on recruiting good candidates to run in these districts, and others; something they have been inexcusably poor at recently. The party didn’t even field a candidate in Texas’s 32nd District; a district Clinton carried by two percentage points.

Even with the House in play, Democrats can really make their mark on governors races, and these races should be the main focus of the party.

These governors mansions were part of the 2010 and 2014 Republican wave years. The GOP picked up six governorships in 2010 and three more in 2014. Because of this, Republicans will be defending 24 of the 33 governors seats to the Democrats nine. And each party is defending one seat this year; Democrats in Virginia, Republicans in New Jersey.

This year, New Jersey presents the first, of many, opportunities for a Democratic pickup. Chris Christie is term-limited and cannot run again, creating an open seat. Even if he could run, there is a very good chance he would lose since his approval rating sits at 17 percent and his disapproval at 78, yes 78, percent, per a recent Quinnipiac Poll.

Also working in the Democrat’s favor is the political lean of the state. New Jersey is a very blue state where Clinton won with 55 percent of the vote and a margin of more than half a million votes over Donald Trump last November.

Including New Jersey, there are 15 Republican held Governors Mansions Democrats have a fairly legitimate shot at.

2018 Gov

Hillary Clinton carried nine of the 15 states listed in the chart above; winning handily in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, the aforementioned New Jersey, New Mexico, and Vermont. The only state on this list Donald Trump carried comfortably was Ohio, which he won by eight points.

Now obviously some of these states present greater opportunities than others. Even with the blue leanings of Maryland and Massachusetts, both states currently have popular Republican Governors.

New Hampshire is a state that Clinton carried, but by less than a percentage point, and now has a newly elected Republican governor who will enjoy the advantages of incumbency.

States like Arizona and Georgia make the list due to their close margins in last years presidential election, but both are still Republican leaning states. And Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin are all Trump states that have been friendly to Republicans in previous midterms.

On paper, the top targets for Democrats on this list are in Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Vermont.

And despite the caveats mentioned, with an unpopular president in the White House, good candidates, and a seemingly energized Democratic Party base, the opportunities are there for the party to make some significant gains in these states.

The most important reason Governors races should be the top priority for Democrats is because, in addition to being able to influence policies in their respective states, the individual elected Governor in 2017 or 2018 will be in office during the next round of redistricting.

If Democrats want a hand in drawing districts that are friendly to them on both the state and federal level, they better take advantage of the opportunity while they have the chance.

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