KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Amid a promising national environment for Republicans, we are changing ratings in 4 gubernatorial contests — 3 of which are in the GOP’s favor.
— The power of gubernatorial incumbency will be tested in 2022, both by a plethora of Republican primary challengers to sitting GOP governors and, for Democrats, by the national political climate in next year’s general election.
— This election will feature a relatively high number of incumbents running for reelection compared to many previous midterm years (midterms are when the bulk of the gubernatorial elections are held).
— Despite playing defense in many vulnerable races across the country, Democrats have the 2 clearest gubernatorial pickup opportunities.
Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating changes
Map 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings
Testing the power of gubernatorial incumbency
Next year’s packed gubernatorial slate will be defined in large part by the push and pull between a couple of vital factors: the power of incumbency versus the power of the political environment.
The dangers posed by the political environment are different for both parties.
For Democratic incumbents, the usual midterm drag for the party that holds the White House, compounded by Joe Biden’s weak approval rating, represents the main “environmental” threat to their reelections. Democratic incumbents are running for second terms in many states where they could or will be vulnerable if this gnarly environment persists into next fall. Just to put this into perspective, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) won reelection last month by a surprisingly close 3-point margin in a state that Biden won by 16 points. Democratic incumbents are defending 7 states next year where Biden won by a smaller margin than New Jersey: Colorado, New Mexico, Maine, Minnesota, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin (in descending order of Biden margin), as well as an 8th, Kansas, where Biden lost by nearly 15 points. A big and roughly uniform swing against the Democrats next year could wipe out many of their governorships.
Meanwhile, a potentially turbulent primary environment may be a bigger threat to this cycle’s Republican incumbents, as former President Donald Trump has already endorsed a few challengers to sitting gubernatorial incumbents. Most notably, Trump enticed former Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) into a challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA), which we’ll explore a little more deeply below.
Trump also backed hard-right former state Rep. Geoff Diehl (R) against Gov. Charlie Baker (R) in Massachusetts; Baker, who had some real weakness among Massachusetts Republicans despite his overall popularity, opted against seeking a third term last week. Additionally, the former president endorsed against another sitting governor, backing Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin (R) against Gov. Brad Little (R) in Idaho. Overall, a majority of the 15 GOP governors who are eligible or announced candidates for reelection next year face primary challenges, with additional prominent primary challengers emerging in Ohio, Texas, and elsewhere.
Which environment — the primary one on the Republican side, and the general election one on the Democratic side — poses a greater threat to incumbents? While every year is different, history does show that incumbent governors are likelier to lose general elections than primaries, although the overall reelection rate for gubernatorial incumbents is still strong, particularly lately.
Table 2 shows the incumbent renomination, general election, and overall success rates for governors who sought reelection since the end of World War II. This table was most recently updated by National Journal’s Mary Frances McGowan in her chapter on gubernatorial races in our book on the 2020 elections, A Return to Normalcy? (in case you need any holiday shopping ideas).
Table 2: Success rate for incumbent governors, 1946-2020
Note: *In 1956, Utah Republican Governor J. Bracken Lee lost renomination in the GOP primary, but then ran as an independent in the general election, which he also lost.
Source: A Return to Normalcy? The 2020 Election That (Almost) Broke America)
As you can see at the bottom of the table, incumbent governors very rarely lose renomination: 94% who have sought to once again represent their party in the general election have succeeded. That number may actually understate the power of governors in primaries: over the last 40 years, only once (1994) has there been more than a single governor to lose renomination in any even-numbered gubernatorial election year.
And for all of the focus on Republican primaries, it may be that if an incumbent governor loses a primary, it may be a Democrat who does. There are 2 incumbent Democratic governors, Kathy Hochul of New York and Dan McKee of Rhode Island, who were not elected in their own right: They took over after their predecessors left office, and both face credible primary challengers. The only sitting governor who lost a primary in 2018, Jeff Colyer (R-KS), was also an unelected incumbent.
Meanwhile, incumbent governors who are renominated have won their elections at close to an 80% clip in the postwar era. Incumbents are going to be on the ballot in the lion’s share of the gubernatorial elections next year. Of 36 races being contested, as many as 28 could feature incumbents. If that many incumbents do ultimately run, that would be the second-highest number of incumbents running in more than a half-century, surpassed only by the 29 running in 2014. The high number of incumbents running could limit the number of seats that change hands, although the dueling political environments on both sides could contribute to more turnover than one might otherwise expect.
Once Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) takes office in January, Republicans will control 28 of the 50 state governorships. History suggests they are well-positioned to have more come 2023: the president’s party often loses governorships in midterm years. In 19 midterm elections since the end of World War II, the president’s party has lost, on average, roughly 4 net governorships per election.
In some recent cycles, gubernatorial turnover rates have not matched up to the congressional picture very well: Republicans lost 11 governorships in Richard Nixon’s 1970 midterm, a year in which they otherwise suffered only mild losses in the House and actually netted a Senate seat. In 1986, Republicans netted 8 governorships in Ronald Reagan’s second midterm even as they lost 8 Senate seats, and their Senate majority, that same year. So the circumstances of the election matter quite a bit, and the amount of change (or lack of change) has hardly been consistent over time.
Interestingly, and even though they could very well be victimized by the usual midterm curse, the Democrats currently have the two best offensive opportunities on the gubernatorial board so far.
Following Baker’s retirement in Massachusetts, we moved that race from Likely Republican all the way to Likely Democratic. We explained that change last week — to make a long story short, we don’t expect the GOP nominee to have much crossover appeal, and we expect the Democratic nominee to be relatively strong, whoever it ends up being.
Maryland, an open seat, is the other state governorship that we see as likeliest to switch parties, and the circumstances there are similar to Massachusetts, another deep blue state. This will be an open-seat race because popular incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is term-limited, and — just like in Massachusetts — former President Trump has endorsed a very conservative candidate, state Del. Dan Cox (R), for the GOP nomination over Kelly Schulz (R), a more Hogan-like candidate who serves in his administration as the state’s secretary of commerce. The Democratic field, meanwhile, is crowded but seems likely to produce a decent nominee. We’re moving this race from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.
But while Democrats have the two best pickup opportunities, they are defending a lot of vulnerable turf. Our other 3 rating changes this week all push Democratic-held seats into more competitive categories.
We’ll start in Nevada, a battleground state where Democrats enjoyed clear but small edges recently, winning statewide for president in 2016 and 2020 by a little under 2.5 points and winning the gubernatorial race by 4 points in 2018. Given the small margins in recent years, it wouldn’t take much for Republicans to flip the state.
We switched Nevada’s Senate race from Leans Democratic to Toss-up in early November, and we’re going to make the same change for the gubernatorial race as Gov. Steve Sisolak (D-NV) seeks a second term. In 2018, the contested Senate and gubernatorial contests were very closely tied, as were the state’s presidential and Senate races in 2016 — another very straight-ticket outcome could be the case again in 2022. The lingering impact of COVID-19 paired with potential Democratic erosion among working-class voters of all stripes could be a particular problem in Nevada, a tourism-heavy, working-class state. Former Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), who lost a bid for a second term in 2018, is the biggest name running, but he does not have a glide path to the nomination, as Clark County (Las Vegas) Sheriff Joe Lombardo (R) and others are running as well.
We also are moving 2 other first-term governors in Biden-won states from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic: Govs. Tim Walz (D-MN) and Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM). The former move, involving Walz, has more to do with the environment than anything else. The field to face him is very much uncertain, and it’s unclear whether the challenger who emerges against him will be strong. However, the broader environment is threatening to Walz, even as Republicans will need to find the right challenger to capitalize. Meanwhile, in the slightly more Democratic state of New Mexico, Republicans do appear to have a solid challenger to Lujan Grisham in 2020 U.S. Senate nominee Mark Ronchetti (R), a former television weather forecaster who got within half a dozen points of now-Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) last year (there are other candidates, although he is the most notable). Lujan Grisham also has some vulnerabilities that Ronchetti may be able to exploit, although Democrats argue that Ronchetti may very well have peaked as an under-the-radar candidate in last year’s open-seat Senate race. In any event, Minnesota and New Mexico merit watching as sleeper races in the Leans Democratic column.
Other races across the country
Though we’re not changing ratings in these states, there have been some other developments worth noting.
Perhaps the contest that has heated up the most over the past week is Georgia’s. As last month was winding down, it seemed that Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) was slated to have only weak primary opposition, and it was unclear if his 2018 general election opponent, former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D), would even take the plunge despite being widely expected to run. But last week, Abrams indeed entered the race.
While many Peach State political observers thought Abrams would eventually try for the governorship again, a more surprising development was the entrance of former Sen. David Perdue into the Republican primary on Monday. After being held below 50% in the 2020 general election, Perdue was forced into a runoff and lost to now-Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA). Though Kemp initially won in 2018 with the support of then-President Trump, the two Republicans have had a cooler relationship since. After 2020, Trump was angered as Kemp accepted then-candidate Biden’s victory in Georgia. The former president is thus backing Perdue.
Absent the Trump-Kemp feud, the Georgia contest may look more like a Leans Republican race than a Toss-up. However, with the recent developments, we feel there is enough justification to keep the rating as it is, as Kemp has a very challenging race on his hands. A Fox 5 Atlanta/Insider Advantage poll from earlier this week gives Kemp a 41%-22% lead over Perdue. However, they were tied at 34% apiece after Perdue was identified as Trump’s choice. One would expect Trump to be very active in this race and to hold rallies on behalf of Perdue, which will help publicize his endorsement in advance of the May primary (and this race could very well go to a runoff).
The primary winner will have a formidable general election opponent in Abrams, who likely will fire up both Democrats to vote for her and Republicans to vote against her. The specter of losing to Abrams could help bring the GOP back together following what could be a very bitterly contested primary.
Next door, and though Alabama is Safe Republican, it will see another contest where a GOP incumbent is challenged by a more Trump-aligned challenger. Lindy Blanchard, the former president’s ambassador to Slovenia, was originally running for Senate but recently pivoted to the gubernatorial contest, joining some other challengers to Gov. Kay Ivey (R-AL), who is running for a second full term. Still, Ivey remains popular — earlier this week, her campaign deftly took to the air with an ad emphasizing her conservative record.
Up north in Michigan, the emerging (and huge) Republican primary field still lacks a clear top-tier challenger to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI). Many Republicans were hoping that would be former Detroit Police Chief James Craig (R), but his campaign hasn’t taken off as of yet, and he and his campaign’s general consultant, veteran Republican operative John Yob, recently parted ways. Unlike the cast of Republicans lining up to challenge Walz, the GOP field against Whitmer doesn’t feature a single federal or state legislator, suggesting that the Michigan field is more unproven.
Like many state executives, Whitmer’s approval ratings were high last year, but her numbers since have been more evenly split. The GOP’s 2018 and 2020 Senate nominee, John James, who finished within 2 points of Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) last year, has reportedly considered the race. The environment could very well push this race into the Toss-up column anyway, but we’re going to hold Whitmer at Leans Democratic for now.
Out west, Oregon has given every Democratic nominee for president a double-digit margin of victory since 2008, but its state-level races have often been much closer. Starting in 1986, Democrats have put together an impressive string of 10 gubernatorial victories there — but, with the exception of 1998, each contest was within single-digits. Because of this, the Crystal Ball started the cycle with Oregon rated as “only” Leans Democratic.
Last month, polling from Morning Consult found that outgoing Democratic Gov. Kate Brown was the least popular governor in the country. Democrats have a competitive primary to succeed Brown, with state House Speaker Tina Kotek, state Treasurer Tobias Read, and former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof the most prominent candidates as of now. Republicans, meanwhile, landed a credible candidate in former state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, although their primary also includes Brown’s 2016 special election opponent, Bud Pierce (R), and some lesser-known names.
Looking to the general election, something of an X-factor will be how many votes state Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Democratic legislator who is running as an independent, can pull. Johnson’s fundraising has not been trivial, and she was recently endorsed by Knute Buehler, the Republicans’ 2018 gubernatorial nominee who recently left the party. Though we still consider Democrats the favorites to hold the governorship, there seem to be some ingredients present for a possible Republican flip. As we saw in Virginia last month, when the GOP won statewide for the first time in a dozen years, many electoral streaks eventually end at some point.
One streak that looks likely to continue next year, though, is Republicans’ hold on Texas. Like Abrams, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16) got close in a 2018 general election contest, and is trying for statewide office again. In O’Rourke’s case, he’ll be switching from a senatorial race to a gubernatorial one. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, however, is not quite as polarizing as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), O’Rourke’s last opponent, and is a clear favorite for renomination despite attracting significant primary opposition. A Wednesday poll from Quinnipiac University showed Abbott up 52%-37% on O’Rourke. O’Rourke was probably Democrats’ best recruit, but he may have a hard time recreating the energy he had in 2018 in what is almost certainly not going to be as good of a political environment for Democrats.
Today’s rating changes clarify that Democrats have the 2 clearest gubernatorial pickup opportunities: the open seats in Maryland and Massachusetts. Republicans also are defending a couple of races in the Toss-up column, the open seat in Arizona as well as Kemp’s bid for a second term in Georgia. Meanwhile, Democrats are defending an open, Toss-up seat in Pennsylvania as well as the Toss-up reelection bids of Sisolak in Nevada and Govs. Laura Kelly (D-KS) and Tony Evers (D-WI). But there’s also a large group of 5 Democratic-held governorships in the Leans Democratic column — Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Oregon — while there are no Republican-held seats rated as Leans Republican (all of the other current GOP states are rated as either Likely or Safe Republican). We’ve loaded up the Leans Democratic column on purpose: We wanted to illustrate how things could really go haywire for Democrats in a bad environment, but also to illustrate that Republicans have work to do in order to create more Toss-ups.
For Republicans, the more immediate focus is helping their incumbents navigate primaries, as well as sorting out large fields of challengers in some key targeted states. After the primary season, there are a lot of attractive pickup opportunities for the GOP, and the potential is there for Republicans to have a big cycle. For Democrats, it’s more about helping incumbents steel themselves against what very well could be a difficult cycle — and also capitalizing on what are some golden offensive opportunities even amidst a challenging environment.