After the Republican wave election of 2014, Democrats across the country surveyed the wreckage of their state parties with dismay — but not despair. They knew another election was coming. The GOP had made huge gains in state and local offices, from governors and legislatures to counties and school boards. To Democrats, however, these unwelcome results weren’t a repudiation of their ideas or a testament to superior candidate recruitment, organization, and marketing by Republicans. It was all about turnout. In midterms, the electorate isn’t representative of the country. In presidential years, it is.
During much of the 2016 cycle, it certainly looked like Democrats would make a substantial recovery in down-ballot races. For example, of the six potentially competitive races for governor — in North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia, Vermont, and New Hampshire — Democrats looked likely to hold their offices (in the final four states) while being favored to pick off Governor Pat McCrory in North Carolina and Mike Pence’s successor in Indiana, Eric Holcomb. Thus they hoped to shrink the GOP’s current lead of 31 governorships to the Democrats’ 18. (Bill Walker, the governor of Alaska, was elected on the Alaska First Unity Ticket but was a longtime Republican pol before 2014). In the last few weeks of the cycle, however, the Republicans have closed strongly. In some cases, they have made remarkable recoveries, pulling within striking distance or even ahead of their (surprised) Democratic opponents.
Missouri offers perhaps the most striking case. In August, the highly rated polling unit from Monmouth University gave Democrat Chris Koster 51 percent of the vote and Republican Eric Greitens 40 percent in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. In early October, Koster, Missouri’s attorney general, led by just three points, 46 percent to 43 percent. The final Monmouth poll, taken at the end of October, had the race tied at 46 percent. Greitens, a former Navy SEAL and nonprofit executive, clearly has momentum.
In New Hampshire, Republican Chris Sununu, son of former governor and White House chief of staff John Sununu, had enjoyed an early name-recognition lead over Democrat Colin Van Ostern in the race to succeed Democrat Maggie Hassan, who’s running for U.S. Senate. But by early October, Van Ostern had opened up a consistent lead. It wasn’t until the final 10 days of the campaign that the numbers closed. In fact, of the five New Hampshire polls taken fully or partly in November, four had Sununu back in the lead in this pivotal swing state.
Next door in Vermont, there’s not enough publicly available polling to chart trends. But all indications are that Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the Republican nominee to replace Democratic incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin, is in a hotly contested race with Democratic nominee Sue Minter, a former state representative and transportation secretary.
In Indiana, Democrat John Gregg — a former speaker of the state house who narrowly lost the governor’s race to Pence four years ago — has enjoyed a solid lead through most of the fall. Monmouth had him with a 12-point in mid-October. By the last week of October, that was down to a six-point lead, 48 percent for Gregg and 42 percent for Holcomb. In the final survey of the race, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies under the auspices of the respected Indiana political journalist Brian Howey, the Gregg-Holcomb race is all tied up.
The largest gubernatorial prize of the night, both in population and in national political prominence, will be my home state. To paraphrase George Will, North Carolina produces more politics than we can consume locally. The riots that followed the September police shooting in Charlotte, the ravages of Hurricane Matthew, political and judicial tussles over voter ID and election laws, furious fights over state taxes and spending, and the debate about the controversial HB 2 law have all played significant roles in the contest between one-term Republican incumbent McCrory, the former longtime mayor of Charlotte, and his Democratic challenger, four-term Attorney General Roy Cooper. This has been America’s most-polled gubernatorial race by far, allowing for a more detailed analysis of its ebbs and flows. During the summer, the national furor about HB 2 helped Cooper achieve a sizable lead over McCrory, with some high-quality polls putting the challenger above 50 percent. This wasn’t a case of North Carolina voters disagreeing with every aspect of the law, by the way. Instead, it was a combination of the issue crowding out every other issue in the campaign — North Carolina’s economy is doing comparatively well, which would normally boost the incumbent — as well as many voters coming to the conclusion there should have been a way to safeguard privacy without producing the boycotts, lost sporting events, and adverse publicity of HB 2.
During the homestretch of the campaign, however, it began to tighten. Cooper’s average lead went from six points in August to just two points in September. By mid-October, it was down to a single point, at 47 percent Cooper to 46 percent McCrory, thanks in part to the governor’s strong leadership during the Charlotte riots and Hurricane Matthew recovery as well as Cooper’s poor debate performances. In the final days of the campaign, Cooper’s public-polling lead has broadened out slightly, to two points, but I’m told that both parties’ internal polls show it far closer, and North Carolina Republicans are currently feeling good about the early voting trends and other dynamics.
These gubernatorial contests and candidates are distinctive, of course, but there are some common themes. The Democrats and Republicans disagree about taxes, economic development, and the size of government. Obamacare’s premium spikes and other woes are standard talking points for the GOP candidates, with their foes usually trying to change the subject. On education, the Democrats generally want to constrain parental choice among elementary and secondary schools while providing universal preschool. The Republicans generally want to maintain or expand school choice and favor targeted preschool programs aimed at disadvantaged or at-risk children. Abortion, LGBT issues, and voting procedures have been flashpoints in many races.
Except in West Virginia, it seems, the Republican gubernatorial candidates have clearly moved into contention by Election Day. That doesn’t mean they’ll all win. But it does suggest that net GOP losses could be small in the state-level offices where Democrats have been decimated during the Obama era. The ElectionProjection.com site run by my friend Scott Elliott is predicting a one-seat gain by the Republicans. Larry Sabato projects no net change.