The 13 most important governor elections in 2018, briefly explained

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With many GOP seats open, Democrats could gain a lot of ground in the 2018 gubernatorial elections.

Republicans currently hold an astonishing two-thirds of the governors’ mansions across the country, giving the GOP an overwhelming advantage in controlling state governments. This year, 26 of those seats are on the ballot.

Forecasts from leading election watchers show about 18 of the most competitive governor races in the 2018 midterm elections are currently Republican-held seats. Democrats finally have a lot of chances to regain some ground.

Beyond the usual issues, there’s one other big reason to pay attention to governors this year: Governors who are elected in 2018 will almost all still be in office in 2021, when the next round of congressional redistricting starts. In many states, governors will wield a veto pen over the new House and state legislative maps.

As in all elections this year, Donald Trump will loom large over the gubernatorial campaigns. In some major races, like Florida, his handpicked candidate is running up against an upstart Democrat who is betting on a big blue wave. Democrats are polling strongly even in states like Ohio, which Trump won by 8 points.

A few seem sure to flip: Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in Illinois, for example, is considered all but a goner; Democrat J.B. Pritzker has a 16-point lead in the polls, on average. In Michigan, Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer has established an impressive 9-point lead in the polling over her Republican opponent to replace the outgoing, unpopular GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

But a dozen or more other races look like they could go either way. Here they are: 2018’s most competitive gubernatorial races, ranked by the current polling average, according to Real Clear Politics.

Maine: Shawn Moody vs. Janet Mills

Who is the Republican? Business executive Shawn Moody. But outgoing Gov. Paul LePage will loom large over this race. He’s spent his final months in office fighting to block Medicaid expansion, even after the state’s voters approved it in a ballot referendum. He also keeps saying bad things about black and Hispanic people.

Gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody talks with Michael Tribuzio, an employee of Swan Lake Grocery, while making a campaign visit to Swanville, Maine on August 3, 2018. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody talks with Michael Tribuzio, an employee of Swan Lake Grocery, while making a campaign visit to Swanville, Maine on August 3, 2018.

Who is the Democrat? Janet Mills, Maine’s attorney general since 2013 and a state lawmaker before that.

How much does the state like Trump? Maine has soured on the president after giving him pretty good marks in his first month in office. Now, according to Morning Consult, his job approval rating is at 55 percent disapproval.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? It’s really all about LePage and Trump. LePage has defined his tenure with vaguely racist sentiments and by viciously opposing Medicaid expansion, which would provide health insurance to 70,000 low-income Mainers. His job approval is just 40 percent after eight years in office, according to Morning Consult.

Mills is positioning herself as a fresh change of pace after eight years of LePage and two years of Trump, promising “a new direction.” Moody is running as a business-friendly conservative with a “common sense” independent streak. But he can only do so much to distance himself from a divisive GOP.

He is also facing tough questions about a sexual discrimination claim filed in 2006 by a woman who worked for one of his companies. Moody settled the complaint, as the New York Times reported this week.

What does the polling say? There is very little polling in Maine, but the one survey we have showed a tie between Moody and Mills. The Cook Political Report rates the race a toss-up.

Nevada: Adam Laxalt vs. Steve Sisolak

Who is the Republican? Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Another term-limited Republican, Gov. Brian Sandoval, will be leaving office in 2019. Unlike LePage, though, Sandoval is hugely popular. Laxalt, a former US Navy lieutenant, is hoping to pick up where Sandoval left off.

Who is the Democrat? Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak prevailed in a heated primary to win the Democratic nod for governor.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak chants with supporters while touring the site of the future Raiders football stadium on June 11, 2018, in Las Vegas. John Locher/AP
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak chants with supporters while touring the site of the future Raiders football stadium on June 11, 2018, in Las Vegas.

How much does the state like Trump? Trump lost Nevada in 2016, and the president doesn’t fare so well in the Silver State now: 52 percent of voters disapprove of him, according to Morning Consult.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? Sandoval stayed out of the GOP primary, giving the cold shoulder to Laxalt, with whom he often found himself on opposing sides in policy matters, particularly immigration and health care.

Last December, Sandoval said he would not “support a candidate who seeks to undo what we’ve done the past seven years,” in reference to Laxalt, who took a blow in the polls. Even Laxalt’s extended family opposes the Republican candidate, with two of his cousins hosting a fundraiser for Sisolak, and five more family members attending.

The two candidates may not debate (they have been fighting over the terms of any debate). Republicans have sought to portray Sisolak as a tax-and-spend Democrat. His actual record is a little more nuanced, but he was instrumental in luring the NFL’s Raiders to Vegas with a new stadium, which did require tax hikes. Like most Republicans, Laxalt is promising that he would somehow never, under any circumstances, raise taxes. Immigration is a big issue, as always, in the Southwest.

The expensive and high-profile Nevada Senate race could be an X-factor, driving more voters to the polls, as could the Democratic get-out-the-vote machine built by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

What does the polling say? It’s impossibly close: Sisolak has just a 0.7-point lead on average, according to Real Clear Politics. Cook Political Report rates it a toss-up.

Georgia: Brian Kemp vs. Stacey Abrams

Who is the Republican? Gov. Nathan Deal cannot seek a third term, so the Republicans have bet on Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, to hold his seat.

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Who is the Democrat? Stacey Abrams, minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, has already claimed a victory by becoming the first black female gubernatorial candidate from a major party in the United States.

How much does the state like Trump? Trump’s approval rating has slumped in the Peach State: While Georgia voters were favorable toward the president by a 53-35 margin in 2017, now they are much more evenly divided: 50 percent approve and 45 percent disapprove, according to Morning Consult.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? Abrams has attracted maybe more star power in her campaign than any other gubernatorial nominee. R&B star John Legend has closed her public appearances in concert, and almost every Democratic politician of note and/or with national ambitions has endorsed her campaign. She’s betting that a young and diverse electorate can carry her to an unlikely victory.

Kemp is playing to his own base, holding events in rural parts of the state. The outgoing Deal is quite popular — 56 percent approval — so November’s election seems likely to be a collision between Deal’s popularity, Trump’s divisiveness, and Abrams’s unique brand.

Adding to the stakes: Kemp has been accused of suppressing voter registration, putting 53,000 registrations — most of them of black voters — on hold. The nominee has waged a years-long battle against voting rights groups and minority voter registration efforts, using an “exact match” program to approve voter IDs, something that has aggravated minority Georgians and thrust the race into the national spotlight.

What does the polling say? Kemp consistently ekes out a narrow lead — currently averaging a 1.4-point advantage, per Real Clear Politics — but it’s also consistently close. The Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up.

Kansas: Kris Kobach vs. Laura Kelly

Who is the Republican? Kris Kobach edged out incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer in the GOP primary. The deeply divisive secretary of state of Kansas has been a leading immigration hawk for years, and he ran Trump’s much-ridiculed voter fraud commission.

Who is the Democrat? Laura Kelly, 68, has been a member of the Kansas Senate since 2005.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Laura Kelly is congratulated by supporters at her campaign party in Topeka moments after she won the Democratic primary on August 07, 2018.Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/TNS via Getty Images
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Laura Kelly is congratulated by supporters at her campaign party in Topeka moments after she won the Democratic primary on August 07, 2018.

How much does the state like Trump? Not as much as one would think. As in Georgia, Kansans have fallen steadily out of love with the president, with his net approval dropping from +24 in January 2017 to just +4 in 2018.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? Truly, what is the matter with Kansas? Things are strange here. Despite being a Democrat, Kelly has attracted the backing of key state Republicans, including former GOP Gov. Bill Graves, endorsing a Democratic candidate for the first time ever. The state budget has been in crisis for years now after Sam Brownback’s disastrous economic policies.

Kobach, though, is sticking to the Trumpist base. His conservative credentials on immigration and voter fraud particularly are the foundation of his campaign. Yet, with Trump’s low-ish approval ratings in the state, that’s a problem for Kobach as much as it helps him. The question is how many crossover voters there really are.

What does the polling say? It’s incredibly close. Kobach and Kelly have traded 1-point leads in the most recent surveys. The presence of a credible independent candidate, Greg Orman, who ran for Senate in 2014 and who’s getting 10 percent of the vote in the polling, adds another wrinkle. Cook rates it a toss-up.

Wisconsin: Scott Walker vs. Tony Evers

Who is the Republican? Incumbent Gov. Scott Walker, residing in the governor’s mansion since 2011, is looking at a third term after a brief presidential campaign stunt two years ago. Wisconsin Republicans like to think he is unbeatable, but 2018 will be the biggest test for an incumbent who already won a recall election and one reelection.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and President Trump arrive at a groundbreaking for the Foxconn plant on  June 28, 2018 in Mt. Pleasant, Wis.Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and President Trump arrive at a groundbreaking for the Foxconn plant on June 28, 2018 in Mt. Pleasant, Wis.

Who is the Democrat? Walker’s challenger is Tony Evers, a 66-year-old cancer survivor who has been the state schools superintendent for the last decade.

How much does the state like Trump? Trump is sagging in the Badger State, with 54 percent of Wisconsin voters disapproving of his job performance. Just 42 percent approve.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? Walker has built a long, conservative record as governor, most notably the union crackdown that prompted the recall effort against him in 2011. He is presently trying to institute work requirements and drug testing for Medicaid. A divisive economic development project for multinational FoxConn, undertaken in tandem with the Trump administration, will also be a major issue in the November general election.

Evers isn’t a particularly strong candidate, but he is a familiar face with a long record of public service. Trump is also unpopular, Democrats have won some stunning special election victories here, and the party is eager to oust Walker after two prior failures. If Wisconsinites are looking for change in the Trump era, that could be the best chance for Democrats to beat Walker.

What does the polling say? Evers is polling well, building up Democratic hopes that they can finally extinguish the Walker boogeyman. He currently has a 2-point average lead, per RCP. Cook rates it a toss-up.

Ohio: Mike DeWine vs. Richard Cordray

Who is the Republican? Incumbent Gov. John Kasich is term-limited. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former US senator, is the Republican running to replace him.

Who is the Democrat? Richard Cordray, former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Obama. The wonky, progressive wing of the party — the Elizabeth Warren wing, you could say — loves him.

Former President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Ohio Gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, on September 13, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio.Angelo Merendino/Getty Images
Former President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Ohio Gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, on September 13, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio.

How much does the state like Trump? Ohio was one of four states — along with New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Nevada — in which Trump had a double-digit positive net approval rating at the time of his inauguration that has now dropped to a negative score. He’s at 46 percent approval, 49 percent disapproval.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? History is repeating itself: The two candidates first competed to be Ohio’s attorney general back in 2010, with DeWine defeating the incumbent Cordray by a narrow 2-point margin in a GOP wave year. They find themselves in another toss-up race.

But this gubernatorial campaign doesn’t promise many surprises. DeWine and Cordray have a combined 63 years in the public eye, and they’ve each focused on the same strengths they have for decades now in all three debates they appeared in: health care and consumer protection for Cordray, crime and business development for DeWine. The opioid crisis has hit the Buckeye State especially hard too, in one of the rare Republican Medicaid expansion states.

DeWine is trying to keep some distance from Trump — the popular Kasich has notoriously been one of the president’s biggest GOP critics — portraying himself as the GOP’s “adult in the room” to set himself apart during some of the president’s more imprudent moments.

What does the polling say? Ohio took a strong red turn in 2016, but Cordray looks competitive. He’s currently holding a 2.4-point lead on average in the polls. Ohio would be a monumental win for Democrats after the Buckeye State swung so hard toward Trump; Cook says it’s a toss-up.

South Dakota: Kristi Noem vs. Billie Sutton

Who is the Republican? Again, incumbent Gov. Dennis Daugaard cannot seek reelection, leaving US Rep. Kristi Noem to battle for the seat.

Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), speaks during a news conference in the Capitol after the House passed the the GOP’s tax reform bill on November 16, 2017.Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), speaks during a news conference in the Capitol after the House passed the the GOP’s tax reform bill on November 16, 2017.

Who is the Democrat? Billie Sutton, the state Senate minority leader and a former professional bronco rider.

How much does the state like Trump? Still a whole lot. The state witnessed one of the lowest decreases in Trump’s total approval rate (from 54 to 51 percent in two years), but the president’s dissenters also slightly rose in numbers, nearly hitting 45 percent. Trump carried the state by nearly 36 points in 2016.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? Noem, a proven winner in South Dakota elections, agrees with the president on 92.1 percent of the votes in the House. She is a Republican woman looking for a promotion in a year so far defined more by the enthusiasm of Democratic women.

Sutton strongly supported Clinton two years ago. He is considered a moderate Democrat — for gun rights and against abortion, per VoteSmart.org — and is campaigning with a moving personal narrative after a rodeo accident 11 years ago left him in a wheelchair.

What does the polling say? Though a poll more than a year ago saw Noem 13 points ahead of Sutton, the Democratic nominee seems to have covered a lot of ground in 12 months, recently polling 3 points ahead of the GOP candidate. Previously leaning Republican, the state is now rated a toss-up by Cook.

Iowa: Kim Reynolds vs. Fred Hubbell

Who is the Republican? After Trump nominated Gov. Terry Branstad to become the US ambassador to China following his election in 2016, Lieutenant Gov. Kim Reynolds assumed the position. Moving to the general election unchallenged in the primary, Reynolds is now looking to win outright as the first female governor of the state.

Who is the Democrat? Businessman Fred Hubbell. He is looking to unseat Reynolds after cruising through an easy Democratic primary, in which he won more than 55 percent of the vote.

Fred Hubbell, Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa, speaks to supporters at a get-out-the-vote rally on October 8, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa.Scott Olson/Getty Images
Fred Hubbell, Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa, speaks to supporters at a get-out-the-vote rally on October 8, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa.

How much does the state like Trump? Trump carried the state in 2016 with the largest margin by a Republican president since Ronald Reagan. But now, just 44 percent of Iowa voters approve of his job performance.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? Local media have long predicted this would be the state’s most expensive gubernatorial race to date: Hubbell is a strong fundraiser, and Reynolds promised to be a well-funded incumbent.

Democrats have looked unexpectedly strong in Iowa in 2018, where they could also pick up several House seats. Hubbell is pouring a lot of his own money into the campaign, and it’s paid off; the Cook Political Report previously put the governor race in the Lean Republican column, but now it’s considered a toss-up,

What does the polling say? Hubbell has built a 3.5-point average lead in the polls, according to RCP.

Oregon: Kate Brown vs. Knute Buehler

Who is the Republican? The last Republican governor in Oregon was elected in 1982. Knute Buehler, currently in the Oregon House of Representatives, could make some history.

Oregon gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler speaks during a news conference in Portland, Ore on Sept. 19, 2012.Don Ryan/AP
Oregon gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler speaks during a news conference in Portland, Ore on Sept. 19, 2012.

Who is the Democrat? Kate Brown got the job in 2015 after John Kitzhaber resigned. Her win in Oregon’s special election the following year made her the first openly LGBTQ person to be elected a US governor. She now seeks a full second term.

How much does the state like Trump? Oregon, as solidly blue as states come in presidential elections, doesn’t really like Trump: The president has a 38-percent approval rating. Buehler has notably positioned himself as a moderate GOP to put some distance between himself and some of Trump’s most conservative, controversial views.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? Oregon is a good reminder that, whatever the national environment, the state of the state will have a big impact on these elections too.

Brown has been criticized by Republican s for a “low-profile leadership” and for failing to provide solutions for the state’s ongoing homelessness crises and a pension program with $22 billion in debt. Her approval rating is just 44 percent, with 41 percent disapproving.

Buehler diverges from the typical Republican on some issues, vouching he’ll protect abortion rights and same-sex marriage and increase the standard of living — all in a state that sees a big discrepancy between big cities like Portland and farming communities in the rural areas.

What does the polling say? Brown can’t seem to break out of a narrow lead over Buehler, clinging to a 3.7-point lead in the polling average, but Cook still says the race leans toward the Democrats.

Florida: Ron DeSantis vs. Andrew Gillum

Who is the Republican? Incumbent Gov. Rick Scott’s second term has ended, so he’s decided to take a shot at the Senate next. Ron DeSantis, a three-time congressman who personally lobbied Trump for an endorsement, is running to replace him.

Who is the Democrat? Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum. Before assuming office in 2014, he served on the Tallahassee City Commission, first elected at age 23.

Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for Florida Governor, greets people during a campaign rally on August 31, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for Florida Governor, greets people during a campaign rally on August 31, 2018 in Orlando, Florida.

How much does the state like Trump? Florida is always evenly divided, and Trump’s 49 percent approval/47 percent disapproval ratings reflect that.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? DeSantis is all-in on Trump, airing ads of he and his daughter building the president’s wall with Mexico and his son wearing a “Make America Great Again” onesie. He’s also dealt with constant questions about his associations with white nationalists.

Gillum, on the other hand, is the first black Floridian to be nominated for governor. He already had the backing of Bernie Sanders and, more recently, received former President Barack Obama’s blessing. His campaign is haunted by an FBI investigation into corruption in Tallahassee (Gillum has not been implicated), but as a young, exciting candidate who could motivate less-frequent voters, his campaign is a good proxy for the scale of Democratic voter enthusiasm in 2018.

What does the polling say? Gillum has polled strongly, with a slim but persistent lead. It works out to an average 3.7 point advantage, per RCP. Another toss-up, according to Cook.

New Mexico: Steve Pearce vs. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Who is the Republican? Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is leaving office, so US Rep. Steve Pearce has stepped up to keep New Mexico’s governor seat in the party’s control.

Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), participates in a scrimmage between Republican team members at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy on June 13, 2016. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), participates in a scrimmage between Republican team members at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy on June 13, 2016.

Who is the Democrat? Another member of the House and chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus: Michelle Lujan Grisham is the Democratic nominee.

How much does the state like Trump? Hard pass. New Mexico is currently ranked as the state with the largest drop in Trump’s net approval rate since his inauguration: 31 points down to just a 34 percent approval rating. And that’s after Hillary Clinton beat Trump pretty easily here in 2016.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? Democrats should have the edge here: New Mexico is becoming more blue in the Trump era, and Martinez isn’t a very popular outgoing governor, with just a 35 percent approval rating. Lujan Grisham is a solid candidate who has won her elections to the House with ease.

Pearce is trying to walk a line, like so many Republicans in the midterms, between not abandoning Trump (for fear the conservative base would then abandon him) while reassuring his voters that he won’t hesitate to challenge the president when circumstances demand it.

Whichever case, both candidates expressed concern over the same issues during their debate in September, stressing the importance of reviving the state economy. New Mexico has the second-highest rate of poverty after Mississippi.

What does the polling say? Lujan Grisham has a comfortable lead against Pearce, polling an average 7.4 points ahead of him, according to RCP.

Connecticut: Ned Lamont vs. Bob Stefanowski

Who is the Republican? Trump-endorsed Bob Stefanowski, another mega-businessman and former executive of firms like General Electric, UBS, and Dollar Financial Group.

Who is the Democrat? Connecticut doesn’t have governor term limits, but incumbent Dannel Malloy has decided to retire. Ned Lamont, a Greenwich city official and former Senate nominee, has instead taken his place as the Democratic standard-bearer.

Democratic Party candidate Ned Lamont, speaks to the media after a gubernatorial debate at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., on Sept. 26, 2018. Jessica Hill/AP
Democratic Party candidate Ned Lamont, speaks to the media after a gubernatorial debate at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., on Sept. 26, 2018.

How much does the state like Trump? Less than 40 percent of the state backs Trump in this solidly blue state. But voters have also turned against Malloy after eight years of Democratic rule; he has one of the worst approval ratings in the country.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? The state’s biggest issue in this election is its slow-growth economy, so there’s no surprise both candidates have focused on tackling it in their respective platforms. Stefanowski, with his strong business background that’s made him millions, has vaguely said he’ll “root out government waste,” while Lamont has provided a more detailed agenda in how he’ll reform state taxes.

Lamont has already lost a few elections here, though, including a former bid for governor. However, the state’s Democratic races in the House are looking very strong — with FiveThirtyEight giving Republicans virtually no chance of winning a seat — so Lamont could benefit from voter enthusiasm to defeat Stefanowski.

What does the polling say? The latest poll gave Lamont an 8-point lead over his GOP opponent. Cook, though, ranks the race as a toss-up.

Alaska: Bill Walker vs. Mike Dunleavy vs. Mark Begich

Who is the Republican? Mike Dunleavy, who has been a member of the Alaska Senate since 2013.

Who is the Democrat? Former US Sen. Mark Begich, who has also served as mayor of Anchorage, the state’s largest city.

Oh wait, who is the independent incumbent? Gov. Bill Walker, the only independent governor in the United States, is seeking a second term.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker poses for a photo before the start of a gubernatorial candidate forum on Oct. 2, 2018, in Juneau, Alaska.Becky Bohrer/AP
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker poses for a photo before the start of a gubernatorial candidate forum on Oct. 2, 2018, in Juneau, Alaska.

How much does the state like Trump? Alaskans have mellowed on Trump since the 2016 election, when Trump beat Hillary Clinton by double digits, but 48 percent of Alaskans still hold a positive view of the president, per Morning Consult.

What’s interesting about this race, anyway? Winter is coming for Walker, who is deeply unpopular. Only 29 percent of the state’s voters approve of his job performance, according to Morning Consult. A surge in property crime and financial troubles for the state’s unique quasi-universal basic income program have hampered Walker’s standing in the state.

Alaska is one of the GOP’s best chances to reclaim a governor’s seat: Cook Political Report rates the race Lean Republican. Democrats and independents in the state are worried that a split vote between Begich and Walker could leave a wide opening for Dunleavy to get elected, even with well under 50 percent of the vote.

What does the polling say? Dunleavy is the clear frontrunner in the race, edging out Walker and Begich by more than 15 points in every poll that has been conducted so far, per RCP. But Alaska is notoriously hard to survey, and the three-way nature of the race makes it more unpredictable. Cook considers it a toss-up.