This election cycle has seen ample prognostication about Donald Trump’s impact on down-ballot races. Will Democrats reclaim the Senate—and if so, by how many seats? Some even wondered, albeit briefly, whether Democrats could win control of the lower chamber, where House Republicans hold a massive 247-188 majority. But no similar spotlight has been cast on gubernatorial campaigns, whose victors are empowered with awesome clout over health care, education, housing, the environment, law enforcement, and even death penalty pardons. They’re also among the most prominent politicians in the country, often assuming leadership roles in their parties and eventually competing for higher office.
So why haven’t we heard much about Democrats’ efforts to seize governorships, thereby reshaping progressive policy at the state level? The answer is as simple as it is troubling.
Just as in every presidential year, 2016 features only a dozen gubernatorial races, and most aren’t competitive. Thirty-six states elect their governors during off-years instead, including 16 of the 20 largest by population. (New Hampshire and Vermont both elect their governors to two-year terms.) That form of electoral staggering, which also affects races for the country’s 99 state legislatures, puts Democrats at a significant structural disadvantage in statewide campaigns. Republicans currently control the governor’s mansion in 31 states, and have total control in 23 of them.
The electorate is more conservative in non-presidential years because young people, racial minorities, and the poor—though reliable constituencies during media-saturated presidential campaigns—vanish during midterm elections. A voter pool stripped of these core groups spells doom for Democrats in gubernatorial as well as Senate races. By not showing up to vote, natural Democratic voters spot Republican politicians an enormous lead.
Case in point: You’ve likely read about Hillary’s vaunted “blue wall,” the 18 vote-rich states (plus the District of Columbia) that have gone Democratic in each presidential election since 1992. There are reasons to doubt the existence of a Democratic “electoral college edge”; but the fact remains that when they’re primed for maximum statewide voter turnout, these states have consistently rallied for both winning and losing Democrats for a quarter-century. By comparison, their gubernatorial records are pretty checkered.
Wisconsin, which probably would support the Democratic nominee even if she spat on a portrait of Vince Lombardi, famously elected Scott Walker three times in four years, essentially approving his evisceration of public-sector collective bargaining (in the state that invented it, no less). In neighboring Minnesota, home of liberal tribunes Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, Tim Pawlenty perfected the Republican move of raiding K–12 schools for money to cover up budget holes. Polls project Maryland to favor Clinton over Trump by roughly 30 points, but voters there shocked the world in 2014 by riding with Republican Larry Hogan. Massachusetts, of all states, has elected four Republican governors since 1990 and only one Democrat.
It goes on and on. New Yorkers toppled Mario Cuomo in favor of George Pataki; New Jerseyans gave a grateful nation the spectacle of Chris Christie’s Bridgegate immolation; Maine has elevated Trump-lite Paul LePage. Of all the “blue wall” states, only three—Oregon, Washington, and Delaware—have chosen Democratic governors with the same frequency that they’ve chosen Democratic presidents. Tellingly, both Washington and Delaware elect their governors on presidential years.
If off-year voters turn blue states into swing states, they also turn swing states into red states. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won Florida three times in their four presidential campaigns, when voter turnout averaged 74.5 percent. (A more comprehensive recount in 2000 would have handed the state to Al Gore that year as well, but that’s a different article.) But the last time a Democrat claimed the governor’s seat was in 1994, when beloved incumbent Lawton Chiles barely fended off Jeb Bush’s first candidacy. (Turnout that year was uncharacteristically high for a midterm race—66 percent—but it’s averaged just 50.2 percent since.) Similarly, Ohio supported Democratic nominees in 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012, but has only spent four years of the last 26 under a Democratic chief executive. During each of the last six gubernatorial elections, turnout plummeted far below the previous presidential race.
The costs of this yo-yoing voter participation has been astronomical. When Republicans have had unified control over statehouses, they’ve mostly run the same playbook: attack organized labor, pass voter ID laws, and rush through donor-friendly tax cuts. The Obamacare Medicaid expansion has been shot down by Republican governors in Maine, Florida, Wisconsin, and Georgia, all of whom could be defeated by Democratic challengers in presidential years. Even recalcitrant GOP legislatures in Virginia and Missouri have accomplished the same over the objections of Democratic governors. To make matters worse, the party’s political bench has been starved of state officeholders who might later move up the chain.
This is a devilishly difficult problem to remedy. In general, state authorities can’t move the date of elections without first amending their state constitutions. That tends to require supermajorities in state legislatures, which are in precious short supply for Democrats. Thankfully, there are 18 states that permit what are called “initiated constitutional amendments”—those passed through the ballot initiative process. This strategy is an expensive, complex proposition, since such referenda often must be approved by 60 percent of the state electorate, and even the process of getting them on the ballot can be enormously tricky.
Democrats in Michigan—a deep blue state laboring under the mismanagement of its Republican governor, Rick Snyder—kicked the tires earlier this year on a ballot initiative to reschedule statewide races for presidential cycles, but it came to nothing. Florida Democratic strategist Kevin Cate floated a plan after his party lost its fifth consecutive governor’s race in 2014. The idea generated plenty of buzz at the time, counting Senator Bill Nelson among its advocates. But it still hasn’t been acted upon.
What makes that inaction particularly puzzling is that half a century ago, Cate and Nelson’s own party was responsible for shuffling Florida’s elections in the first place. After an obscure Republican had ridden Richard Nixon’s presidential coattails to a surprisingly strong showing in the 1960 governor’s race, the then-dominant state Democrats maneuvered to protect their grip on the statehouse by decoupling presidential and gubernatorial races. Turnout was indeed markedly diminished in 1966, the first gubernatorial election held during the midterms. But the Democrats’ chicanery was no match for the wave of segregationist voters abandoning their party for the GOP, and in 1966 Claude Kirk was elected the first Republican governor of the state since Reconstruction.
It’s time for national Democrats to follow their own example and prioritize the power of election schedules. Only this time, they should aim to expand the electorate, not narrow it.