Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Three Reasons Why There Are So Many Republican Governors

A recent analysis by Matthew Yglesias notes that the current Democratic hold on the White House masks much deeper partisan weakness at the congressional and, especially, state level. Republicans currently control both the governorship and state legislature in fully half (25) of the states, while just 7 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont) remain under unified Democratic rule. (In the remaining states, power is divided between the parties.) Yglesias concludes that the Democrats are in "deep trouble" as a party and need to formulate a strategic plan to regain electoral strength in non-presidential contests. In response, Phil Klinkner argues that such trends simply reflect the historical tendency of the president's party to suffer significant losses in midterm elections; if and when Democrats lose the presidency, they will likely make compensatory gains at the state level.

There is much to say about this topic, but I will focus today on the partisan control of state governorships, where Republicans hold a pronounced advantage. There are currently 31 Republican governors, just 18 Democrats, and one independent (Bill Walker of Alaska, who was elected with Democratic support). Three main reasons explain why 62 percent of the states are now governed by members of the GOP:

1. There are more red states than blue states, and especially more deep red states than deep blue states. The Cook Partisan Voting Index, a measure of state partisanship that denotes how many more percentage points a state voted in either the Democratic or Republican direction than the national outcome in the last two presidential elections, reveals that 21 states are more Republican than the nation as a whole by a margin of more than 5 points; 13 of these states are more than 10 points redder than the national electorate. By comparison, just 12 states have a Cook PVI of more than 5 points in the Democratic direction, only 4 of which (Hawaii, New York, Vermont, and Rhode Island) are more than 10 points bluer than the nation itself.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, states often departed from their normal partisan alignments in presidential elections when choosing governors and other state officials—especially in the South, where substantial Democratic strength in state politics endured long after the region shifted decisively toward the GOP in presidential contests. But American voters are now highly likely to support the candidates of a single party across multiple elective offices, and the growing partisan polarization of state-level electoral outcomes has produced a flotilla of securely red states stretching across the South and interior West. For example, Republican voters in states like Nebraska, Wyoming, and Kansas once crossed party lines to elect Democratic governors with some regularity, but this tendency has become rare in the strongly partisan contemporary electoral climate.

2. Most purple states swung to the Democrats in 2008 and 2012, but to the Republicans in 2010 and 2014. The nation's most politically competitive states, almost all of which narrowly supported Obama in both of his presidential victories, largely shifted in the opposite partisan direction when their own governorships were up for election two years later, in a manner consistent with Klinkner's description of a thermostatic reaction against the presidential party. (The weak national economy that benefited Obama in 2008 also surely contributed to the 2010 losses of numerous incumbent state-level Democrats who had been swept into office by the anti-Bush wave of 2006.) In the 2010 midterms, Republicans defeated or succeeded sitting Democratic governors in the purple states of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Iowa while narrowly retaining the Florida governorship as well; except for Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, who was damaged politically by accusations of receiving improper gifts and by his maladroit handling of the Penn State football scandal, all of these new Republican governors won second terms in 2014—buoyed in part by the same economic recovery that had assisted Obama's reelection two years before.

3. Republicans found good electoral fortune in blue states. Sometimes sheer luck simply favors one party or the other at any given time. For example, Democrats achieved a filibuster-proof Senate majority in 2009, which was ultimately critical to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, by exploiting what later turned out to be a tainted criminal conviction secured by prosecutorial misconduct in Alaska and by winning a statewide recount in Minnesota by a margin of 0.01 percent. More recently, Republicans have enjoyed the opportunity to run against an unusually high number of unpopular Democratic incumbents or weak Democratic challengers in traditionally blue states, including Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, Anthony Brown in Maryland, Jon Corzine in New Jersey, and Pat Quinn in Illinois. In addition, left-leaning Maine has twice elected Tea Party Republican Paul LePage to the governorship by a popular plurality due to the presence of a spoiler candidate who split the Democratic vote in both 2010 and 2014.


Reasons 2 and 3 for the Republican gubernatorial advantage almost certainly reflect temporary factors that will swing back in the Democrats' favor sooner or later. Popular Republican incumbents in purple states will be termed out of office, Democratic candidates will improve in quality (or it will be the Republicans' turn to squander a series of winnable races by selecting especially unattractive nominees, as they may have done this year in Kentucky and Louisiana), and an eventual Republican presidential administration will provoke a midterm backlash that will benefit the Democratic opposition. It is the first factor—the preponderance of red states over blue states—that represents the most serious long-term obstacle to majority Democratic control of state governorships. The political "reddening" of the South and interior West over the past 25 years is primarily due to the prevailing cultural conservatism of these regions' inhabitants, which has increasingly bolstered popular support for the Republican Party up and down the ballot. The suggestion that national Democratic leaders do what they can to remedy this serious electoral vulnerability is no doubt sensible; assuming that they are unlikely to renounce their party's increasingly liberal positions on social issues, however, it may be hard to find a simple solution to the Democrats' red-state blues.