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In places like Michigan, they secured majorities in legislatures and hold governors’ offices. But the GOP still maintains greater sway in statehouses and the political rifts between blue and red states seem to be growing more ingrained.
Democrats defied precedent and solidified their power in several state capitols in Tuesday’s elections, but few of their gains came in deep Republican territory and were instead in states where party control was already split.
Still, Democrats touted their successes in an election cycle when rising inflation and an unpopular president in their party were expected to create headwinds. They held on to governorships in fiercely contested races in Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin, while Democratic nominees will succeed Republican governors in Maryland and Massachusetts. The party also defended open seats in Oregon and Pennsylvania while maintaining control of New York’s executive mansion after a late surge there by a GOP candidate.
Democrats will get a boost from wins in several state legislatures, too.
Their biggest pick-up was turning both chambers of the Michigan Legislature blue, at least in part because of competitive maps drawn by an independent redistricting commission. That will clear the way for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to move more aggressively in carrying out her agenda.
Democrats also took control of the Minnesota state Senate from Republicans, giving Democratic Gov. Tim Walz a more friendly forum in his second term. In Pennsylvania, Democrats are hoping they’ll pick up enough seats to take the state House.
“We had some history-making wins, and we defied expectations in a significant way,” said Noam Lee, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, in a call with reporters. “The historical standard for the president’s party in a midterm year is losing six governorships, and the last time the party of the president did not lose governorships in a midterm election was 1998.”
But, overall, political and policy divides among states will follow familiar fault lines. In fact, Republicans will continue to control both the governorship and legislature in more states than Democrats do.
Neither party had much luck knocking off incumbent governors. In fact, it appears that only one sitting governor – Nevada’s Steve Sisolak, a Democrat – is in danger of losing. Sisolak is trailing Republican nominee Joe Lombardo, but, as of Wednesday afternoon, The Associated Press has not called a winner. (Nevada allows mail-in ballots postmarked up until Election Day to be counted, if they arrive within a week.)
The race in Arizona also remains too close to call. In both those states, the incumbent did not run for re-election.
“The big picture, of course, is: nothing really changed that much,” said Chris Mooney, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Chicago. “We’ve gotten so polarized that you don’t have the random Democrat being elected in a Republican state and vice versa. Everybody’s got their teams and they’re running with them.”
Tuesday’s victories could empower Democratic incumbents, said Marshall Cohen, the DGA’s political director.
“Democratic governors in the last couple of years in a bunch of targeted states have shown how much they can accomplish even with a legislature controlled by the other party,” he said. “We’re really excited to see what they’re going to be able to do now that they have [full] control. … Getting things done for people is good politics, so our ability to do even more is going to be better politics.”
Lee, the DGA’s executive director, said the group spent a record of $182 million on gubernatorial campaigns this cycle, which he credited as a factor in helping the Democratic nominees win.
“Those resources that we were able to deploy completely changed the script of what we’re used to seeing in governor’s races, where for years and election cycles, we’ve been absolutely swamped by Republican spending,” he said. “We were able to outspend Republicans in every single race that was competitive this year.”
The Republican Governors Association did not respond to an interview request from Route Fifty on Wednesday.
But the group had its hands full, as it became a bulwark defending its members during the primary season against challengers backed by, or inspired by, former President Donald Trump. Later, the group spent significant money supporting the governors of traditionally Republican states Alaska and Oklahoma late in the election cycle.
The RGA, which is headed by outgoing Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, spent heavily to keep Arizona in GOP hands. Kari Lake, the Republican nominee, narrowly trails her Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, in returns.
Meanwhile, many of the most high-profile Republican governors ran up the score in their reelection bids Tuesday. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis beat his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, by nearly 20 percentage points while Republicans padded their legislative majorities in Tallahassee. (The RGA gave $20 million to DeSantis.)
Likewise, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott earned a third term by dispatching Democrat Beto O’Rourke by 11 percentage points. The GOP also added seats to its majorities in the Texas Legislature.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp fended off a rematch with Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams, even as the U.S. Senate race in the state headed to a runoff election.
Mooney, the political science professor, said the election results will leave the country bifurcated, with neither party running toward the center, because they’re seeing success catering to their own bases.
He gave the example of Republican candidates spreading disinformation about the 2020 presidential election and falsely claiming that Trump won that contest. Those stances played well in heavily Republican areas but seemed to harm candidates in swing states and especially in Democratic enclaves.
“There are some places where election denialism makes you a king. There are some places [where] it makes you look like a lunatic,” Mooney said.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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