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Mixed Results for Democrats in Battleground Governors Races

The state capitol building in Florida.

The state capitol building in Florida. Shutterstock

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Democrats picked up seven seats, but also lost a few competitive races.

Democrats on Tuesday scored victories in some hotly contested gubernatorial races around the U.S., but also saw their hopes dashed in other close contests.

Heading into Election Day, they faced a steep deficit compared to the GOP when it came to the control of governorships—33 were held by Republicans, 16 by Democrats, and one by an independent. Thirty-six governor's races were on the ballot on Tuesday.

The election's outcome promised to recalibrate that balance of power. Based on preliminary results Wednesday morning, Democrats were poised to take over at least seven state executive posts from the GOP in states including Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Maine and Wisconsin. In two of those races, Democrats were able to knock off incumbents: Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

But they also did not pull off wins in states like Florida and Ohio that Democrats had been eager to claim. 

As of Wednesday morning, only the Georgia race remained too close to call. In that high-profile match, Stacey Abrams, a Democratic former state legislator vying to become the nation's first black, female governor, trailed just behind Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. But early in the morning, Abrams told supporters she was not ready to concede. There were reports in parts of Georgia of long lines at polling places and problems with voting machines.

Below is a roundup of the results in some of the key races. 

Florida: Former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, narrowly defeated Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, viewed as a potential rising star in the Democratic party. Unofficial voting results, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, showed DeSantis leading, 49.9 to 48.9. During the campaign, Hurricane Michael struck the Florida panhandle and, just last week, a gunman shot six people in a yoga studio in Tallahassee. President Trump had endorsed DeSantis. DeSantis will replace two-term Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who ran to unseat Florida’s incumbent Democratic U.S. senator, Bill Nelson.

Illinois: Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, lost his bid for re-election to Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire who is the heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune. The contest was billed as one of the most expensive races for governor in U.S. history. Since Rauner won the role in 2014, he has at times butted heads with leaders in the state legislature, including during a budget crisis that lasted from 2015 to 2017. That situation left some agencies short on cash and hurt the state's credit rating. Illinois continues to face heavy pension obligations. Pritzker has promised to fix a budget deficit, estimated to be in the ballpark of $1.2 billion for the current fiscal year, by “modernizing the states tax code” and raising revenue. He also says he will expand health care by enacting what he calls “IllinoisCares,” allowing residents to buy into the state’s Medicaid system.

Kansas: Laura Kelly, a state senator who hails from a district in the Topeka area, defeated Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Former-Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, left the post earlier this year to become an ambassador for the Trump administration. Tax cuts enacted under Brownback have been blamed for budget shortfalls the state has faced in recent years. The state’s fiscal difficulties, combined with promises of a moderate approach to governing, earned Kelly the endorsement of key Republicans in Kansas, including former Gov. Bill Graves. In contrast, Kobach ran a campaign that promised to restore tax cuts and shrink government. In recent years, he gained national attention as a hardliner on immigration and voter fraud (he served as vice chair of President Trump’s short-lived Advisory Commission on Election Integrity). Kelly supports expanding Medicaid in the state, a policy that was previously vetoed by Brownback.

Michigan: Democratic candidate Gretchen Whitmer was able to defeat Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to succeed outgoing Republican Rick Snyder as chief executive of the Wolverine State. Whitmer is a former Michigan Senate Democratic leader and also served as an interim Ingham County prosecutor. She ran as a centrist problem-solver who will work across the aisle, touting her work with Snyder in rounding up enough votes in the Legislature to expand Medicaid. Schuette as attorney general opposed the expansion. Whitmer says she will focus on bolstering infrastructure and education, and she supports universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds in the state. She has also been a vocal critic of so-called “right-to-work” efforts in Michigan that curb the power of unions.

Ohio: Republican state Attorney General Mike DeWine defeated Democrat Richard Cordray, who served as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from 2012 to 2017. DeWine succeeds GOP Gov. John Kasich, who’s been critical of President Trump and is seen as a possible 2020 presidential candidate. Trump campaigned with DeWine the evening before the election—though the candidate neither supports nor rejects the president—arguing “radical Democrats” would “take a wrecking ball to our economy.”

Maine: State Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, is poised to replace Gov. Paul LePage, a pugnacious Republican whose two terms have been at times punctuated by controversial remarks and policy positions. Mills bested GOP candidate Shawn Moody, a businessman who built up a chain of auto collision repair shops. Cutting red tape and government spending, and pushing to lower the state income tax were some of the issues Moody included in his platform. Mills, who will become the state's first female governor, emphasized health care, and says she wants to expand Medicaid. She has also voiced support for implementing a universal pre-K program and developing wind power facilities offshore. LePage has plans to move to Florida.

New Mexico: Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who has represented New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, which encompasses an area in and around Albuquerque, defeated Steve Pearce, also a congressional representative for the state. Pearce argued that crime, poverty and problems with education were driving people and businesses out of the state, and vowed to address those issues. Boosting the state’s economy was a central theme in Lujan Grisham’s campaign. New Mexico had the second-highest poverty rate among states last year, according to recently released Census Bureau data. Lujan Grisham will replace Republican Susana Martinez. A Morning Consult poll from last month showed that Martinez had the sixth highest disapproval rate among governors, at 54 percent.

Iowa: In one of the most expensive races for governor in Iowa’s history, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds held off a challenge from Democrat Fred Hubbell. Reynolds, then lieutenant governor, took over as governor in 2017 after Terry Branstad left the job to take a post as U.S. ambassador to China. Hubbell was previously the chairman of a department store chain that was part of a company owned by his wealthy family. Iowa’s decision in 2016, when Branstad was governor, to shift administration of the state’s Medicaid program to the private sector was among the contentious issues debated during the race. Reynolds defended the move, while Hubbell criticized both it and how Reynolds handled the program.

New Hampshire: Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, was re-elected to a second two-year term in the Granite State. Sununu has generally had positive approval ratings during his tenure. He faced a challenge from Democratic candidate Molly Kelly, a former member of the New Hampshire state Senate. Sununu won endorsements from major papers in the state for his mix of fiscal conservatism with socially liberal policies. The state’s fiscal condition and economy have been humming along during his tenure, with 33 consecutive months of unemployment below 3 percent.

Wisconsin: Democrat Tony Evers narrowly ousted incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who was seeking a third term. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Evers had captured 49.6 percent of the vote, and Walker 48.5 percent. The Associated Press called the race for Evers based on the unofficial results. Evers is Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction and has advocated recently for about $1.4 billion in additional public education funds. Walker cut school aid early in his time in office, but it was ramped back up in the years that followed. Some of Walker’s more controversial policies have targeted labor unions. Evers during the campaign proposed a middle class a tax cut. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016, but the state previously backed former President Barack Obama in 2012.

Nevada: Democrat Steve Sisolak, chairman of the county commission in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, beat Republican Adam Laxalt, the state’s attorney general. Laxalt is part of a family with a storied history in politics—his father and grandfather were both U.S. senators. In his pitch to voters, Laxalt warned that if Democrats gained control in the state they would implement “left-wing policies that you see in California.” A key plank in Sisolak’s platform was improving education, including reducing class sizes and hiking teacher pay. Laxalt said he wanted to roll back a business tax meant to help fund schools. Outgoing GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, who backed that tax, declined to endorse Laxalt. President Trump, however, did support the Republican candidate.

Connecticut: Democrat Ned Lamont edged out  Republican Bob Stefanowski in what turned into a tight race to lead a state that has struggled with significant budget problems. His win, which was called Wednesday morning, means Democrats hold onto the governorship despite incumbent Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy’s overwhelming unpopularity. Lamont, a wealthy businessman, had a strong lead over the summer, which shrunk as the election approached. Stefanowski, a former bank chief financial officer, campaigned on a pledge to phase out the state income tax, as well as other taxes. Lamont offered a more measured agenda, such as property tax reform and attracting businesses to the state. The race also featured an independent candidate, Oz Griebel, who picked up a small, but noticeable, portion of the vote.

Alaska: The gubernatorial race here tightened last month when the incumbent, Gov. Bill Walker, an Independent, unexpectedly dropped out and backed Democrat Mark Begich. But that was not enough to tip the race in Begich’s favor. Preliminary results showed GOP candidate Mike Dunleavy on track to win with 45 percent of the vote as of Wednesday morning. Begich was formerly the mayor of Anchorage and served a term in the U.S. Senate before losing a reelection bid in 2014. Dunleavy served previously in the Alaska State Senate. In a final debate, the two candidates sparred over Dunleavy’s plan to restore higher “dividend” check payments to Alaska residents from the state’s Permanent Fund, which is fueled by state revenues from the oil industry. Walker and lawmakers acted to restrict the payments in recent years as the state grappled with a budget shortfall.

This story was updated after publication to add some late results.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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