Why upcoming state elections are crucial for presidential politics


National political attention has focused on the races with the most short-term 2018 impact: the battles for some 60 House seats and a dozen Senate seats that will determine if Democrats can regain control of one or both houses of Congress and start holding the Trump administration to account for its corruption and damaging policies.

But the most significant long-term impact will stem from the contests for 36 governorships, including the state of Florida, and 87 legislative bodies that will play a major role in redistricting congressional and legislative seats after the 2020 census.

Numerically, this year's gubernatorial results may be divided fairly evenly. But more important is the excellent prospect for Democrats to win virtually all of the nation's biggest states, reversing the results of 2010 and putting them in position to undo the one-sided congressional redistricting the GOP enacted after those successes. Most GOP victories may come in smaller states with fewer districts to reapportion.

Of the 10 biggest states, the Democrats are heavily favored to retain California, New York and Pennsylvania. They also hold North Carolina's governorship. Polls indicate they are favored to win in Illinois and Michigan, have a good chance in Florida and Ohio, and a possibility in Georgia. Texas is virtually certain to remain Republican.

That could give Democrats virtually every politically key state across the Midwest from Pennsylvania to Iowa, where Donald Trump won the presidency with inroads among Democrats. Gubernatorial victories will likely bring major Democratic legislative gains. Republicans currently control both houses in 21 states, including six crucial redistricting battlegrounds: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Virginia.

Trump carried all but one of the six in 2016, but all have generally been closely contested in recent elections. The GOP's post-2010 control of governorships and legislatures in those six states produced a 61-33 advantage in U.S. House seats. Meanwhile, though legislative battles receive far less attention than contests for the House, Senate and governorships, Republican strategists are concerned because they see the same Democratic enthusiasm there as in the more publicized races.

“There is more Democratic enthusiasm than I have seen in the last few cycles,” Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, said in an interview with The Hill. “That’s a reality I can't ignore.”

Gerrymandering is not a one-party practice. Maryland Democrats used their control of the governorship and legislature to draw favorable lines. Divided control in Illinois and New York required bipartisan compromises.

On the other hand, large Republican legislative majorities and control of the governorship in Texas has given the GOP a lopsided 25-11 GOP margin, though federal courts blocked even bigger gains.

In the 36 governorships being contested, Republicans hold 26, Democrats 9, and an independent 1 (Alaska). The GOP also holds 68 of the country's 99 legislative chambers, including Nebraska's unicameral body. Many smaller states are likely to remain Republican, and GOP governors likely to be re-elected include four moderates in states Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in 2016: The principal 2018 battlegrounds are the states with the biggest potential future impact on both legislative and congressional redistricting, including three where two-term GOP governors retired or are term-limited out.

In Florida, where the primaries are Tuesday, the likeliest Democrat, Gwen Graham, leads the leading Republican, Ron DeSantis. Current GOP Gov. Rick Scott is running for the Senate. In Ohio, early polls show Democrat Richard Cordray slightly ahead of Republican Mike DeWine to succeed Republican John Kasich.

Results of governors' races generally parallel those of congressional contests in midterm elections. In 2006, when Democrats regained both houses of Congress, they also won a majority of governorships; same for 2010. The only question this year seems to be how many state houses will turn blue in what looks like a good Democratic year, and how great the impact will be after 2020.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.