The Battle for Congress Will Be Fought In The States This November
If you’ve picked up a newspaper, watched the cable news channels, or read any political blogs since the various state primaries on Tuesday, you know a lot of attention has been paid to this year’s congressional races in states like California and New Jersey where Democrats are hoping to pick up seats in Congress. (Generally speaking, the Democrats will be pleased with Tuesday’s outcomes, where party-backed candidates fended off threats from both the left and California’s jungle primary system.) Though these elections are undoubtedly important, we’ll focus this week on the 2018 gubernatorial races, which, somewhat counterintuitively, could impact federal policymaking for the next 10 to 12 years.
You might ask how governors – the leaders of state governments - will have such an outsized impact on national politics. The answer lies in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which calls for members of Congress to be apportioned to each state based on their population. The chief state executives elected this fall, presuming they serve a full four-year term, will therefore be responsible for ultimately signing off on the constitutionally-mandated Congressional redistricting effort after the 2020 Census.
Political influence on redistricting can be significant. According to NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, one of the foremost authorities on redistricting and gerrymandering, the rebalancing that happened after the 2010 Census “may have changed which party won the election in at least 26 House districts” (out of a total of 435) and probably allowed Republicans, who held the House in 2012, to keep six more seats than they would have held if the old, pre-2010 Census lines had been in place. Though there are many critics of political interference in reapportionment, creatively-drawn, politically-influenced Congressional districts have launched quite a few politicians’’ careers. current Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) into her Illinois House seat and it helped Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows (R-NC) defeat the Democrat running for former Rep. Heath Shuler’s (D-NC) old seat in Congress.
Just how good is it to be a governor in the year after a Census? Historically, in states where Republicans controlled the redistricting process, they likely won 11 more seats in total than they would have without the constitutionally-mandated redistricting. Five of the seven states that are expected to gain seats after the Census as a result of population growth in the last decade—Arizona Colorado, Florida, Oregon, and Texas—are holding gubernatorial elections this November. So are seven of the nine states—Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island—that are expected to lose congressional seats. The newly-elected governors of these states will have a significant impact on their states’ representation in Congress.
Of course, these governors will have to work with their state lawmakers to shape the Congressional districts. Republicans currently command 32 of the country's 50 state legislatures while Democrats control 14. (Four are split between the parties.) Democrats are in a good position to take back several governors’ mansions in November. Republicans are defending 26 of their 33 governorships while just nine of Democrats’ 16 seats are in play. (Alaska’s Gov. Bill Walker, an Independent, is also running for reelection this year.)
According to Larry Sabato, the don of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Democrats are poised to capitalize on this numerical advantage:
Democrats should easily retain California, Hawaii, New York, Pennsylvania, and Oregon. Rhode Island currently looks to be leaning Democratic, as well. That leaves just three Democratic seats—Colorado, Connecticut, and Minnesota—in the toss-up category. There’s no incumbent running in those states, but Hillary Clinton won each of these states in 2016. If Democrats retain those Hillary states, Republicans would be left with no pickups.
Though the GOP governorships are safe in fourteen states, others will be more difficult for them to retain. In Maine and New Mexico, for example, where the party’s incumbents are not on the ballot, the race currently favors the Democrats. Additionally, incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, a budget cutter and the bane of state teachers’ unions, is in a very tough reelection fight against Democrat J.B. Pritzker in Illinois.
That leaves nine remaining gubernatorial races in current GOP-held states whose outcome could go either way in November, which could lead to significant Democratic gains at the state level come Election Day. If current polling holds, the impact of these gubernatorial elections wouldn’t be felt only in statehouses across the country, but in the U.S. House of Representatives beginning in 2022.