Feature

The silver lining for Democrats in 2014: Governors' races

Republicans may take the Senate, but they're expected to suffer some high-profile losses at the state level

Election Day is finally here, and Democrats seem headed for a resounding defeat. The party is projected to lose control of the Senate for the first time since 2006, while also shedding some House seats, potentially resulting in the most GOP-heavy Congress since 1929.

On a national level, Democrats are probably screwed. Yet there is one area where the party can feel optimistic heading into election night: gubernatorial races.

There are 36 gubernatorial races this midterm cycle. And though there is a high degree of uncertainty to them — 14 are considered toss-ups, per The Cook Political Report — the map gives Democrats a slight built-in advantage.

Republicans have a natural edge in the battle for the Senate this year because Democrats have far more territory to defend. In 2008, a Democratic wave helped the party pick up eight seats, some of them in red or purple territory, while staving off defeat for vulnerable incumbents.

The opposite is true in this year's gubernatorial contests. The 2010 "shellacking" that helped Republicans pick up 63 seats in the House also saw the party flip six governors' mansions to GOP control. Of the 14 toss-up gubernatorial races this year, only three involve incumbent Democrats; seven feature incumbent Republicans. (The remaining four are open contests.)

Of the races with GOP incumbents, Democrats stand a strong chance of winning Maine and Pennsylvania, where first-term Republicans Paul LePage and Tom Corbett, respectively, are two of the most unpopular governors in the nation. Though LePage could squeak back into office thanks to a three-way race, Corbett needs a miracle to avoid getting blown out by double digits.

Election forecasts also show Democrats leading unpopular GOP incumbents in Kansas and Florida, while barely trailing in Wisconsin and Michigan. Then there's Alaska, where a "unity ticket" between Independent Bill Walker and Democrat Byron Mallott has pulled ahead of Gov. Sean Parnell (R).

To be sure, Democrats could lose their hold on a few states. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) is extremely vulnerable, and open races in Massachusetts and Arkansas, where Democrats are leaving office, are tilted against the party. But Democrats still have more opportunities for gain, and FiveThirtyEight's forecasting model projects them to flip five states — counting Alaska — while losing two.

Democrats should also feel optimistic about the gubernatorial picture because the individual races suggest their message is resonating — and that it will continue ringing true in 2016.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the midterms are not shaping up to be a refutation of progressive policy. You can see this in the gubernatorial races, where GOP incumbents who oversaw vast conservative experiments are being rejected as too extreme by their states' voters.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott pushed to drug-test welfare recipients — a program federal courts rejected as unconstitutional — and proposed slashing education spending by $3.3 billion in his first budget. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, aided by huge majorities in the state legislature, implemented an ultraconservative agenda that torpedoed the state's finances and left it facing hundreds of millions of dollars in projected budget shortfalls. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rammed through union-busting legislation that sparked months of protests inside the Wisconsin Capitol and nearly cost him his job in a recall campaign.

Moreover, almost every embattled Republican rejected in principle, or resisted until it became politically unfeasible, ObamaCare's popular Medicaid expansion. Meanwhile, other conservative governors who accepted the expansion— notably, once-embattled Ohio Gov. John Kasich — are coasting to re-election.

Walker's dicey re-election prospects should particularly hearten Democrats, as he's seen on the right as a test case of whether their more hard-line policies can fly with voters. If he loses, it will serve as a warning to other GOP policymakers to hew closer to the middle.

"Walker represents not just the future of Wisconsin, but the future of our party," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told Slate, adding that if the GOP takes the Senate but Walker loses, "That's not a good night."

Democrats will almost certainly open the next session of Congress in the minority, but with more governors' mansions under their control. Given that governorships can play a crucial role in presidential elections, and that Congress is probably not going to get much done in the next two years anyway, that's not a terrible position to be in with 2016 coming around the corner.

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