Washington’s eyes have mostly been on the battle for the Senate this year, but the 36 governor’s seats up in the states offer more uncertainty going into Election Day. 

Republicans are defending 22 seats, and as many as eight Republican incumbents are in close races at risk of losing their jobs. But Republicans have plenty of pick-up opportunities as well, many in races with open seats, including several in northeastern states. Democrats look fairly certain to lose Arkansas, and Republicans to lose Pennsylvania. Beyond that, with around a dozen down-to-the-wire races, election night could hold some real surprises. Here are five things to watch.

A GOP Wave?


While the battle for the Senate is being fought largely in red states, governor’s battlegrounds extend through the blue Northeast. If Republicans are winning there, it could be a sign that the GOP is in for a big night across the board. 

Maryland, once thought to be fairly safe for Democrats, has turned into a tight race, with Democratic heavyweights like President Obama and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much GOP challenger seizes on outrage against Massie Juan Williams: Mueller, one year on MORE arriving for rallies to try to shore up Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown against Republican businessman Larry Hogan. In Massachusetts, Republican former health insurance executive Charlie Baker is leading narrowly over Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley, famous for her 2010 Senate loss to Scott Brown. 

Democrats are also battling to hold onto seats in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, another unexpectedly close race, with a lone New England pick-up opportunity in Maine. 

2016 Watch

Tuesday’s governor’s races could make or break several 2016 presidential hopefuls, none more so than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). He rose to national prominence in 2011 by signing legislations stripping government workers of most collective bargaining rights, then surviving a recall election in 2012. His name is often brought up as a potential presidential contender, but his prospects would be deflated by a loss to Democratic businesswoman Mary Burke on Tuesday. Burke has criticized Walker for pledging to create 250,000 jobs as governor, but falling short at 111,000 jobs. Walker says it was “a big goal” and wants to finish the job.


Seemingly ascendant is Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R). Democratic challenger Ed Fitzgerald was hobbled in part by revelations that police found him in his car at in the middle of the night with a woman who was not his wife in 2012. Kasich is now coasting to victory in the quintessential presidential swing state. He has opened up the possibility of a new rise for “compassionate conservatism,” through accepting ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, and retreating from a Walker-like push to curtail union rights. 

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), a possible vice presidential pick, is expected to win safely. And while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is not on the ballot, he has criss-crossed the country stumping as head of the Republican Governors Association, building up goodwill, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Implications for ObamaCare

Democratic pick-ups of governor’s seats could mean ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion will arrive in more states. There are tight races in six states that have not expanded Medicaid—Kansas, Florida, Maine, Alaska, Wisconsin and Georgia—and in each instance the Democratic candidate (or in Alaska, independent Bill Walker) supports the expanding the low-income health insurance program. However, even with Democratic wins, Republican legislatures could still complicate expansion plans. 

Tax Cuts at Stake

Democrats are running against what they call irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthy, linking them to budget shortfalls. Republicans counter that the lower taxes are helping grow the economy. The most prominent case is Kansas, where Democrat Paul Davis has put up a surprisingly strong fight against Republican Gov. Sam Brownback in a red state. At the center of the campaign are Brownback’s large tax cuts—a 26 percent reduction for the top bracket. "The results are in on the Brownback experiment, and it has been a total failure,” Davis says.

In Wisconsin, Burke argues that Walker’s tax cuts favor corporations over the middle class.  In Michigan, Democrat Mark Schauer has assailed Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, known nationally for his “one tough nerd” slogan, for $1.8 billion in tax cuts for businesses, which Snyder defends as part of a tax reform plan eliminating credits. 

President Obama’s influence

Obama has been missing from the Senate campaign trail, but the campaign appearances he did have this year were largely for Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Those races are on some bluer territory, where Obama, despite his unpopularity nationwide, can still help turn out the base. 

Obama traveled to states like Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, Michigan and his home state of Illinois to boost Democratic candidates. Stumping for gubernatorial hopefuls gave Obama a chance to have a few rallies that were that were not too far removed from the 2008 glory days. He even brought back his signature “fired up,” “ready to go” campaign call.

If Democrats still lose in these races, it’s not necessarily Obama who holds the blame—but it certainly won’t look good for him.