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Overlooked governors’ races are real keys to 2020

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In some states, voters have been voting for weeks. In others, the polls will open in less than 48 hours. The much-ballyhooed and historically significant 2018 midterm elections soon will be over.

Throughout the corridors of Washington and in coffee shops along the main streets of small-town America, most of the chatter has been about which party will control Congress. Will the Democrats’ takeaway of House seats be north or south of the magic 23 they need to wrest control from Republicans? Will Republicans hold the Senate, or even add to their slim majority?

{mosads}Those have been the questions incessantly asked by the media and repeated by readers and listeners across the country.

What hasn’t been in sharp focus are the 36 gubernatorial offices up for grabs on Tuesday.

However, the fate of those races for governor will play a much larger role in 2020 than any House seat and most, if not all, Senate seats.

Governors hold a pivotal role in presidential races. Governors’ mansions are the foundational building blocks for the 2020 campaign. Beyond that, most will play vital roles in the critical reapportionment that will take place following the decennial census in 2020. In most states, the legislature determines congressional district boundaries, and governors not only have veto power over the final plans but also persuasive power over their drafting.

Governors are the overseers of those laboratories of democracy, too. During the Barack Obama era, Republicans made huge gains in state legislatures, picking up nearly a thousand seats throughout the nation. Democrats hope to reverse that trend on Tuesday by picking up not only legislative seats but governorships to go along with them.

Democrats hold only a few “trifectas” — states where they control the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature. You’d have to go back to the days of their party’s putative founder, Thomas Jefferson, to find a situation as bleak.

The real power of governors in presidential elections rests in their ability to raise money and provide political organization in support of their party’s standard-bearer. Our Electoral College system means that kind of assistance in individual states weighs far more heavily than support for broader, more nationalized help from, say, U.S. senators or members of Congress.

This year, in an ironic twist, the situation with governors is virtually a mirror opposite of what Democrats face in the U.S. Senate, where they must defend a disproportionate number of seats, many in states carried by Donald Trump in 2016.

Of the 36 gubernatorial seats up for grabs, 26 are occupied by Republicans and only nine are held by Democrats, with one independent serving as a governor.

Republicans have 33 governors, a near-historic level and just a single governor’s mansion shy of their all-time high of almost a century ago. Not only will they have to defend a large number of those offices, but many are in larger states where the electoral math of 2020 looms large.

In addition to their built-in advantage, which is at risk, term limits are a large factor in the number of offices that Republicans must defend. More than a dozen current governors are precluded from seeking reelection because of term limits; only a couple of them are Democrats.

Open seats always present an opportunity for bigger challenges, and Democrats are taking full advantage of those openings in their quest to pick up governorships. The fact that many are in electoral vote-rich swing states, such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, makes them even more enticing.

Democrats are likely to pick up some governors’ offices and maybe even add to their “trifectas.” It would defy logic that they could go much lower than their current number. Democratic Governors Association meetings have been pretty lonely affairs in recent years.

What’s troubling for Republicans is the possibility that Democratic gains may be in larger states. There’s no doubt that Democrats will retain the governors’ offices in their largest states, New York and California. Now, they’re optimistic that they can put Michigan and New Mexico back in their column.

Republicans have similar hopes to pick up currently Democratic-held Connecticut, where retiring Gov. Dan Malloy won re-election four years ago with less than 51 percent of the vote. They’re also making a strong run in Oregon, where incumbent Kate Brown is running for a full term after taking office following the resignation of her predecessor in the midst of a scandal.

Additional Democrat challenges to incumbent Republicans in Iowa and Wisconsin — and a large number of toss-up races in open seats being vacated by Republicans in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Nevada, Ohio and Tennessee — will determine how much blue water washes over the gubernatorial landscape.

Republicans need to win every one of those races just to hold their current advantage.

While the world watches to see who wins House and Senate seats, a careful look down the road to 2020 should focus attention on gubernatorial results on Tuesday night.

Charlie Gerow, first vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, has held national leadership positions in several Republican presidential campaigns. He began his career on the campaign staff of Ronald Reagan. A nationally recognized expert in strategic communications, he is CEO of Quantum Communications, a Pennsylvania-based media relations and issue advocacy firm.

Tags 2020 elections 2022 midterm elections Barack Obama Democratic Party Donald Trump governors gubernatorial races Republican Party

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