“Governor’s races are weird, and they always will be.” That’s a quote I’ve said numerous times on our podcasts or Election Night livestreams this cycle. And I think it holds very true in American politics. For whatever reason, even in this very partisan environment we live in, gubernatorial races continue to break that pattern. This hold especially true for incumbents, even in midterm years.
So I’ve looked back at the last 20 years of midterms, of which there are five cycles. 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018. Across those five cycles, the highest total of incumbent governors to lose were four in one cycle. It’s a data point to take into mind as we get ever closer to Election Day 2022.
2002, a weird midterm in its own right, saw four incumbent governors lose re-election bids. This cycle actually saw 20 governor’s mansions change partisan hands, 11 to Democrats, 9 to Republicans. However, only four of those flips saw an incumbent governor go down. In Wisconsin, AG Jim Doyle defeated Scott McCallum as the only Democrat to beat an incumbent governor that year. McCallum was also barely an incumbent, having only recently taken over for Tommy Thompson, who had resigned to join the Bush administration. That specific election was also incredibly negative for the time period, and that did allow the Libertarian candidate – Thompson’s younger brother – to take 11% of the vote.
The other three incumbent defeats were all Republicans beating Democrats in the Deep South. Bob Riley of Alabama, Sonny Perdue of Georgia and Mark Sanford of South Carolina all bested incumbent Democratic governors in these Deep South states that had become deeply Republican in recent years. Riley actually had the closest race of the trio, winning (controversially, to some) by only 0.2% points, even as Alabama was quickly becoming the darkest red of the three states. Perdue and Sanford both won by around 5 points respectively.
In 2006, a much more Democratic friendly year, while the party flipped six gubernatorial offices, but only one of those was by besting an incumbent. That happened in the deep blue state of Maryland. Bob Ehrlich surprisingly won the 2002 election over LG Kathleen Kennedy. He would not get so lucky in the second go round. Mayor of Baltimore Martin O’Malley handily defeated Ehrlich, who was still fairly popular, by 7.5% points.
Democrats did come close to knocking off incumbent governors in two other states. Tim Pawlenty was nearly beaent in Minnesota by the AG Mike Hatch. And in Rhode Island, Donald Carcieri nearly fell to LG Charles Fogerty.
Every other Democratic flip was because incumbents retired at fear of being beaten (Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, Pataki in New York) or incumbents term-limited (Bob Taft in Ohio).
Moving onto a very GOP friendly year, even as Republicans were flipping 11 governor’s mansions, only two of those were of incumbents. In Ohio, Ted Strickland was beaten by John Kasich, a tough blow for a politician who had won by 23 percentage points four years earlier. This was the closer of the two races, as Strickland held strength in eastern Ohio. Kasich however, was just that much stronger in the Cleveland and Columbus suburbs. Kasich also heavily won the Republican-leaning Cincinnati area, including outright winning Hamilton County.
The other incumbent bested was in Iowa. Chet Culver faced a re-election bid against popular and former four-term governor Terry Branstad. Branstad got through a kind of tough primary challenge, and was considered a decent favorite. That wisdom held true to Election Day, as Branstad won by nine points over Culver.
I should mention that Democrats did lose five governor’s mansions of their own, but all were because of retirements/term-limits. Four were also in deep blue states, as California, Hawaii, Connecticut and Vermont all flipped back to the Democrats.
In 2014, three incumbent governors lost re-election bids – and this year is a weird one. One was for Republicans, one for Democrats, and one was an Independent.
For Democrats, the unpopularity of Governor Tom Corbett made Pennsylvania an easy target. The nomination of the uncontroversial (at the time) Tom Wolf, made that race simple. Wolf won by almost ten points, taking back many old-school Democratic areas along the way. It’s a reminder that really bad approvals may not save some Governors, even in years beneficial to their party.
For Republicans, they finally bested Pat Quinn after narrowly losing out in 2010. This time, instead of nominating a downstate senator, they nominated Chicago area businessman Bruce Rauner. Rauner was able to run the type of campaign to win in Illinois, and his own deep pockets helped matters. Rauner won every county except for Cook and won by four points.
Then there’s the weird one. Again, a testament to what really really bad approvals can do to a Governor, Sean Parnell’s were in the gutter. And what made it harder was that he was facing an independent, not a Democrat, in former Valdez mayor Bill Walker. Walker was able to run to the middle and his independent affiliation allowed him to dodge issues Democrats were facing. He ended up winning by just over two points, becoming the first candidate not part of am major party to win Alaska’s gubernatorial race since Wally Hickel in 1990.
In 2018, we head back to a more Democratic favored year. Democrats flipped seven seats that year, while Republicans technically only lose six thanks to retaking Alaska after Bill Walker retired. Of those seven however, only two were from beating an incumbent, and both states appear for a second time: Illinois and Wisconsin.
Bruce Rauner’s re-election bid was always going to be a struggle, especially in the Democratic wave year that was coming. Rauner also barely survived a primary challenge and never really bounced back from that. Businessman J.B Pritzker handily beat Rauner by 14 points, and Rauner moved out of the state soon after.
In Wisconsin we saw a much tighter duel. Democrats really wanted to take out Scott Walker, who had avoided defeat three times against Democrats thus far in his career. Democrats nominated Tony Evers, about as safe of a candidate as one could select, as Evers was incredibly uncontroversial as a nominee. Early on, it seemed that Evers was going to use the blue wave to come to victory, as polling in August and September had him up, sometimes by big margins. However, two Marquette polls in October showed Walker winning or tied with Evers, which brought focus back on the state. In the end, Evers beat Walker by around 29,000 votes, barely over a percentage points.
What this means for 2022
Well what this means depends on how you take this information. What is clear at least is that defeating an incumbent Governor is no easy task. Making this crucial for 2022, especially for Republicans, is that there are a lot of incumbents in key races this cycle. That means possibly we may see less gains than maybe one would expect for a GOP wave year in governor’s races. Or maybe we see this pattern broken, as that is just what sometimes happens to patterns.