Incumbent governors at risk in tumultuous midterms

Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen, left, and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, appear at their debate at the studios of KTTC-TV in Rochester, Minn., on Tuesday, Oct. 18. 2022. It was their only scheduled televised debate of the campaign. (Ben Mulholland/Gray Television via AP, Pool)

President Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton campaigned for blue-state governors Thursday in the latest glaring warning signs that next week’s midterm elections are turning against Democrats across the nation.

The last-minute stops that top Democratic surrogates are making underscores another sign of turbulence within the electorate: Even incumbent governors — who are notoriously difficult to defeat in re-election campaigns — are in trouble this year

At least 10 governors from both parties are heading into Election Day with competitive challengers on their heels, or even leading in the polls.

Any or all of them could prevail. But the sheer number of governors facing difficult re-election prospects, added to the historical disadvantage of the party in power during a president’s first midterm election, raises the specter of historic turnover among a type of incumbent officeholder who are usually re-elected in overwhelming numbers.

In the past three midterm elections — 2010, 2014 and 2018, all wave elections that favored the party out of power — only 10 of the 62 governors running for re-election lost, according to Kristoffer Shields, a historian and program manager at Rutgers’ Eagleton Center on the American Governor. Four incumbents lost in 2014, the highest number of casualties in recent memory.

In fact, at a time of historical volatility in federal races, governors have been getting safer over time, according to the Eagleton Center’s data.

From 1948 to 1979, 68% of governors were elected to another term. From 1980 to 2013, that figure jumped to 79%. Since 2013, only nine of the 65 governors who sought election lost, an 86% success rate.

Shields said incumbent governors have “built-in credibility,” and the ability to run with a record of accomplishments. Voters have seen them playing the role of chief executive at public appearances and bill signings, something no challenger can boast.

“This year could test that advantage more than most,” Shields said. “The visibility that comes with being an incumbent can also be a drawback if voters blame the governor — the state official they’re most likely to know — for economic or other struggles in the state, or the lingering pandemic. And this year’s political environment is much different than it was in 2018, when most of these incumbents were first elected.”

Twenty-eight of the 36 governorships up for election next week feature an incumbent. The most vulnerable include Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D), Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D).

But also on the watch list are New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), two former members of Congress in blue states who are receiving high-profile visits in the final days of the campaign.

Biden’s last big campaign swing includes an Albuquerque rally for Lujan Grisham, a week after Vice President Kamala Harris appeared in New Mexico. Clinton will headline a New York City rally for Hochul in what CNN reported is Clinton’s first candidate-specific campaign event of the year.

Others looking to hold off spirited opposition include Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D), Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D), though polls show all three leading their Republican opponents. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has led his longtime rival, former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D), and recent polls show Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) pulling ahead of his Democratic opponent after a few surveys showed a surprisingly close race in a deep red state.

According to Eric Ostermeier, author of the Smart Politics blog at the University of Minnesota, 12 governors lost re-election bids in the tumultuous 1938 midterm elections, the largest number of gubernatorial defeats in the last century. Eleven governors lost re-election in 1962, a bad year for Democrats, and nine lost in 1958, when Democrats had a big year during Dwight Eisenhower’s final midterm election.

Those records will not be broken this year, but gubernatorial contests are more unsettled than is usual for recent cycles.

“It’s certainly possible that more challengers will be able to overcome the incumbency advantage this year than usual,” Shields said. “But we shouldn’t dismiss that it is still an advantage. In the end, voters often go with the candidate they know.”