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Democrats Could Sink Lower in Statehouses in 2016

With the tumultuous race for the White House and the Senate majority up for grabs, races for governor have been barely a sideshow this election cycle.

But the politically ambitious men and women who are seeking a high statewide office — and the policies they advocate — someday may find their way to Capitol Hill, or beyond. In short, governors matter.

This cycle, seven of the 15 Republican candidates still running for president and two of the Democratic candidates are either current or former governors. Considering congressional approval has been below 20 percent for most of the last four years and Washington has become synonymous with discord, it’s no wonder candidates from outside the nation’s capital think they can do a better job.

“If someone cares about getting things done, the only place things are happening is in the states,” says Paul Bennecke, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. His counterpart, Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Elisabeth Pearson, echoes the same theme. “People are seeing how bad the gridlock is in Washington,” she says. “The activity is happening in the states.”

Governors of both parties have wrestled with implementation of the 2010 health care law and its Medicaid expansion, voting rights and other issues in recent years, along with their state budgets. And even though the next round of redistricting won’t happen until after the 2020 census, Republicans and Democrats are focusing on capturing governorships now.

While presidential primary voters and caucus goers won’t cast their ballots until February, a competitive gubernatorial race in Kentucky this November will give a vote-starved media a tangible election result to chew on.

Kentucky is one of the three states (along with Mississippi and Louisiana) electing a governor this year, while another dozen states are on the docket for 2016. The next two years will be the appetizer for the main courses in 2017 and 2018, when 38 states will host gubernatorial races, including the battlegrounds of Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin.

Voters have shown a willingness to distinguish state elections from federal offices, but gubernatorial races were not immune from the Republican rout in 2014. Republicans now control 31 governorships compared with the Democrats’ 18 — their lowest total since the wake of the 1994 elections. (Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is an independent.)

Democrats are at risk of sinking lower this year, if state Attorney General Jack Conway is unsuccessful in his attempt to succeed Democrat Steve Beshear in Kentucky. The term-limited governor is popular, and the GOP nominee, Matt Bevin, is hardly embraced by the Republican establishment after challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in the primary last cycle. But President Barack Obama remains deeply unpopular there.

There isn’t a lot of brighter news for Democrats next year either.

Democrats’ top targets include North Carolina, an emerging battleground where Republican Gov. Pat McCrory faces a competitive re-election race, and Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mike Pence drew national attention (and managed to upset liberals and conservatives) over his handling of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gay rights organizations said would permit discrimination.

But the GOP has good takeover opportunities in West Virginia and Missouri, where Democratic governors are term-limited, and potential targets in New Hampshire and Washington, depending on the field of candidates.

A pair of races could have a direct impact on the Senate. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan would be a serious challenger to GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, but running for Senate would make it harder for Democrats to hold the governorship.

Republican Sen. David Vitter is the front-runner in this year’s race for governor in Louisiana, where presidential candidate Bobby Jindal is term-limited. If Vitter wins, he would get to appoint his successor, but that person would have to run for a full term in 2016.

While Democrats are focused on holding the White House, recapturing the Senate, and making up ground in the House, the party should be happy to hold its ground in governorships in 2016 and prepare for a batch of better opportunities in 2018.

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