In Tight Governor Races, Ticket-Splitting May Be Key
While the nation’s midterm focus has primarily been on Republican efforts to maintain control of the House and Senate, the GOP is also playing defense with a number of key gubernatorial seats. Many of them are tossups in the final weeks before Election Day -- and are taking place in states that also have a Senate race. Both major political parties are banking their hopes on ticket-splitting voters.
Ohio, no stranger to national politics, is a case in point. Incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown has a hefty lead over his Republican opponent, Rep. Jim Renacci, but the state also has a competitive gubernatorial race. RealClearPolitics shows Brown up by 16 points in the latest poll average, while Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray has a mere 2.7 point lead against Republican Mike DeWine. Ohio Democrats are hoping that Brown’s coattails will help Cordray -- the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- while Republicans are banking on continued visits from President Trump to help them energize their base.
“Trump helps Republicans who need some more energizing,” said Mark Weaver, a GOP consultant in the Buckeye State. “Thousands of people stand in line for hours [at his rallies] — many of them get signed up for volunteer activities and email captures and phone numbers taken — and bolster what is already a very large turnout operation.”
Republicans also say that since the Ohio ballot lists the governor’s race first — ahead of the U.S. Senate race — they will benefit from that clerical detail despite Brown’s double-digit lead. “There will be a lot split-ticket voting,” Weaver predicted.
Democrats aren’t buying it. Dale Butland, a longtime top aide to the late Sen. John Glenn, said Ohio is the one state that best reflects the national mood, which is polarized, making split-ticket voting unlikely in his estimation.
“There has been ticket splitting in the past in Ohio,” said Butland, recalling the 1980 election in which both Ronald Reagan and Glenn carried the state by large margins. “My sense is we’ll probably not have so much of that this year. The state is polarized, like the nation. I think we’ll see more straight-ticket voting.”
He also questions how much Trump is an asset to his party’s candidates, especially in a state where outgoing Republican Gov. John Kasich does not support the president. “Never underestimate Trump’s ability to motivate Democrats even more [than Republicans],” said Butland. “I realize he comes to the state to motivate his base and it works to a degree, but I know that for the last week or so the Republicans have been saying the [Brett] Kavanaugh vote motivates people. I’m skeptical. I think it’s hard to sustain for a month, particularly when you won.”
While Ohio is considered a national bellwether, activists in Nevada see this midterm cycle as a bellwether of their own -- to see if the state will remain purple or if the blue trend there will prevail. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Nevada by two percentage points and the state Assembly flipped to Democratic control.
Term-limited Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has largely bucked his party’s platform — raising taxes and expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — while remaining one of the most popular governors in the country. The Republican who hopes to replace him, Attorney General Adam Laxalt, has run to the right of Sandoval and embraced Trump’s endorsement earlier this year.
“The coming election, I think, is the real test for Democrats and the notion that Nevada is becoming a blue state,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada. “You’ve got an open gubernatorial seat — Brian Sandoval is very popular — but Laxalt often, as attorney general, pursued policies that contradicted what Sandoval was attempting to do. Even though both are Republicans, they have policy differences, which bled into personal differences. It’s somewhat ironic that the Democrat — Steve Sisolak — is saying, ‘I will continue what Brian Sandoval has done’ and then check off Sandoval policies.”
The Silver State also has a competitive Senate seat up this cycle — one of the few where Republicans are playing defense — in Sen. Dean Heller’s re-election bid. Heller was viewed as the most vulnerable GOP senator at the beginning of this cycle, but he has held his own: The RCP polling average shows him about two points ahead of challenger Rep. Jacky Rosen.
Nevada has had recent experience with split-ticket voting. In 2010, incumbent Sen. Harry Reid won his re-election while Sandoval won his first term. Two years later, President Obama carried the state, but Heller kept his seat after being appointed to the position in 2011, replacing scandal-plagued John Ensign.
Democrats acknowledge midterms are tough for them. “Midterms are hard for Nevadans,” said Megan Jones, a Democratic strategist in the state. She previously worked for Reid, but is on the independent expenditure side this cycle and not affiliated with a particular candidate. “We will know fairly soon. Early voting starts in [three] days and 60 to 65 percent of voters cast their ballots early.”
The key group that could determine the outcome is the Hispanic vote. Latinos make up nearly 30 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet, Pew Research Center shows that despite the national population of eligible Hispanic voters increasing, those who actually cast a ballot in midterm years has remained fairly stagnant.
In Florida, the big question mark regarding Hispanic voters centers on Puerto Ricans who fled their island home after Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year.
“I think the estimate of the number people who have come and stayed [is] out of line with reality,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist in Florida. He said the big question mark is whether those who have already been in Florida will actually turn out.
Others in Florida say it’s not Hispanic voters but the NPA -- no political affiliation -- voters, as one consultant described them, that will determine the outcome of the election. Adam Goodman, a well-known political strategist in the state, said this is the group that will define both the Senate and gubernatorial races and it’s among the most difficult to predict.
“Where they go will decide this election, and traditionally if it’s a change election they tend to go in the direction of change,” said Goodman. He said that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum has had a slight edge on Republican Ron DeSantis in the past month, but recent polling shows a neck-and-neck race where NPA voters could make the difference.
Florida is the reverse of Ohio in that the Senate race is at the top of the ballot. If that kind of thing matters, it might help Democrats. Unlike Ohio, however, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson doesn’t have a double-digit lead: His race against Gov. Rick Scott is considered a tossup. RCP’s poll average slightly favors Nelson, but Scott has one benefit that could push him over the edge late in the race — the politics of hurricanes.
“One thing even Rick Scott naysayers will confess is that Rick Scott is very, very good in hurricanes,” said Goodman. “What he’s doing now — what he did in last hurricane — will be remembered by most Floridians and he will be remembered favorably.”
Hurricane Irma tore through the state last year — among the costliest hurricanes in Florida history — bringing Scott into the national spotlight as the calm, collected commander-in-chief. In recent weeks, Hurricane Michael has once again brought Scott to the forefront of both national and local media. His assured demeanor in the aftermath of the storm is the type of free advertising Nelson can’t compete with, even as a sitting senator.
What’s clear across all of these races is that analysts view this year’s midterm cycle as far different from any seen before, and they stress that each race must be looked at individually. They note that there are many X factors in the tight tossups that could sway the race a point or two in favor of one party or the other, but the biggest X factor is President Trump. Could his tumultuous -- but in many ways successful -- first two years in office yield an unprecedented midterm election? With less than three weeks until Americans head to the polls, there are many news cycles left ahead, any one of which could change a given race by a single point or two. In the closest contests, that could be the difference between victory and defeat.