Democrats Picked Up Midwest Governor Seats by Vowing to Fix Schools, Potholes

November 7, 2018

The Wall Street Journal

By: Valerie Bauerlein & Kris Maher

Midwesterners elected gubernatorial candidates who promised to boost teacher pay in Wisconsin, fix potholes in Michigan and reverse deep budget cuts in Kansas. These issues, divorced from national politics, fueled Democratic victories across the region. The traditional political battleground helped hand the presidency to President Trump in 2016, but Tuesday’s election shows some of the states are still up for grabs. Governors are particularly powerful now as they increasingly take the lead on energy, health care and transportation policy.

“When you have gridlock in Washington, naturally people turn to the states,” said Jim Hodges, a former Democratic governor of South Carolina who now advises clients on working with governors. “More and more issues are being pushed to the state stage and to the local stage.” Still, political analysts cautioned against reading too much into the Democratic gubernatorial wins in the Midwest, known for its swing states.

Adding governors in the Midwest could help 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, who would be able to rely on governors’ fundraising networks and potential endorsements, analysts said. But three of the four Midwestern Democrats will be working with GOP-led legislatures, so it is unclear how much of their agendas they will be able to implement.

Blue Versus Red

Democrats picked up gubernatorial seats in the Midwest that were GOP-held for years. Democrats picked up a rare win in deep-red Kansas and reclaimed once reliably blue territory in Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. Republicans held on to governors’ seats in Ohio and Iowa. Overall, Democrats added seven governor seats on Tuesday, ending up with 23. Republicans have 26, with Georgia still too close to call. Republicans previously held 33 governorships, while Democrats had 16.

Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, a former state Senate minority leader who won the governor’s seat in Michigan, ran economically focused ads and won back many blue-collar voters in places like Macomb County, part of the Detroit metro area, said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. “She ran the traditional hard-hat campaign where she was at factories with mostly blue-collar men talking about her background,” Mr. Grossmann said. “That’s a quintessential Michigan campaign.”

Voters said they favored Democrats because of state-specific issues such as expanding Medicaid and repairing infrastructure. They played down issues like immigration, which President Trump focused on before the election. Campaign pledges to restore civility also seemed to resonate among voters in a region that often prides itself on being genial. Marsha Luetjen, 72 years old, considers herself an independent and voted for Ms. Whitmer. “We have some of the worst roads in the country,” said Ms. Luetjen, of Brighton Township, Mich., a rural and mostly conservative area between Detroit and Lansing.

Ms. Luetjen said she hopes the new governor will fix roads and potentially lower the state’s income tax on pensions. “I think those are things that she can probably get done without a whole bunch of hoopla from both sides,” she said. The Detroit Regional Chamber endorsed a Democrat for the first time in a generation, choosing Ms. Whitmer over Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Chamber Chief Executive Sandy Baruah said he was optimistic that Ms. Whitmer’s leadership would lead to key investments in education and transportation, though he worried she might face significant pressure from her base “to do some things we’re going to have to push back against.” Ms. Whitmer said in a press conference Wednesday she was eager to fix roads, lower auto-insurance rates, improve the quality of drinking water and help underperforming schools. She said she planned to meet Wednesday with departing two-term Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

“The people of Michigan expect, want and deserve leaders who can work together to solve problems,” she said. “I think when you talk you can find common ground. But when you’re not talking, you don’t have any shot at it.” In Wisconsin, state schools superintendent Tony Evers narrowly defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who was seeking a third term.

Mr. Evers said he was looking forward to working with the state’s two top Republican lawmakers on his campaign pledges of better schools, better roads and more affordable health care with protections for people with pre-existing conditions. “Knowing we may not fix all our problems with any single person or any election vote, the real work starts tomorrow,” he said Tuesday. “As I said throughout this campaign, it’s time for a change. The voters of Wisconsin spoke, and they agree.”

In Kansas, Laura Kelly, a Democratic state senator who touted her family’s military background, defeated Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Trump ally and strong backer of the administration’s immigration policies. Ms. Kelly campaigned on education and a shift from recent GOP governors’ policies of tax and spending cuts. In a victory speech Tuesday, Ms. Kelly said she would aim to work in a bipartisan way with state lawmakers, and that one of her first priorities would be funding schools.

“I will listen every day to leaders from both parties and to the people of this state,” she said. “We’ll take the best ideas no matter where they come from, and we’ll work together despite our political labels.” Looking ahead, some cautioned there is little correlation between midterm election results and a sitting president’s re-election chances. “The Midwest was historically the swing region, and it remains so,“ said Mr. Grossmann of Michigan State. ”They’ll be swing states from here on out.”

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