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Democrats Have Made Big Gains In Number Of Governorships In The U.S.


We have an update now on an important but often overlooked political scorecard. Tomorrow, when Democrat Andy Beshear is sworn into office as Kentucky's new governor, there will be nearly as many Democratic as Republican governors across the country; 24-26. Compare that to the beginning of President Trump's term three years ago, when Democrats held just 16 governors' offices. That was a historic low point for the party. Here to lay out what's behind these wide swings and why governorships matter is NPR's Jessica Taylor.

Hey, Jess.


SHAPIRO: Let's go back and talk about how Democrats got into this deep hole in the first place. They lost a lot of ground during President Obama's time in office, right?

TAYLOR: They did. Democrats actually ended up suffering the most losses under any president since Dwight Eisenhower. So, you know, this started as a backlash to Obamacare, for sure. But...

SHAPIRO: The Tea Party movement.

TAYLOR: Right. But there was also criticism that Democrats were just too complacent under Obama and not worried about building winning coalitions at the state level. So this started in 2010 - the Tea Party, the Republican wave. It was a really bad year for them to lose that much because that's the precursor to redistricting. So Republicans then were able to shore up those gains for many cycles going forward.

So for Democratic governors - they actually hit their lowest point during Obama's term as he was leaving. The 2016 elections left them outnumbered 2-1 - as you mentioned, just 16 Democratic governors compared to 33 for Republicans.

SHAPIRO: How fast have Democrats been able to rebound now with Trump as president?

TAYLOR: They have been able to really make some pretty substantial gains in the past three years. They made huge gains in 2018. Now, most of these governors are elected during a midterm year, and that put them from just 17 governors - then they went to 23 after the 2018 elections.

SHAPIRO: Big jump.

TAYLOR: Those'll be the ones who are in office when redistricting happens after the 2020 census. And all of this - governors and then, of course, Democrats flipped the House. We see now result of that happening with the impeachment hearings - was seen as a rebuke to Trump and his presidency.

And then last month, Democrats solidified and added to those gains. In Kentucky, Andy Beshear defeated Republican incumbent Matt Bevin in a state that Trump carried by 30 points. Now, Bevin was uniquely unpopular and had made plenty of enemies, but Trump was not able to save him despite multiple trips to the state. And Democrats were able to capitalize there.

And then two weeks later, you had Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, who had won in an upset in 2015, was seen as this sort of accidental governor. He held onto a seat in another state that Trump carried by double digits, again showing that Trump's campaigning has not been transferable down-ballot, particularly in governor's races.

SHAPIRO: Are there any big lessons here in how Democrats can win in traditionally Republican states like Kentucky and Louisiana?

TAYLOR: They campaigned, you know, on health care. It was a bad issue for them back in 2010, but now they really sort of see an upswing happening when it comes to preexisting conditions and the expansion of Medicaid. So there is traditionally a difference in how states vote at a federal level than at a state level.

Voters tend to see governors as less partisan, and they're willing to vote for a Democrat sometimes, even if they may vote for a Republican at the presidential level or a Republican senator. So, you know, we - the reverse is true, too. Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont are all heavily Democratic states at the presidential level, but all three have Republican governors.

SHAPIRO: Now, you mentioned that 2010 was a tough year for Democrats to lose so many seats because it's a redistricting year. Redistricting happens every 10 years, which means 2020 is really important. How does it look for Democrats next year?

TAYLOR: Well, they've made those gains that they needed last cycle in 2018. And then 2020 - you know, they could sort of take back the majority among governors, too, in states that are really important. Their best chances are pickups in New Hampshire and in Vermont, states that both went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But they'll also be in defense in North Carolina that's already in a redistricting mess right there, too, that's really important. New maps coming in Montana. Donald Trump won both of those states, and Republicans want to win them back.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR political reporter Jessica Taylor.

Thanks a lot.

TAYLOR: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.