Masked by an intense focus on a raucous presidential primary contest and a fierce struggle over control of the U.S. Senate, the most competitive and consequential gubernatorial races of 2016 have garnered little attention.
These handful of highly volatile races will determine whether the GOP can keep up the gubernatorial dominance it’s put on display over the last several cycles. After expanding their win streak into deep blue states like Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts, Republicans now control 31 governors’ mansions to the Democrats’ 18.
The outcome in the six most-contested states will be used by the victorious party to claim a mandate on its policies or those of the loser. That mandate will have ramifications for citizens not only of those states, but more broadly as party leaders look ahead to the 36 gubernatorial seats up in 2018.
[lz_table title=”The GOP’s Gubernatorial Ascendence” source=”Republican Net Change in Governor’s Seats 2009-2015″]Election Year, GOP Net Increase
|Total Since 2009, +10
Nowhere do Democrats hope to keep a foothold as much as in the Old South. Having lost much of the Deep South to Republicans’ sweeping victories in recent years, Democrats can be counted on to fight fiercely in Virginia and West Virginia to defend the gubernatorial seats they hold. The party will also go on the offensive in North Carolina to try to extend its presence and further prevent the region from joining the Deep South’s slide into dominant GOP control.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia, a relic of the genteel southern Democrats, is out of office in 2017, and the GOP senses its best chance for a gubernatorial pickup here in 2016.
Leading Democrat candidate and billionaire businessman Jim Justice enjoys some early popularity in the polls but faces a very tough climb defining himself outside the drag of the national party. Eight years under President Obama has wreaked havoc on West Virginia, which bodes poorly for the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the helm in Charleston.
The state boasted a 4.9 percent unemployment rate in November 2008, below the national average of 6.8 percent. A relentless war on coal, pursued by the president’s administration and radical environmental groups, has reversed the state’s fortunes. West Virginia now notches an unemployment rate higher than the national average, and the decline of economic opportunity has plunged the state into the darkest depths of the nation’s opioid addiction crisis.
The Mountain State has the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths of any in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adding to the headache for Justice was Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s recent call “to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Fortunately for Justice, his business career has included ownership of several coal companies, an allegiance likely to ease an otherwise tough effort to separate from his party on the energy issue. Rumors have even floated around the state’s political insiders that Justice may endorse GOP front-runner Donald Trump for the presidency, just to add some extra maverick luster to his dangerous Democrat taint.
But try as he might to cultivate his own, local Democrat brand, Justice will still face a trend of Appalachian governor’s mansions falling to the GOP over the last two cycles. Tennessee and Ohio switched from Democrat to Republican control in 2010, followed by North Carolina in 2012 and Kentucky in 2014.
The Democrats’ slide hasn’t been confined to West Virginia’s neighbors either. The Democrats boasted control of the state legislature and four of five federal offices in 2008. Eight years later the GOP rules the statehouse and Republicans hold every seat in Congress except for that of Sen. Joe Manchin, himself facing a possible knockout in 2018.
In the 2016 gubernatorial contest Republicans have also fielded their own strong candidate in Senate Majority Leader and successful businessman in his own right Bill Cole. National Republicans have already come to Cole’s aid. The Republican Governors Association recently launched a website called “Jim Justice for Himself.”
“From his blatant corporate tax delinquencies and fines to verbally assaulting police officers, Jim Justice has made it clear that he believes he is above the law,” RGA Communications Director Jon Thompson said in a release on the site. “How can Justice possibly be trusted with protecting and leading the people of West Virginia when he has a proven record of only looking out for himself? West Virginians must know the truth – Jim Justice is for himself, not West Virginia.”
Justice will have the advantage of nearly unlimited campaign cash taken from his vast personal wealth. But with the trends, stats, and presidential down-ballot effect all lined up to boost Cole in the matchup with Justice, West Virginia looks poised to continue its transition to full-blown red state.