Why the gubernatorial wave matters now, and in 2016

In all the excitement over the midterm wave that put Republicans back in charge of the US Senate for the first time in eight years — and gave the GOP its biggest House majority in more than 80 years — we haven’t commented much on the broader aspects of the midterm tsunami. The wave rolled not just through Capitol Hill, but also through the statehouses and gubernatorial races, including in some very unlikely places. And that has a number of implications for the agenda over the next two years, but perhaps even more for 2016.

Analysts expected Republicans to gain in the US Senate and House, but expected Democrats to dominate in gubernatorial races. That turned out to be a big miscalculation. Illinois’ Pat Quinn was expected to win re-election in a safe Democratic state, but lost by more than 170,000 votes to businessman Bruce Rauner (and Illinois gave up a House seat as well). The biggest surprise of the night came in Maryland, where Larry Hogan took a nearly double-digit win over Democratic Lt.Governor Anthony Brown in a state where Republicans are outnumbered two to one:

Republican businessman Larry Hogan pulled off a stunning upset in heavily Democratic Maryland on Tuesday, winning the governor’s race against Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown by relentlessly promising to roll back tax increases and chart a new direction for the state.

Shortly after midnight, Brown conceded a race that he lost despite the strong support of the state’s Democratic establishment and visits to Maryland in the closing weeks of the campaign by President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. …

Hogan, the owner of an Anne Arundel County real estate business, had argued that electing Brown would be tantamount to giving O’Malley a third term. Touting his private-sector negotiating skills, Hogan has pledged to do more to work with Democratic legislative leaders than the state’s previous GOP governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who had an acrimonious four years in Annapolis.

With 90% of the vote in, Hogan leads Brown by nine points and 155,000 votes. That is a stunning repudiation of Obama, the Clintons, and O’Malley, who had presidential aspirations of his own. O’Malley has already begun preparing for that run, but the loss of his hand-picked successor and the rejection of his two terms in office by Maryland voters means that Democrats have one less fallback candidate on which to rely if Hillary doesn’t run in 2016. And even if she does, her track record in this campaign is less than stellar, which should be a red flag on those who think she’ll end up with a coronation. The Clintons did more campaigning than Obama did in this cycle, and still got buried under the Republican wave.

Other takeaways in places like Massachusetts and Arkansas showed just how weak Democrats have become at the state level. However, the bigger news for Republicans looking toward 2016 were the GOP holds — especially in purple-state Wisconsin, blue-state New Mexico, and Ohio. Scott Walker took a big lead in early returns and never looked back, despite predictions that Mary Burke would derail his political career. With 99% of the vote now counted, Walker has cruised to a five-point win in a race that got called early in the evening. In New Mexico, it was never anywhere near that close. The vote count has gone more slowly in New Mexico, but with 81% of precincts reporting, Susana Martinez has a 14-point edge over her Democratic opponent — even while incumbent Senator Tom Udall cruises with a 10-point lead over his Republican challenger. That gives the GOP not just two solid potential candidates, but two big influences in states that Democrats need to woo in 2016, too.

Ohio’s GOP hold was not a surprise in the last few months, but two years ago looked more like a long shot. John Kasich overreached in attempting the same kind of public-employee union reform championed by Scott Walker and paid for it politically. Obama won Ohio in 2012, and Democrats expected to extend their roots in the critical Electoral College state by defeating Kasich altogether. Instead, Democrats chose one of the worst-performing candidates in the cycle in Ed Fitzgerald, and Kasich is taking 64% of the vote with 78% of the precincts reporting. That makes Kasich a player in 2016, too, either as a candidate or a very effective proxy for the nominee in a state Republicans have to win in the next cycle.

All of these wins not only produced (or more accurately, affirmed) potentially significant presidential hopefuls, but they also prevented Democrats from creating more alternatives to Hillary Clinton outside the Beltway. Anthony Brown in particular might have been someone whom the Democrats could have groomed for a spot on the ticket, but that’s out the window now. Even Deval Patrick, who won two terms in Massachusetts and could have some thoughts about 2016 (which he’s denied thus far), has to be damaged at least a little after having Charlie Baker win in Massachusetts last night over Martha Coakley.

Even Texas plays into this. No one expected Wendy Davis to beat Greg Abbott, but they did expect her to shift the demographics enough to build on the results for later inroads in the deep-red state. Instead, her implosion was so complete that she lost among women by almost double digits, 45/54, only took 55% of the Latino vote, and landed in virtual ties in the age demos below 45-year-olds. Abbott may or may not have national aspirations — 2016 might also be too early for him to think about those — but Rick Perry looks more vindicated by these results, and it also helped put a spike in the “war on women” meme.

These problems extend beyond 2016, too. While the Democrats’ bench largely consists of Beltway figures and retreads like Hillary Clinton, Republicans are grooming talent in the states. Their performance in state legislatures make it clear that their advantage in the “farm system” will continue, too:

Republican gains extended to state legislative chambers as well. Before Election Day, the GOP controlled 59 of 98 partisan legislative chambers across the country. On Tuesday, preliminary results showed Republicans had won control of both the Nevada Assembly and Senate, the Minnesota House, the New Mexico House, the Maine House, the West Virginia House and the New Hampshire House.

That would give the party control of 66 chambers, four more than their previous record in the modern era, set after special elections in 2011 and 2012.

It also would give Republicans total control of 24 states, in which they hold the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is technically nonpartisan, but in practice Republicans control the chamber by a wide margin). Democrats, by contrast, are likely to control all three legs of the governing stool in only six states.

Many Republican majorities got bigger on Tuesday night. By the early morning hours on Wednesday, Republicans claimed supermajority status in 16 legislative chambers. Republicans won four lieutenant governorships previously held by Democrats — in Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts.

Here’s a map of the current environment:

This is a recipe for a long-term arc that returns the GOP to dominance. Especially in a populist environment where connections to Washington are considered baggage rather than assets, the GOP has greater opportunities to outpace Democrats on development of presidential contenders through the ranks of the governors for the next generation.

Republicans may surf this wave for a long time to come.