While Republicans’ state of concern about the upcoming elections is well-founded, what they should really be worried about is the long-term political damage that they will likely suffer in the 2021-22 gubernatorial elections. These are the elections that will determine the balance of political power in state and local politics for the next decade.
In almost four years as president, Trump has never once gained approval from the majority of voters. During this period his takeover of the party has led an increasing number of Republicans to abandon the GOP.
Trump’s generally positive job ratings for his handling of the economy for a good part of his presidency only mattered when the country was enjoying a strong economy. Now, voters are prioritizing the coronavirus over the economy as evidenced by a July 15 Washington Post/ABC News Poll. The survey found that 63% of respondents believe it is more important to control the spread of the virus even if it hurts the economy; only 30% think it is more important to restart the economy even if it hurts efforts to control the spread of the virus.
Given these results, it should come as little surprise that RealClearPolitics’ latest polling average shows that only 39.8% of the country approves of Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
To date, no country has been harder hit with the coronavirus than the United States. Despite representing only 4% of the world’s population, the country has suffered 24% of the overall deaths. As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the country – with over 5.5 million confirmed cases and more than 172,000 deaths – Trump continues to downplay its impact, saying in an interview that the death toll “is what it is.”
Since late June the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. has doubled, and all signs point to things getting worse before they get better. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predicts that 23 states will likely need to re-impose mandates and stay-at-home orders between now and Dec. 1. If the virus continues unabated, IHME estimates that by early December over 295,000 Americans will lose their lives to the virus. During this time, unemployment numbers will remain high, contributing to tens of millions of Americans facing the potential loss of their homes. Based on results from the second quarter of this year, the United States could see a 32.9% decline in GDP this year.
Republican Governors Who Follow Trump Could See Their Political Careers Cut Short
The same pandemic that will define the 2020 elections will likely turn the gubernatorial elections in the next cycle into a referendum on the incumbents’ handling of the coronavirus in their states.
The timing couldn’t be worse for the Republican Party. During the upcoming cycle there will be 38 gubernatorial races. The elections will include 14 of the 15 biggest states in the country. Sixteen incumbent Republican governors will be up for reelection (assuming Vermont and New Hampshire incumbents will in November).
Related: Slides showing COVID hot spots, states with governors up for reelection, and gubernatorial approval rates
Many of the states hardest hit since the start of the summer are led by Republican governors who have followed Trump’s lead in dealing with the pandemic. Current survey research shows that Republican governors have already paid a significant price for supporting Trump’s badly bungled coronavirus strategy. A consortium of four universities — Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers, and Northwestern — have been conducting regular polling in all 50 states to gauge approval of governors’ handling of the crisis. The survey results show a strong correlation between approval ratings and willingness to embrace Trump’s approach to handling the outbreak. Republicans who followed the president’s lead are now facing Trump-level disapproval ratings, while those governors who have opposed the president’s policies have received strong support from voters in their states.
The polls show that of the states holding gubernatorial elections in 2021-22, there are 10 Republican governors with job approval ratings related to managing the pandemic are under 45%; seven have approval ratings above 50%. The only Republican governors with strong job approval numbers are those who have been willing to challenge Trump’s handling of the virus.
Conversely, there are 13 Democratic governors with approval ratings over 50%, with only two under 45%. The Democratic governors have been willing, without exception, to impose far more rigorous precautions to contain the virus.
Changing Demographics in Fast-Growing States Are Driving the Political Realignment
Many of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus are also the fasting growing states in the country. They share common demographic characteristics, which made them ripe for Democratic control even before the outbreak of the virus. These voters are more likely to be young and non-white. Additionally, these states are highly suburban, with strong numbers of college-educated transplants. These are the voter groups that are most opposed to Trump and everything he represents and are changing the partisan composition of these states away from the Republican Party. The incumbent Republican governors’ failure to control the virus is only accelerating the political transformation.
Governors in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas have all been strong supporters of Trump’s strategy on the coronavirus. These states all have governors’ elections in 2022, with Arizona having the only open seat. All four states are at the top of the list of states with the most confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The number of cases in each has more than doubled since early July.
These states have been trending toward Democrats, which is reflected in current 2020 presidential polling that shows Biden ahead or tied in all four. And while Biden is unlikely to carry a majority of these states barring a landslide victory, it’s only a matter of time until all of them are firmly in the Democrats’ column. That is particularly true if Trumpism continues to define the Republican Party.
Arizona: Gov. Doug Ducey’s willingness to follow Trump’s approach to combat COVID-19 has led to the third most confirmed cases per 100,000 people in the country. Maricopa has the third most confirmed cases of all the counties in the United States. The governor, who is term-limited from seeking reelection, has seen his job approval drop to 35%, according to a recent July OH Predictive Insights poll.
Of all the fast-growing states, Arizona is poised to become the first to shift to the Democratic Party. Arizona grew by over 15% in the last decade, with most of its growth due to a large influx of non-white and suburban voters. The percentage of white non-Hispanics in the state has dropped to 54% of its population. Arizona is second only to Texas in the number of Californians migrating to the state. This influx has had a tremendous impact on changing Arizona’s politics. In 2018, Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat for the first time in 30 years, in addition to picking up a congressional seat and the secretary of state office. Biden has consistently led Trump in state polls. Democrats are heavily favored to pick up the other U.S. Senate seat this November, and they only need to pick up two state House seats and four state Senate seats to take control of the legislature.
Florida: The Sunshine State was one of the first states to reopen, which made it one of the largest coronavirus hot spots in the country. There have been over 575,000 confirmed cases, with almost 10,000 related deaths — the fifth highest number of deaths in the country to date. In the past week the number of confirmed cases climbed enough to make it the second highest in the country. Miami-Dade has had the second most cases of any county in the country.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a strong ally of Trump, has seen a significant drop in support since the outbreak of the virus. In a July Quinnipiac poll, DeSantis only had a 38% job approval rating. Florida’s population grew by more than 16% over the last decade – the third most in the country. A majority of the state’s citizens under 70 years of age are now non-white. Biden has had a consistent lead in the state outside the polls’ margin of error, fueled in part by shifts by seniors — the group most impacted by the virus — away from Trump and the Republican Party.
Georgia: The eighth most populous state in the country remains at the top of list of those most impacted by the coronavirus. Georgia has had the fifth most confirmed cases of the virus in the country. The White House Coronavirus Response Task Force coordinator recently announced that Atlanta was one of the next likely hot spots. In a July Survey Monkey poll, Gov. Brian Kemp had a 55% disapproval rating for his handling of the virus.
The rapidly changing state is also moving toward the Democratic Party. The population grew by over 10% in the past decade, with white non-Hispanics now down to 52% of the total. Democrats picked up 14 suburban state House seats in 2018. Both U.S. Senate seats are considered very close this year. Polling also shows Biden maintaining a slight lead over Trump in the state.
Texas: Gov. Greg Abbott was very aggressive in reopening, which led to his state becoming one of the top coronavirus hot spots in the country since the beginning of the summer. It has had the second most confirmed cases in the past week and has suffered the fourth most deaths in the country. In a July Survey Monkey poll, 55% of Texas voters disapproved of Abbott’s handling of the virus.
While the transition to Democratic control may take longer in Texas than in some of the other states, it’s only a matter of time before it turns blue. In the past decade the population grew by over 16%, making it the fastest growing state in the country. It is now home to four of the 10 largest cities, with wide swaths of suburban communities. Two-thirds of its population is now in the Texas Triangle that encompasses Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin.
By the middle of 2021, Hispanics will be the largest population group in the state. Due to the state’s growth, it is projected to pick up three House seats in the upcoming reapportionment — the most in the country. Recent Democratic gains in the state reflect this shift in power away from the GOP. Democrats picked up two House congressional seats in the 2018 elections and are favored or tied in four Republican-held seats in the November elections. Democrats also picked up 12 suburban state House seats in 2018. They only need to pick up nine House seats this November to take control.
21st Century American Politics, Post-Trump
For the first time in 30 years, campaigns will have to contend with a new Electoral College map. The fight for political control of the four states that are ripe for taking by Democrats – along with North Carolina — will dominate 21st century American politics in the same way that the industrial Midwest served as Ground Zero in the 20th century.
Following the November elections, which increasingly look like a tidal wave for Democrats, the GOP will need to decide what kind of party it wants to be. If it continues down the road of Trumpism, its losses will continue to pile up.
Many incumbent Republican governors have already made that choice, and the GOP will pay the political price in the next election cycle.