As the nation tunes into election results next Tuesday night, they may end up seeing a few spots of blue in an unusual place — smack dab in the middle of America’s heartland.
In both Kansas and Oklahoma, the GOP’s hold on its governors’ mansions is in peril, as polling has tightened and the elections in these states are now considered toss-ups. Alongside these two heartland states, Democrats are running competitive races for governor in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio, meaning that the splotch of blue could become a broad swath running across the middle of the country. In addition to various local issues, redistricting in these states after the 2020 Census will be heavily dependent on the outcome of state-level and legislative races. Control of the governorships also has significant implications for the 2020 presidential contest.
Kansas and Oklahoma, for their part, have something in common: Republicans have dominated statewide offices since 2011, and they have broken the states they were charged with governing.
In Oklahoma, GOP Gov. Mary Fallin, who was elected as part of a 2010 tea party wave, made cutting taxes a priority.
But in 2014, Oklahoma saw a collapse in oil revenues, which also decimated much of the state’s remaining income. The impact on basic services was severe. In 2017, the Washington Post reported that out of 513 school districts, 96 eliminated either Monday or Friday classes because they could only afford to send children to school four days a week.
Fallin has taken a beating in the polls and over the summer was named the least popular governor in the entire country, with an approval rating of 19 percent. She is term-limited, and the Republicans chose businessman Kevin Stitt to be their 2018 nominee for governor, facing off with Democrat Drew Edmondson, the state’s former attorney general.
It remains to be seen whether Stitt can overcome Fallin’s unpopularity, but there are signs that the Republican Party’s brand is damaged. Democrats at the legislative level have swept special elections since Trump’s 2016 win, and a wave of teacher protests led to the defeat of several Republican incumbent lawmakers in their party primaries. Polling on the race has been sparse, but what does exist shows a narrow single-digit lead by Stitt. Last week, Cook Political Report moved Oklahoma into its toss-up category.
David Blatt, the director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute and a longtime observer of state politics, told The Intercept that most political watchers believe the race will be close. “It definitely does look like a tight race,” he said. He pointed to a set of issues that the Democratic candidate is using to motivate voters. “Edmondson has tried to make it all about the record under the Republican government under the last eight years … particularly cuts that we saw in education and education funding shortages,” Blatt said. “He’s also talked a fair deal about health care and the need to expand Medicaid.”
In neighboring Kansas, the race is considered to be even closer. Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach has maintained a slim 1 point lead over Democrat Laura Kelly in the last couple months of polling.
Like in Oklahoma, Kansas’s then-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback sharply cut taxes, straining the state’s budget for many basic services. Since then, the legislature has raised taxes as moderate factions within the state GOP battled conservatives in Brownback’s mold.
Burdett Loomis of the University of Kansas told The Intercept that Brownback’s legacy continues to hang over the state’s politics.
“He left us with unpopular policies, lots of reductions in revenues because of tax cuts. … [I]n 2016, the voters basically rejected this and brought in a bunch of moderate Republicans and Democrats into the legislature,” he said. “But Brownback is overhanging the election in the person of Kris Kobach.”
Incumbent GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer, widely seen as moderate, was likely a more electable candidate for the Republicans. But Kobach — an ally of President Donald Trump who has made his name backing strict right-wing measures on voter ID and immigration — narrowly defeated Colyer in the August primary.
Kobach and the approach he represents are so unpopular in Kansas that the only thing keeping him competitive is an independent drawing votes away from the Democrat — businessman Greg Orman is pulling around 8 or 9 points in polling.
Another difference in the race is that Kelly has a strong fundraising lead over Kobach. The Wichita Eagle reports that Kelly has out-raised Kobach by nearly $1 million since the end of July, while Kobach has just $61,000 left. Edmondson, on the other hand, has consistently lagged behind Stitt in fundraising.
Kansas briefly burst onto the national radar in April 2017, during a special election that was supposed to be a sleeper. But Democrat James Thompson wound up making his race for a Wichita congressional seat against Rep. Ron Estes close — he lost by 7 points — and the two face a rematch in November.
Brandi Calvert, a real estate agent from Wichita who organized the city’s Women’s March, is volunteering for Thompson again. She said that the campaign and allied organizers have registered tens of thousands of new voters in Sedgwick County alone. She noted that every living former governor — Democrat and Republican — has endorsed the Democrat. “It’s just wild high energy here,” she said.