FUNKY MUSIC blared as balloons and silver ticker-tape tumbled over a ballroom of gyrating Democrats. J.B. Pritzker, Illinois’s new governor, declined to strut as he greeted members of a noisy crowd. He had the air of a jovial, portly uncle presiding over a family gathering. Had his party outdone expectations? “We’ve had an excellent night,” he said. “I’m happy.”
He toppled an unpopular, one-term Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, thanks, in part, to dropping over $170m of his own money on the race. That is a remarkable (and record) sum even for an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune whose assets exceed $3bn. Mr Pritzker’s largesse helped Democrats reach beyond urban strongholds to commuter suburbs such as Naperville, an hour’s drive from Chicago. Democrats won a super-majority in the Illinois legislature.
His efforts are emblematic of a wider, and belated, push by Democrats. For much of the past decade the party neglected races for state legislatures and governors’ mansions (see charts). “We were asleep at the wheel,” concedes an activist. In contrast, Republicans grasped the strategic importance of state legislatures, which in many places have the power to gerrymander. Republican candidates ground out state-level victories in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan that prefigured Republican national gains in such places in 2016.
The Democrats’ neglect is over, judging by spending on state-level races this year. Local parties reportedly devoted over $2.2bn to such races, not far off the $2.4bn for congressional campaigns. Democrats won solid returns: seven new governorships, for a total of 23 states.
That matters for three reasons. First, because governors shape policy. Some new ones will now roll out expanded Medicaid, adding to the 33 states that already took extra federal money under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Tony Evers, who squeaked to victory in Wisconsin, Janet Mills in Maine, and Laura Kelly, who delivered a shock win in usually Republican Kansas, have all vowed to do so.
The effects of this will be far-reaching. Figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggest that in these three states, plus Idaho, Nebraska and Utah (where voters backed referendums on expanding health care) an extra 424,000 people will become eligible for insurance. If all were to sign up, the average (non-elderly) adult population without insurance would fall in those states to just 6.5%, from over 11% today. Democrat-run states are also likely to rethink prison policies and boost education spending, not least where new governors like Mr Evers, or Tim Walz in Minnesota, are ex-teachers.
Second, the governors’ races point to which figures might prosper in future, national elections. Rich, moderate and female candidates did well for Democrats. In Colorado, Jared Polis became the first openly gay governor. Andrew Gillum, the African-American mayor of Tallahassee, ran a strong, left-leaning campaign in Florida focused on young, urban and minority voters. But he lost to Ron DeSantis, who called him a radical socialist. The Republican’s crude comments, such as warning that his opponent would “monkey this up”, did not backfire. Many voters, in Florida at least, warm to a conservative.
Last, the new crop of governors will influence how future elections are run. In Georgia, Kansas, North Dakota and elsewhere, state governments were accused of trying to suppress minority votes. That should now be less likely, at least in Kansas. And after the census in 2020 state legislatures will draw up plans for redrawing congressional districts. Governors, who have veto powers, in theory could insist on fairer voting. More probably they will prove partisan, making Florida redder and Illinois more resolutely blue.