A Silver Lining for the GOP in Governors’ Races

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Sure, they failed to take the White House or the Senate. And, yes, they lost seats in the House. But Republicans weren’t total losers on Nov. 6. They maintained their majority control over the nation’s governorships. There will soon be 30 GOP state executives, which the Republican Governors Association touted as a “major accomplishment” given how evenly divided the country is right now.

The party of Lincoln can boast that no GOP governor has lost a general election since 2007. Despite millions spent by Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups in various gubernatorial races around the country, the GOP actually picked up a state, in North Carolina, with one race still to be decided. If you count the June recall victory for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, you can credit the party with an additional save. The GOP held on to three governorships, including Walker’s and the safe-GOP-state victories in Utah and North Dakota.

There are lessons the GOP can learn from these victories. First, court the women’s vote, a problem for Mitt Romney on Nov. 6. New Hampshire elected all female candidates statewide, including governor-elect Maggie Hassan. “We have a long tradition in New Hampshire of electing women,”  she told MSNBC during her morning-TV victory lap.

Second, as with President Obama’s campaign, grassroots organizing is key. High turnout in St. Louis and Kansas City helped propel Democrat Jay Nixon to hold on to the governorship in Missouri, says Beth Miller, political scientist at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. Nixon also outraised and outcampaigned his Republican challenger, making a far greater number of campaign appearances all around the state.

And third, stay out of the mud. Patrick McCrory, governor-elect of North Carolina, attributed his victory to a positive campaign. “Even in my own city, Romney lost by 100,000 votes, but we won,” he told MSNBC. “If you communicate your values and your philosophy and your vision … in the right tone, I think that appeals to people across the board.”

Democrats, meanwhile, retained six governorships, in Delaware, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia. And while only New Hampshire and Montana were considered toss-ups, it’s not clear the GOP’s hold over 60% of governorships marks an upward trend. “It’s not like 2010, when there was a Republican wave nationwide, or 2008, when it was clearly a good year to be a Democrat,” says Steven Greene, a political scientist at North Carolina State University. “The country is just very closely divided this year, and in an election year with not that many governors’ races, idiosyncratic differences in just a few states can make random variation look like a pattern.”