In the House and the Senate the balance between Republicans and Democrats, the two dominant political parties in the United States, is fairly close, but among state governors it is not even close. Republicans have a 2 to 1 advantage over the Democrats. For example, in Massachusetts where I live we have a Republican governor, but nearly every other politician both at the local and federal level is a Democrat.

Why is this? Why is there a unusually high proportion of Republican governors?

  • Considering that state senators are selected one at a time, not both at once with some kind of proportional system that might lead to balance between the parties, it is kind of surprising that 12/50 states have both a Rep and Dem senator. Maybe it's just a result of changing swings in the swing states? Oct 31, 2018 at 12:54
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    @curiousdannii If we assume that all states are typically "red" or "blue", with an 85% chance of electing a senator from the predominant party, we'd expect almost exactly 12 states with both a Rep and Dem senator by chance alone. The expected number is even higher if you assume swing states that have a lower likelihood of electing the predominant party. Oct 31, 2018 at 13:57
  • 4
    This tends to be more due to local politics. As someone who lives in MD, which has a similar situation to yours (in fact, we are in a fight for most popular Governor in the U.S. with yours). A lot of the reason our guy is in office has little if anything to do with Obama and more to due with the previous Governor introducing all sorts of unpopular taxes on the state and then his Lt. Governor ran for the "Third Term". It's better to pick a state and look at the issues going into the election.
    – hszmv
    Oct 31, 2018 at 15:21
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    I always figured a REP governer in MA was to keep the DEM house in check.
    – CrossRoads
    Oct 31, 2018 at 18:07

4 Answers 4


There are a couple of things going on here. One is incumbency advantage. The Republican wave in 2010 captured a lot of governorships, and to some extent the incumbency advantage has carried them through. For states with a two-term limit, governors elected in 2010 are just now reaching their term limits; therefore, this will be the first election since 2010 in which they haven't had the benefits of incumbency.

The second factor that abets this is the fact that partisan lean is much weaker in governor races than it is in in races for legislative offices. The 2016 the Cook Political Report had this to say on the subject:

The correlation between presidential performance and which party wins a statewide race isn’t as prevalent in gubernatorial races as it is with U.S. Senate contests

A discussion in a recent FiveThirtyEight podcast put the effect of partisan lean on governor's races at about 1/3 of what it is in legislative races. In a recent piece on split-ticket voting they observed:

Incumbents tend to win re-election, even if their political party does not match the one their constituents generally prefer.

You can see this difference playing out in states like Maryland, where incumbent Republican governor Larry Hogan appears to be poised to cruise to an relatively easy victory, while Democratic Senate candidate Ben Cardin looks practically guaranteed to win his race. (Note that these two races have exactly the same constituency, namely the entire state of Maryland.)

The reason for this difference is thought to be that governors are perceived (probably correctly) to be a lot more independent than legislators. Voters judge that candidate for governor from "the other" party who promises to govern as a moderate can possibly make good on that promise if elected. On the other hand, if you elect that same candidate to the US Senate, no matter how moderate they personally might be, they are going to be under a lot of pressure to fall into line with their party's leadership, which is probably anything but moderate, if they are elected.

So, these two factors explain much of the Republican gubernatorial dominance: more willingness by voters to cross party lines in gubernatorial elections than in legislative ones, and the knock-on effects of some very good years for Republicans in the early 2010s. This year looks like it will see some reversion to the mean. The 2018 FiveThirtyEight gubernatorial election forecast predicts something close to parity for Republicans and Democrats after the next election. Still, you will see some of these effects in force, as Republicans are expected to hold on to states like Massachusetts and Maryland, both of which are otherwise solidly Democratic.

  • 4
    One might ask where the incumbency advantage was, when the democrats lost those states.
    – tj1000
    Nov 1, 2018 at 14:53
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    @tj1000 One might in fact press the [Ask Question] button to your top-right and do so.
    – Yakk
    Nov 1, 2018 at 14:56

In the wake of Obama's passage of the ACA in 2009, the GOP had two competing strategies for increasing their power:

One was the middle-of-the-road Republicans' idea of compromising on a few key issues (immigration being a key one) and emphasizing others (their religious values) in order to make Hispanics a solid Republican voting bloc. This idea took a back seat after the Tea Party gained prominence.

The other was Chris Jankowski and Thomas Hofeller's REDMAP plan, which targeted specific positions in government that could control gerrymandering, and would have an opportunity to do so following the 2010 Census. They had access to high-tech software that could allow them to divide up districts in such a way as to maximize the number of Republican districts and minimize the number of Democrat ones. Focusing on the biggest swing states at the time (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin), they sought to turn evenly-split states into Republican-controlled states by controlling their governorships and legislative bodies in 2010.

Why governorships, state House, and state Senate? Because redistricting requires that it be drawn by one legislative house and approved by the other, then signed by the governor. If any of these factors were missing, Republicans would have had to compromise on their redistricting. This is especially true of governors, as they have the power to veto any redistricting plan until it fits their demands.

REDMAP was devastatingly effective, and in 2012, Democratic House candidates received 1.4 million more votes than their Republican counterparts, but the Republicans were still able to retain a 234-201 majority. Democrats continue to win popular majorities in races since 2010, but win very few seats because of this gerrymandering.

  • 17
    Governor elections in US states aren't my area of expertise, but does gerrymandering actually help here? I thought most states elect their governors directly and not through district-elected electors.
    – Philipp
    Oct 31, 2018 at 14:48
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    They do. But Republicans chose to use their resources to focus on governors' races in order to be able to gerrymander. While Massachusetts isn't a product of that, it is the main reason the USA has so many Republican governors.
    – Carduus
    Oct 31, 2018 at 14:52
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    In that case you might write more about how they focused their resources on governors races and how much of a difference this made. Currently your answer seems to focus on the effects and motives, but not on the causes and methods which achieved this situation.
    – Philipp
    Oct 31, 2018 at 14:59
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    This is a completely incoherent answer. I am asking about governorships, not elections to the House of Representatives. Oct 31, 2018 at 15:54
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    @TylerDurden The point of the answer is "The Republicans chose to focus on governorships in order to gerrymander their states following the 2010 census." Gerrymandering only being applicable to House elections, of course. I don't know whether it's correct, and it could certainly be clearer, but it's far from "completely incoherent." Oct 31, 2018 at 17:52

There tends to be a natural swing across all positions over time for governors we are still in a Republican favored period. This period started with the 2010 midterm elections that saw a massive Republican wave across the nation at almost every level. The Washington Post has some interesting graphs about the historical breakdown. Governors also have an incumbent advantage, so they tend to stay in office until they retire or are term limited depending on the state. The coming elections will likely see the beginning of a swing back to a more even or Democrat majority for governors, presidential mid-terms are historically beneficial for the opposing party.


Simple answer: because many people voted Republican. Few years ago you could have asked "why are there so many democrat governors" and got the same answer.

That's how things work in a democratic system, the guy with the most votes tends to get the job.

And yes, the electoral college works the same, the guy who gets the most votes from the electoral college becomes president.

  • 8
    This is a truism and not useful. Of course it's because of elections, which means the question is, why did so many people vote Republican in this case?
    – gerrit
    Nov 1, 2018 at 11:58

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