5 themes to watch for in governors' races

36 governors' races on ballot; 16 women running

By NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER
Getty Images via CNN

Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum

(CNN) - Thirty-six. That's how many governors' races are on the ballot Tuesday.

While much of the national focus has been on Congress, the campaigns have national implications for congressional representation for 2020 and beyond. Democrats and Republicans are pouring millions into these races with that very thing in mind.

So what themes and trends might emerge when all the ballots are counted?

Here are five:

New South. Same South.

Georgia is ground zero. The gubernatorial candidates in this contest couldn't be more different. Stacey Abrams is a black progressive woman. Brian Kemp is a white conservative man. Oprah Winfrey and former President Barack Obama endorsed Abrams. President Donald Trump handpicked Kemp in the GOP primary and stumped for him, as did Vice President Mike Pence.

Democrats have wanted to turn Georgia blue for years -- the last time voters elected a Democratic governor was in 1998. The key to this race, will be ... race. Can the new Georgia -- increasingly black, Latino and more moderate, suburban whites -- beat the old Georgia, which is whiter and older, and more conservative and rural? The same dynamics are at play in Florida, with Republican Ron DeSantis vs. Democrat Andrew Gillum.

Women

A record 16 women are on the ballot this year in governors' races. And some, like Abrams, are trying to make history.

Lupe Valdez in Texas is vying to become first openly gay Latina governor. Paulette Jordan in Idaho is vying to become the first Native American governor. Christine Hallquist in Vermont is the first major-party transgender nominee. But they are long shots.

More likely is Kristi Noem, who could become the first woman elected governor in South Dakota. Kim Reynolds could become first woman elected governor in Iowa -- she is the incumbent but was elevated to the post. In Maine, Janet Mills could become first woman elected governor there. But the real test is whether, come 2019, a record number of women are in governors' mansions. The record is nine, in 2004 and 2007.

Rust Belt and Midwest

This region was key to Trump's victory in 2016. He won Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Iowa, and these states all have governors' races. Some are competitive down the stretch and others aren't. Democrats feel good about holding Pennsylvania and flipping Michigan. Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa are possible pickup opportunities for Democrats, two years after Trump won those states by focusing, in part, on trade and working-class white voters.

Trump promised to revive the hollowed-out manufacturing sector, but tariffs and the trade wars have complicated the picture. Overall, manufacturing jobs have been on an upward trend since the last quarters of the Obama administration and are increasing at a record pace. But the heyday for manufacturing jobs is long gone. For every good headline about FoxConn, there are not-so-good headlines about Harley-Davidson and General Motors. Inroads among Democrats in this region will buoy them and leave GOPers worrying.

Democratic gains

The Obama years were not good to Democrats. Ten years after Obama was elected, Democrats have just 16 governorships, while Republicans hold 33. This cycle, the GOP is defending 26 seats, while Democrats are defending nine. (Alaska currently has an independent governor, who is not seeking election). Forecasters suggest anywhere from a three- to 12-seat net gain for Democrats, and strategists I talk to say a good night for Democrats would be if they gain six seats. But some victories will be much more meaningful than others. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, who has been sounding the alarm about a blue wave for months, faces a tough Democratic challenger. A Walker defeat would be a big win for Democrats. In Florida and in Georgia, if Gillum and/or Abrams wins, Democrats would have two big history-making stars and a blueprint for how to successfully harness changing demographics.

The Trump factor

The President handpicked candidates in three races -- Georgia, Kansas and Florida. If they win, Trump -- and more specifically Trumpism -- will have bragging rights. Wins by Kemp, Kris Kobach and DeSantis will mean that GOP candidates not named Trump have a successful playbook for how to win in a wide array of states, not only in the primary, but also in the general election. Trump injected himself in these races in the waning days, lobbing what many thought were racially coded insults at Gillum and Abrams. He also turned attention to immigration, warning of an invasion at the southern border. Similar dynamics played out successfully for him in 2016. Tuesday could bring a like victory. Which means Trump's 2018 focus on immigration as a wedge issue could be validated in big states, setting up his 2020 re-election and handing other GOPers a strategy for connecting with the President's base.

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