Democratic Governors Association spokesman Jared Leopold remained sanguine about the results. “Democrats also will likely hold all three of our incumbents: Governors Steve Bullock, Jay Inslee and Kate Brown,” he said. “Republicans initially eyed a 4-seat net gain in 2016, and it appears they will fall short.”
Now, Democrats are looking ahead. Already struggling with a thin bench of political stars, Democrats said reversing their shrinking ranks in the states is essential to the future of the party.
“To run people for president and Senate, you have to have governors getting ready in the bullpen,” said Matt Bennett, a senior official with Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
Overall ad spending surpassed $128 million for the governors’ races alone, eclipsing total outlays in comparable 2012, when, in addition to 11 gubernatorial contests, Wisconsin held an expensive recall election over Republican Gov. Scott Walker. This year’s increase was driven, in part, by the high number of open seats. Incumbent governors in five of the most competitive races were either term-limited or not seeking re-election.
No state saw more spending on ads than Missouri, which attracted roughly $36 million — more than twice what was spent in 2012 — due in part to an expensive Republican primary. Former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens emerged from the five-way race as the nominee and spent $12.7 million on ads, more than any other candidate in the country.
The spending paid off. He claimed victory Tuesday night. With a Republican legislature, the GOP now controls the state government.
While tiny Vermont’s ad spending total was much lower, $5.8 million, it saw the most spending per voter of any state: roughly $12 for each of the state’s fewer than 500,000 eligible voters. And ad spending in the state represented a tenfold increase over totals in 2012.
But interestingly, Republican Phil Scott won the race despite spending far less on TV ads than Democrat Sue Minter. He got help from the Republican Governors Association-backed group called A Stronger Vermont but still fell behind in the ad war. To voters, that didn’t matter. He won with 53 percent of the votes, according to unofficial results.
Outside groups weigh in
Outside spending on TV spots was down from four years ago, when independent groups accounted for roughly a third of ads — but that didn’t mean those organizations kept silent. This year, outside groups aired one in five political spots in governors’ races. Moreover, two of the biggest players funneled large contributions directly to candidates in Indiana and Missouri, states that have no limits on political donations.
The latter became a national focus for Republicans, who saw the Show Me State as a top pick-up opportunity. The Republican Governors Association alone poured $13 million into Greitens’ campaign, the second-highest contribution the group has ever given in a single year, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of IRS data. Party leaders and GOP mega-donors also pitched in. Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and shipping mogul Richard Uihlein all wrote six-figure checks.
Democrats tried to keep up, with the Democratic Governors Association and a related group contributing $3.7 million to Chris Koster. Out-of-state labor unions and groups donated another $4.2 million. But Team Greitens spent more and won.