The map above shows how political control of US governor’s mansions have evolved from 1790 to the present day. For times where multiple parties controlled the governorship over the course of one year, the party which had the longest period of control in that year are marked on the map. The map illustrates how power has shifted, from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans, then to the Whigs, and finally for the past 150 years to a back-and-forth struggle between Republicans and Democrats. Important to note: the effect of elections is usually only seen on the map the next year. For example, the 1994 midterms were a landslide for Republicans, but those governors did not generally take office until early 1995, so 1995 is when those states that flipped Republican turn red on the map.
Below, I go into some more detail about the trends in party control of governorships over different time periods, starting with our nation’s earliest political struggle between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.
The first party-system in the United States was divided between the Federalists, followers of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The Federalists supported a strong national government, and in foreign policy were friendlier towards the British. The Democratic-Republicans favored a limited government, and desired good relations with the French. Geographically, the Federalists were strong in the North-East while the Democratic-Republicans dominated the South.
In 1790 the parties were fairly equally matched, while a large number of governors remained non-partisan. During George Washington’s second term (1793-1796) the Federalist party gained strength, eventually controlling half the nation’s governorships. John Adams was elected as the first and only Federalist President in the election of 1796, defeating Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in a rematch in 1800, and the Democratic-Republicans gained popularity in the states under his administration as the Federalist party faded away. By 1810 the Democratic-Republicans had the governorship in almost 90% of states. The Federalists experienced a brief surge in support during the early stages of the War of 1812, as the war was initially unpopular in New England. But once the war ended in a victory for the US, the Federalists were discredited, and the party dissolved at the national level.
With the death of the Federalists as a national force, the Democratic-Republicans were the sole US political party for a short period of time. James Monroe faced only token opposition from the Federalists in 1816, and ran unopposed as the Democratic-Republican nominee in 1820, the last presidential race to feature only one candidate. However, the election of John Quincy Adams in 1824 broke the Democratic-Republican party apart. Into it’s place rushed two new parties, the Democrats, led by Andrew Jackson, and the National Republicans, led by Henry Clay. The Democrats would absorb most of the old Democratic-Republican supporters, while the National Republicans took up the mantle of the Federalists, arguing for a strong national government. The National Republicans were unable to defeat Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, and eventually transformed into the Whig Party.
The Whigs had more success as a party, electing William Henry Harrison in 1840 (he would die in office after only a month) and Zachary Taylor in 1848. They had less success at the state level however, only gaining a majority of governor’s mansions once throughout their decades long existence, in 1838. This was their peak, and they declined rapidly at the state level throughout the 1840s and early 1850s. The Democrats remained the d0minant party at the state level, but their hegemony was about to be broken by the “slave question”.
The issue of slavery quickly tore the nation apart in the 1850s. The Whig party collapsed due to bitter divides over this issue. Anti-slavery Whig and Democrats joined forces to form the new Republican party, which competed for the first time in the elections of 1854. The Republicans opposed the expansion of slavery into new states and territories, while the Democrats increasingly became a party representing slavery interests and the South. The Republican party gained strength in the North through the late 1850s, as former-Whigs and Know-Nothings (an anti-immigration party founded in the aftermath of the Whig collapse) joined their ranks. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president on a platform of stopping the spread of slavery, and the South seceded in reaction.
During the Civil War, the Republicans were dominant in the Union States, with only a few Democratic and Unionist governors serving during this time. The Confederacy abandoned it’s party system entirely, with non-partisan governors serving who were almost entirely former Democrats.
Republicans continued to gain strength at the state level after the Civil War ended. Reconstruction gave voting rights to blacks in the South, which created a huge base of support for the Republican party. Despite Democratic attempts to restrict blacks right to vote through violence and intimidation, the Republican party was able to gain control of a large number of governorships in the South. At the same time, they remained dominant in the North as the Democrats had been discredited by the Civil War. By 1869 the Republican party controlled 81% of all governor mansions in the US.
The two parties returned to more even footing after Reconstruction was violently ended by white supremacist campaigns. Democrats were able to suppress the black and republican vote in the South, giving them one-party control over those states. Meanwhile, in the North the Republican party had grown less popular as the Civil War receded in public memory. For two decades, from the mid-1870s to the mid-1890s, the Democrats generally controlled more governorships than the Republicans. There were a few years when Republicans briefly retook a majority of state governors mansions, but the Democrats vice-grip on the South gave them a large advantage.
The mid-1890s marked a transformation for both parties fortunes however. The two-party system was disrupted by the rise of the Populist Party. This party was an outgrowth of the Farmers Alliance, and gained massive support in the rural areas of the Western and Southern United States. Farmers in these areas were suffering economically, and felt abandoned by both major political parties. They forged alliances with labor groups in several states, and at their peak they controlled four governors mansions. The turmoil of this period, which featured a huge economic crisis in the form of the Panic of 1893, took place under a Democratic President, and Republicans were able to regain a consistent majority of state governorships despite being shut out in the South.
Republican strength at the governor level continued, with two exceptions, until the the Great Depression in 1929. The two exceptions were the 1910s, when the Republican party was bitterly divided between a conservative faction, led by William Howard Taft, and a progressive faction, led by Theodore Roosevelt. Democrats were also able to gain a majority of governors for a brief two year period from 1923-1924 under the Harding/Coolidge Administration.
But otherwise, it was not until the Great Depression that Republicans hold at the state level was broken. in 1930 Republicans controlled 63% of all governors. Just three years later, they controlled only 17%. Democrats had a huge majority of governors until 1939, while at the same time electing FDR to the presidency, and achieving 2/3rds majorities in the House and Senate. It was one of the most dominant periods for any political party in US history, as FDRs popularity was buoyed by the success of the New Deal.
The 1938 elections delivered a blow to the New Deal as Democrats margins were cut at the state and federal level. WW2 began shortly after, and Democrats continued to lose governor races throughout this period even as FDR remained popular. Republicans regained a majority of governor mansions in 1944, and the two parties proceeded to trade places over the next 10 years. But in 1955, after a recession under President Eisenhower, Democrats retook a strong majority at the state level.
Democrats held over 60% of the governorships every year for a decade, from 1957 to 1966. But big changes were underway, as the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, and Womens Rights movement, among others, reshaped politics in the 1960s. A backlash against LBJ’s administration led to big gains for Republicans in 1966, who for the first time since Reconstruction became competitive in the South, this time buoyed by a backlash against the Democrats Civil Rights agenda.
This Republican resurgence was short-lived however, as Democrats regained state power during the Nixon and Ford administrations. After Watergate Democrats reached a peak, holding 72% of all governors mansions from in 1976, 1977, and 1978. Republicans were not able to retake a majority of governorships until after the huge Republican mid-term landslide of 1994, when Bill Clinton’s unpopularity gave them a solid majority of state houses along with both houses of congress for the first time in decades. Since 1995 Republicans have dominated at the state level with a rare exception, the 2007-2010 period when Democrats benefited from a backlash against the Iraq War and the Great Recession under President George Bush. But by 2011 Republicans had regained their state-level edge and today hold over 60% of all governor mansions.
If we look at the trends over the past 160 years, since the advent of the Democratic-Republican party system in 1855, we see that generally no party maintains an edge in governorships controlled for more than a few years. The data is characterized by sharp turns, where one party may control 60% of governor positions for a few years, then plummet down to only 40% for the next few years. The longest periods when one-party had the majority of governor positions are from 1971 to 1994 for the Democrats (24 years), and 1895 to 1910 (16 years) for the Republicans. Generally, each party gained when the other party had a president in the white house, with a few rare exceptions such as the 1930s when Democrats continued to gain for a few years even after FDR took office.
Highest Peaks in % of Governorships Controlled:
1938: Democrats controlled 81% of all governorships. This was the peak of Democratic Power during the New Deal and Great Depression, as Democrats also had huge edges in the House and Senate due to FDR’s massive popularity. Their edge in governorships is even greater if you include the left-wing Farmer-Labor Party governor of Minnesota and the Progressive Party governor of Wisconsin in their totals. Republicans at the time controlled only 7 governorships. Republicans had been stuck in single digits since 1933, after FDR’s landslide election in 1932. The Great Depression took a huge toll on the Republicans during the 1930s, but the 1938 midterms would help them recover. Republicans jumped up to 19 governors as the nations recovery from the Great Depression suffered a setback.
1976-1978: Democrats controlled 72% of all governorships. These years, post-watergate but before Jimmy Carter’s popularity tanked due to foreign crises, oil shocks, and recessions, were some of the best for Democrats in recent memory. Democrats still had a solid grip on the South despite Republican attempts to break in post-civil rights, while Republicans in the north had been decimated by Nixon and Ford’s unpopularity.
1984: Democrats controlled 70% of all governorships. This one may seem surprising. 1984 was the year Reagan was re-elected in a landslide, but at the time Democrats were still dominant in the governor races. A recession in 1981-1982 had boosted their representation, and the South STILL had many Democratic governors even at this late date. Democrats also reached this 70% mark in 1959 after a recession under Republican president Dwight Eisenhower.
1869: Republicans controlled 81% of all governorships. The Reconstruction period was great for Republicans, as the votes of newly enfranchised blacks in the South made Republicans competitive there, while the party was still popular in the North after it’s victory in the Civil War. From 1866-1870 Republicans had over 70% of all the nation’s governors under their control.
1921-1922: Republicans controlled 71% of all governorships. The party benefited from a “return to normalcy” under popular president Warren G. Harding. The Democratic Party was unpopular after 8 years of Woodrow Wilson. Republicans held nearly every governorship outside of the South, which was still under one-party Democratic control.
1997-1998: Republicans controlled 64% of all governorships. Bill Clinton’s easy re-election in 1996 had not helped Democrats regain governorships from the Republican Party, as more southern states flipped to Republican control.
1856: Know-Nothings controlled 19% of all governorships. The Know-Nothings, like the Republicans, rose out of the ashes of the Whig Party, but had much less staying power. Their platform was anti-immigrant and anti-catholic, but they could not avoid the political issue of slavery and quickly declined as their party was absorbed by the Republican and Democratic parties.
1897-1898: Populists controlled 11% of all governorships. The Populists were a left-wing insurgent party, dedicated to farmers aid and nationalization of the railroads. They allied with labour groups in several states, and were able to take control of four governor mansions, mostly in the Midwest with the exception of Washington, in 1897 and 1898, while the allied Silver Party took control of Nevada. Their party was already in the process of being taken over by Democrats under Williams Jennings Bryan by this point, and the Populists would quickly fade away like most third-parties.
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