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Democrats expected to pick up governorships, but many races are too close to call

Even as the nation fixates on the fight for control of Congress, the 36 gubernatorial races on the ballot offer some of the most dramatic examples of America's cultural and ideological divides under President Donald Trump.

Democrat Stacey Abrams speaks to supporters on March 6, 2018
Democrat Stacey Abrams speaks to supporters on March 6, 2018Read moreBob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Democrats are expected to pick up several governorships on Tuesday, but it is too soon to call most races as polls begin to close on the East Coast, including the potentially transformational candidacies of Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida.

Even as the nation fixates on the fight for control of Congress, the 36 gubernatorial races on the ballot offer some of the most dramatic examples of America's cultural and ideological divides under President Donald Trump.

In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, 44, is hoping to remake the face of leadership in the Deep South by becoming the nation's first female African-American governor. Abrams is running against Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a conservative Republican whose office has been accused of trying to suppress voter turnout. Kemp opened a sizeable lead in initial returns, but many urban counties had yet to report results, including Atlanta.

Racial tensions also surfaced in the Florida governor's race, where Gillum is running against an acolyte of Trump, former Congressman Ron DeSantis.

If elected, Gillum would become Florida's first black governor and the first Democrat to hold the office in two decades. Butwith more than two-thirds of the vote counted, DeSantis and Gillum were locked in an exceptionally close race.

During the final days of the campaign, Trump frequently targeted Gillum with incendiary comments, including calling him a "thief." Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, has cast the race as an opportunity to reject Trump's divisiveness and racially charged rhetoric.

"Us winning tonight, I think, will send a message to Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, as well, that the politics of hatred, of division, of separation, that they've come to an end," Gillum said after he voted in Tallahassee.

Republicans currently hold 33 of the nation's 50 governorships. Of the 36 gubernatorial races on the ballot Tuesday, Republicans are defending 26 of them.

The outcomes of those contests will have major implications for Democratic efforts to build a state-level firewall against some of Trump's policies, including his effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act and gut environmental and labor laws. In most states, governors and state legislatures will be drawing new congressional boundaries after the 2020 Census.

Several of the most hotly contested gubernatorial races took place in Midwestern states that formed the linchpin of Trump's 2016 victory. Democratic leaders in those states view those contests as a major test of whether the party can win back the white working-class voters who abandoned the party in droves that year.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf, D, has beat Republican Scott Wagner, a former state legislator, in a state Trump carried by 44,000 votes two years ago.

Democrats also are hoping to pick up a governorship in Michigan, another state Trump narrowly carried in 2016. Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, a former Michigan legislator, is running against Republican Bill Schuette, the state's attorney general.

In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner, R, lost his seat to Democratic opponent, J.B. Pritzker, in what may have been the costliest governors race in U.S. history. Pritzker, the heir of the Hyatt hotel fortune, spent $171 million of his own money on the race, the Associated Press reported.

Other states in the Rust Belt and across the Upper Midwest were expected to be more competitive.

In Ohio, Democrat Richard Cordray, a former Obama administration official, was trailing Republican Mike DeWine in early returns for the seat left open by term-limited Gov. John Kasich, R. The contest was widely viewed as a dead-heat heading into Tuesday as Cordray and DeWine, the attorney general of Ohio, battled over health care, jobs and the state's opioid crisis.

In Wisconsin, Republican incumbent Scott Walker is trying to hold off a stiff challenge from Democrat Tony Evers, the state superintendent of schools.

Walker, who was once viewed as one of the Republican Party's brightest stars, is vying for a third term. In recent years, Walker has faced mounting voter concern about the condition of Wisconsin schools, but he's also overseeing a robust state economy, including a 3 percent unemployment rate.

"I'm making money in the stock market. My property taxes are down. A lot of jobs are out there for people," said Peter Balistreri, 60, a shipping manager for a transformer manufacturer, after voting for Walker in suburban Milwaukee.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, is being challenged by Democrat Fred Hubbell.

Iowa has been trending Republican, including supporting Trump by about 10 percentage points in 2016, but Hubbell has sought to take advantage of voter unease over access to health insurance and the president's trade war with China, which could impact the state's agricultural community.

Republicans had other reasons for optimism on Tuesday, though.

On the East Coast, Republican Govs. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, both moderates, won reelection. Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, also a moderate, had a sizeable lead in early returns.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu, R, was also favored over his Democratic challenger, Steve Marchand, the former mayor of Portsmouth.

Republicans also saw an opportunity to win back the governor's mansion in Connecticut, where incumbent Dannel Malloy, D, decided not to seek a third term.

Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican Bob Stefanowski, both businessmen, battled in a race that heavily focused on taxes and the state's projected $2 billion budget deficit.

But even if the GOP wins in Connecticut, the party is expected to struggle to hold on to the governorship in Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage, R, is term-limited. Three major candidates are vying to replace LePage: Democrat Janet Mills, the attorney general; Republican Shawn Moody, a businessman; and independent Teresea "Terry" Hayes, a former Democrat and the state treasurer.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates were mounting strong campaigns for governor in heavily Republican Oklahoma, Kansas and South Dakota.

In Oklahoma, Democrat Drew Edmondson was seeking to capitalize on the deep unpopularity of Gov. Mary Fallin, R, who has struggled to mange several rounds of deep budget cuts. Edmondson is facing Republican businessman Kevin Stitt, who campaigned as a strong supporter of Trump.

South Dakota voters were choosing between Billie Sutton – a former rodeo star who was paralyzed in a 2007 riding accident – and Republican Rep. Kristi Noem.

In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, R – who became the face of Trump's anti-voter-fraud panel – is facing off in a hotly contested race with State Sen. Laura Kelly, D, and independent challenger Greg Orman, a businessman.

Pre-election polls showed Kobach and Kelly in a virtual dead heat. Democratic legislators have called for Kobach to recuse himself from overseeing the election where he is a candidate, but Kobach's camp has called this notion "ridiculous."

In the West, Democrats were optimistic that Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D, would defeat Rep. Steve Pearce, R, in New Mexico's governor's race. The two candidates are vying to replace Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who is term-limited.

The Democratic incumbent who seems most at risk of losing this year is Gov. Kate Brown, D, in Oregon.

Although it's a traditionally Democratic state, Brown was facing a stiff challenger from Republican Knute Buehler, who campaigned against Brown's support for some tax increases and the problems the state has encountered in combatting homelessness.

But with an all-mail balloting system, it could take days for all of Oregon's ballots to be counted.

The Washington Post's Annie Gowen and Scott Clement contributed to this report.