TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - Democrats won governorships on Tuesday in several U.S. states that supported Republican President Donald Trump in 2016 but lost high-profile races in Florida and Ohio, as voters cast ballots in dozens of gubernatorial contests across the country.
The hotly contested race in Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams was seeking to become the first black woman to be elected governor of a U.S. state, remained too close to call early on Wednesday.
In Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum lost his attempt to become the state’s first black governor, suffering a narrow defeat to Republican Ron DeSantis in a racially charged contest that drew national attention.
“I still plan to be on the front lines alongside every one of you when it comes to standing up and fighting for what we believe in,” Gillum, the 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee, told supporters at his election night party, where small groups of people embraced, tears streaming down their faces.
Republicans also scored a major victory in Ohio’s governor race, where Mike DeWine, the state attorney general, defeated Democrat Richard Cordray, who served as the first director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
But in Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers pulled off a narrow win in unseating Republican incumbent Scott Walker, according to data provider DDHQ. The two-term governor, who also survived a Democratic-driven recall election in 2012 after ending collective bargaining for public workers, briefly ran for president in 2016.
In addition to Wisconsin, Democrats also won governor races in three other states - Michigan, Pennsylvania and Kansas - that supported Trump in 2016, bolstering the party’s hopes of capturing those states in the 2020 presidential election.
In Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer turned back Republican Bill Schuette in the contest to replace Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who could not run again due to term limits. In Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly defeated Kris Kobach, a staunch Trump ally, where outgoing Republican Governor Sam Brownback suffered from low approval ratings.
Democratic candidates also triumphed in Illinois, Maine, New Mexico and Nevada, where Republicans had held the governorships. All told, Democrats had flipped at least seven Republican-held governorships without suffering any losses as of early Wednesday morning.
While much of focus of the elections on Tuesday was on which party would win control of the U.S. Congress, Republicans and Democrats were battling across the country for state-level power, which could have a major impact on issues such as congressional redistricting and healthcare.
In Georgia, Abrams, 44, was locked in a tight battle with Republican Brian Kemp, the state’s secretary of state. There was a minor party candidate also in the race, and under Georgia law, if no candidate exceeds 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers advance to a December runoff election.
By 2 a.m. EST (0700 GMT), Kemp held a three-point lead, but Abrams told her supporters that she expected a runoff once all votes were counted.
“I promise you tonight that we are going to make sure every vote is counted,” she said. “We are still on the verge of history, and the best is yet to come.”
Another Democrat trying to make history, Ben Jealous, lost his bid to become Maryland’s first black governor to incumbent Republican Larry Hogan.
The races in Florida and Georgia were seen as a test of whether liberal candidates could prevail in Southern states, where centrist Democrats have repeatedly lost, by appealing to a coalition of young and minority voters.
Both DeSantis and Kemp had strong support from Trump, who travelled to their states in the closing days of the campaigns to energize Republicans at “Make America Great Again” rallies. Democratic former President Barack Obama swooped in to boost the Democrats, and media star Oprah Winfrey visited Georgia on behalf of Abrams.
Accusations of race-baiting dogged Kemp, 55, and DeSantis, 40, who denied the allegations. Neither Georgia nor Florida has elected a Democratic governor in 20 years.
“We all learned in 2016 not to count on anything, not polls, not election integrity, not the electoral mood,” Dawn Hucklebridge, 36, a friend of Gillum, said at his election night gathering as it became clear he would likely lose. “I’m pretty disappointed.”
Going into Tuesday, Republicans controlled 33 governors’ mansions and two-thirds of state legislative chambers.
The Democratic Party said it flipped at least six state legislative chambers on the strength of local races. Democrats now have complete control of state government in Colorado, New York, Illinois, Maine and New Mexico.
Democrats, playing catch-up after a net loss of 13 governorships and more than 900 state legislative seats during the eight-year Obama administration, fielded their largest slate of legislative candidates in more than three decades.
The outcome of elections for state positions could also affect future control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Governors and hundreds of legislators elected this year will be in office when congressional districts are redrawn after the 2020 Census. In some states, a governor’s power to sign or veto congressional maps could decide the partisan balance.
Republicans were eyeing a potential pickup in Connecticut, traditionally a Democratic state, where the contest was too close to call on Wednesday morning.
In Colorado, Democrat Jared Polis became the first openly gay man to be elected governor of a U.S. state. But Democrat Christine Hallquist lost her bid to become the first openly transgender U.S. governor in Vermont, where Republican incumbent Phil Scott won re-election.
Full election coverage: here
Additional reporting and writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Frances Kerry