From the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, through the Covid-19 pandemic and following the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the power of governors has been increasingly clear for Americans to see.
In November, 36 states will hold gubernatorial elections that, while often less expensive than Senate races, are likely to yield more immediate impacts on the political landscape and could provide a launching pad for candidates with even higher aspirations – like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Heading into the general election season, Republicans control 20 of the contested governor’s seats to Democrats’ 16. But many of the key battleground contests feature Democratic incumbents, elected during the 2018 “blue wave,” trying to win a second term. In Michigan and Wisconsin, Govs. Gretchen Whitmer and Tony Evers are likely Republicans’ only obstacle to governing trifectas. The same goes in Pennsylvania – another state President Joe Biden flipped in 2020 – where Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro would likely face a GOP-controlled legislature if he defeats Republican nominee Doug Mastriano, a Trump-allied election denier.
Republicans have stronger grips on the governors’ mansions in the red states of Florida, Texas and Georgia. But those campaigns underscore the unique nature of these races – DeSantis in Florida and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are closely aligned with Trump and his movement, while Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, because he didn’t go along with the former President’s 2020 election lies, has come under frequent criticism from his party’s ascendant right. That, however, didn’t stop him from subduing a Trump-backed primary challenger, strengthening his brand with Peach State Republicans.
The added attention and, to some extent, increasing attractiveness of governors’ races to big donors and outside spenders, could benefit Democrats if only because the party has in the past tended to look past state elections and zero in on federal and presidential ones.
“The rising profiles of some of our governors really make a big difference in getting people to focus on those races,” said David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. “But it’s still much harder to get a major donor to have a conversation with a gubernatorial candidate in a top-tier race than it is for them to have that conversation with a Senate candidate.”
The balance of interest – among donors and the grassroots – is improving, Turner added, especially as some Republican gubernatorial nominees either openly stake out hard-line positions on issues such as abortion rights or are confronted with past positions they’ve since tried to soften.
“This is an issue about Republicans talking about taking away rights and freedoms and what that means for other rights and freedoms,” Turner said, noting Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial nominee Tim Michels’ opposition to same-sex marriage
While Democrats try to fashion a broad argument that ties economic concerns to growing extremism in the Trump-dominated Republican ranks, the GOP has been keen to narrow the conversation to dissatisfaction with the economy – especially in states, such as Nevada, which was hit especially hard by Covid-19 and has been slow to recover.
Republican Governors Association spokesman Jesse Hunt hangs the blame there on Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who will face off against GOP nominee Joe Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff, in the fall.
“These incumbent Democrats took a pretty heavy-handed approach (to Covid-19),” Hunt said. “Everyone knew who their governor was and many of them have not been satisfied with how their states have recovered post-pandemic.”
Hunt also downplayed the impact of the voter backlash to the Supreme Court decision stripping federal abortion rights, saying, “Kitchen table issues that are affecting their everyday lives” will ultimately outweigh “an issue that certainly invigorates the base Democratic voters.”
Though top operatives might stress different broad-based messaging, there is an implicit agreement – as seen in advertising expenditures – on which states are likely to be closely contested and where the respective parties see prime opportunities to pick up seats.
Kansas, a heavily Republican state where Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly was elected in 2018, is widely viewed as a toss-up, while Massachusetts and Maryland, a pair of deep-blue states with twice-elected popular, moderate GOP governors, offer Democrats a built-in advantage with those executives on the way out.
Here’s a look at this fall’s gubernatorial election landscape with Election Day about two months away:
The Biden Belt states
Biden flipped five states from red to blue in 2020, including three that had long been in the Democratic column before Trump won them in 2016.
In Michigan, Whitmer since her election in 2018 has emerged as a favorite of national Democrats. She was also among the first Democratic governors to face intense conservative backlash over Covid-19 policies, including business and school shutdowns. Still, she enters the fall favored to keep her seat.
That’s due in no small part to the mess of a Republican primary that eventually nominated conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, who emerged – with Trump’s seal of approval – after other leading GOP candidates were kicked off the ballot for submitting fraudulent signatures to get on it.
Perhaps more important than Trump’s support, though, is that of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her family, who poured cash into Dixon’s primary bid and see her as an ally in their long effort to shift public money toward private education.
Whitmer, whose pledge to “fix the damn roads” was the hallmark of her 2018 campaign, will again have a strong appeal to many drivers, this time in the form of a new automobile insurance law that helped deliver $400 rebate checks to many Michigan motorists.
Next door in Wisconsin, Evers is locked into what could be the tightest race of the season. Polling earlier this year suggested his path to reelection was narrow and contracting. Since then, Wisconsin Democrats have become somewhat more bullish about his chances. And, once again, that shift in perception was aided by Republicans.
The establishment favorite, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, lost the GOP nomination to Michels, a wealthy construction company owner who won Trump’s support by embracing lies about the 2020 election and suggesting he might go along with a scheme to seek to decertify the results.
Michels also pledged to further restrict absentee voting and replace the state’s bipartisan elections commission with one run by representatives from its congressional districts – which, in practice, would hand control of the body to Republicans.
The Wisconsin race will also, like so many others across the country, offer voters a stark choice on the question of abortion rights. Evers, even before the Supreme Court’s ruling – which brought back into effect a 173-year-old state ban, which is being challenged in court – had been the last line of defense against a GOP-controlled legislature seeking to restrict the procedure. His calls to pass a law protecting abortion rights were ignored by Republicans.
Michels is a staunch opponent of abortion rights.
In Pennsylvania, with term-limited Gov. Tom Wolf on his way out, Democrats are desperate to hold on to yet another seat in a state that has a GOP-led legislature.
Enter Shapiro, the state attorney general and Democratic nominee to succeed Wolf. He will square off with Mastriano, a state senator who not only had Trump’s backing but attended the former President’s rally in Washington on January 6, 2021. (Mastriano says he never entered the US Capitol and has not been charged with any crimes.)
Mastriano is either Democrats’ dream opponent or worst nightmare. He is an unabashed exponent of Trump’s false election fraud claims, has expressed support for an abortion ban with no exceptions and, in the most recent controversy to erupt around his campaign, can be seen posing in Confederate military uniform for a faculty photo back in 2014 when he worked at the Army War College.
In the estimation of some Democrats, he is unelectable in a general election. Among them: Shapiro, who ran an ad during the GOP primary appearing to offer Mastriano a backhanded boost.
Red states that turned on Trump
Biden’s performances in Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest were always considered crucial to his campaign’s fate.
But his victories in Arizona – which also voted for Democrat Mark Kelly in a special Senate election – and Georgia – where Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their Senate runoffs – provided Democrats with proof that, under the right circumstances, they could win big races in states that had eluded them for so long.
Those particular circumstances might be in place in Arizona, where former local news anchor Kari Lake, another Trump-backed election denier, won the GOP nomination over a candidate supported by term-limited Gov. Doug Ducey, who co-chairs the Republican Governors Association, and former Vice President Mike Pence.
In addition to leaning hard into bogus election fraud claims, Lake also opposes abortion and has repeatedly singled out “the transgender movement” for attack. (This after previously expressing support for transgender youth.)
The Democratic nominee is Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, whose national profile rose in the aftermath of the 2020 election amid Republican efforts to sow doubt over the presidential result in Arizona. (None of it – most memorably a ramshackle “audit” – yielded anything.)
Hobbs, meanwhile, has doubled down on her support for abortion rights, in yet another state where the legislature is controlled by Republicans, and Lake’s inflammatory rhetoric.
Republicans appear to be in better shape in Georgia, where Kemp blew out Trump-backed primary challenger David Perdue, a former US senator.
In Abrams’ favor is her highly developed grassroots voter turnout operation and, as her national political star rose after 2018, the ability to raise lots of money. She will need both to fire during the stretch run to Election Day.
The Democratic dream states
But rather than a sign of things to come, it now feels like a high-water mark. Biden underperformed O’Rourke by about 3 points in losing the state to Trump in 2020.
O’Rourke is back on the ticket this year, taking on Abbott, who is seeking a third term.
Like in Georgia, the Republican establishment in Texas saw off a handful of Trump-inspired challengers, and the party’s base appears to be solidly behind its statewide ticket. (Trump endorsed Abbott, but mostly stayed away from the primary.) Still, Abbott’s efforts to shore up his right flank – including the signing of controversial abortion bans and a further loosening of gun laws – could be used against him during the final weeks of the race.
O’Rourke, too, has some baggage – for better or worse. His 2020 presidential campaign, in which he pushed for a mandatory assault weapon buyback program, is still fresh on the minds of conservatives. And though he has, at times, offered a softer version of that message during the current campaign, there is no mistaking his position.
But, as it did for so many other Democratic candidates, the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling put a charge into his campaign. His first television ad warns that “women will die” as a result of the state’s Abbott-backed abortion law.
If Democrats have been yearning for generations to overcome Texas Republicans, the party is only now coming to grips with the GOP’s strength in Florida. Once a perennial swing state, Trump won there twice – by a greater margin the second time around – and it hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1994.
It is also now home to the Republican Party’s second most popular national figure in DeSantis. (And Trump, of course, calls the state home for much of the year.) DeSantis, a onetime US House backbencher before winning a 2018 gubernatorial primary that centered on his support for Trump, saw his profile explode after becoming a leading voice in opposition to pandemic restrictions – and then parlaying those headlines into national notoriety on a variety of culture war flashpoints.
The Democratic nominee, now-former Rep. Charlie Crist (he resigned from the House to focus on the governor’s race), would likely note that, while Florida hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in nearly three decades, it did elect him to the job more recently. He served one term, from 2007 to 2011, most of it as a Republican before becoming an independent, and then a Democrat in 2012. Crist came within a point of defeating Republican Rick Scott (now the state’s junior senator) in 2014, in his first statewide campaign as a Democrat. Two years later, he won the first of three terms in Congress.
Crist is hoping his history and familiarity with voters, mixed with an untapped desire among the electorate to take down the state’s political temperature, could propel him to a remarkable return to his old job. But DeSantis, whose political operation has amassed a record fundraising haul, is the clear favorite in an increasingly red state.
Biden states that could flip
If other states saw more electable Republican challengers lose their primaries, Nevada provides a clear contrast.
Lombardo, the sheriff of Clark County, home to Las Vegas, has deep ties in the state’s most populous area, and cuts a milder figure than flame-throwing GOP candidates in Arizona and Pennsylvania. He has suggested he was open to accusations of 2020 election fraud (all of them have proved baseless), but acknowledged Biden as the winner while seeking to pivot to criticism of Sisolak and state election laws he says are too lax.
Abortion law in Nevada is mostly set in stone – it’s legal up to 24 weeks (with exceptions therafter for health concerns) and could only be reversed by a direct vote. Lombardo, though maintaining he is anti-abortion, has not spelled out any plan to seek to change the law.
Still, Sisolak has been hammering his rival on the issue and warning that, should Lombardo win, additional efforts taken by the Democrat’s office to expand abortion access and protect providers would come under threat.
Sisolak’s fate, though, could likely turn on issues mostly outside his control. Gas prices in Nevada are among the highest in the country, and the state, with its reliance on tourism, has been relatively slow to recover on the economic front. The good news for Sisolak: Both fuel prices and the unemployment rate are trending down.
Minnesota and Maine are also home to Democratic governors in states that broke for Biden in 2020. But neither is considered safely blue territory – Maine delivered three of its four electoral votes to Biden, with one going to Trump under state rules that award votes to the winners of its two congressional districts – and a GOP wave could endanger the incumbents.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills is running against her predecessor, Republican Paul LePage, who has described himself as “Trump before there was Trump.”
LePage has not only made false claims about voter fraud in 2020, but has a history of alleging stolen elections. His campaign has also attacked Mills over Covid-19 restrictions and the struggles of the state’s seafood industry, which Mills has sought to backstop by, among other measures, sending federal relief cash to reimburse licensing fees paid up and down the supply chain.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who is also seeking a second term, will face Republican Scott Jensen, a doctor and former state senator. Jensen emerged as a potential challenger after becoming a critic of the Covid-19 lockdowns during the early days of the pandemic and a vaccine skeptic later on.
Walz and his allies, though, are keen to focus voters on abortion rights and the prospect that, should a narrowly divided legislature break for Republicans, who already control the state Senate, Jensen could lead a push to ban the procedure. Jensen has said that he would not seek to overturn a state Supreme Court ruling protecting abortion rights but that any potential legal prohibition should have exceptions for rape, incest and any threat to a woman’s health.
Oregon and New Mexico could pose greater challenges to Democrats.
There is a three-way race to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Kate Brown in Oregon. The presence of an independent candidate, timber heiress and former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson, could cut into the vote of the Democratic nominee, former state House Speaker Tina Kotek, and potentially benefit Republican former state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan in what’s believed to be a tight race. Republicans have not won a governor’s race in Oregon since 1982 – their longest gubernatorial losing streak in the country.
And in New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham faces a tough GOP challenger in Mark Ronchetti, a longtime TV weatherman who lost a surprisingly close 2020 Senate election to Democrat Ben Ray Luján.
The mismatched states
As this year ends, Massachusetts and Maryland will say goodbye to their Republican governors. Term limits will conclude Gov. Larry Hogan’s tenure in Maryland, while Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, perhaps sensing how a difficult primary challenge from a more conservative candidate might hurt his bid for a third term, decided to retire.
But in Kansas, another political outlier, Kelly is hoping to stick around. The Democrat is seeking a second term against GOP nominee Derek Schmidt, the state attorney general.
Republicans have long sought to paint Kelly as too liberal for a conservative state, while Kelly’s universe of much-needed crossover voters was likely boosted by the heavy turnout on August 2, when Kansans overwhelmingly voted down a ballot measure that would have allowed the state legislature to pursue an abortion ban.
Kelly could also benefit from former Republican state Sen. Dennis Pyle running as an independent. Kansas Republicans are concerned that Pyle, who has criticized the state GOP for not being sufficiently conservative, could siphon votes from Schmidt.
The Democratic nominee in Maryland, Wes Moore, is running against Republican Dan Cox, a Trump-endorsed member of the state’s House of Delegates. While his conservative credentials might have carried him in the primary, in which he defeated Hogan’s endorsed candidate, Cox’s campaign has mostly stalled since, with notable trouble raising money.
It’s a similar story in Massachusetts, where state Attorney General Maura Healey is poised to become the party’s gubernatorial nominee, entering a contest likely with Trump-endorsed former state Rep. Geoff Diehl, who, for all his support from the party’s base, will be a heavy underdog in the general election.