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.