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This weekend, word leaked that Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman and presidential candidate, is on the cusp of announcing a run for governor of Texas next year, taking on the incumbent Republican, Greg Abbott.
Given Mr. O’Rourke’s celebrity, and perhaps the schadenfreude some might feel of watching Texas once again elude a high-profile Democrat’s grasp, the news instantly made the state one of the marquee races of 2022. It also served as a reminder that for all of the attention ladled on the upcoming House and Senate campaigns, the governors’ races may be just as important.
That’s because, as Jennifer Rubin noted last month in The Washington Post, state-level, statewide races offer a different, and maybe more accurate, reading of Trump-wing strength than congressional campaigns. That’s especially true now, after governors have waded into fights over masks, Covid vaccines and critical race theory, making the elections about not just the performance of individual governors, but also the strength of the MAGA cause as a whole.
The parties certainly get it: According to OpenSecrets.org, the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association have already raised a combined $46.6 million, and spent $28.2 million, for the 2021 and 2022 governor races, significantly more than usual. The money is also a function of the sheer number of upcoming races: two this year and an astounding 36 next November.
Most of those races are in deeply red or deeply blue states, but analysts consider five to be true tossups — Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and another five as possible nail-biters — Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Let’s take a look at the battlegrounds, state by state, to see what’s at stake and who might come out on top a year from now.
Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, is leaving office because of term limits, making this an open race in a once-solidly red state that has been trending purple. As in Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and possibly Wisconsin, the race’s dynamics are complicated by a close Senate race — in this case, Mark Kelly, a freshman Democrat who won his seat last year in a special election, is running to defend it against a crowded field of five Republicans.
Just as we saw in the California recall election last week, the candidates for governor are turning this into a referendum on Trumpism. Not that they need to say much: Mr. Ducey’s efforts to block local mask mandates and pass restrictive voting laws have already made this a state race with national implications.
The leading Democratic candidate is Katie Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state who saw her national profile rise in the months after the 2020 election, when she defended the integrity of the state’s vote against pro-Trump activists in the State Legislature who forced a recount.
“Right now, our state government is being run by conspiracy theorists who are more focused on political posturing than getting things done, and that needs to change,” Ms. Hobbs said in her campaign announcement.
She’s running against a widening field of Republicans, most of whom go beyond lip service in their adherence to Trumpism. It’s still early, of course, but the leader in at least one poll is Kari Lake, a former TV news anchor who has trafficked in debunked Covid theories and declared her campaign a fight against “fake news.”
She’s not alone in her right-wing pro-Trump flair. Kimberly Yee, the state treasurer, is an adamant Trump acolyte, and even Matt Salmon, a former congressman who was once a more conventional conservative, has picked up the MAGA banner. Yee is running on a platform of “Arizona first,” a clearly intentional echo of Mr. Trump’s “America first” rallying cry.
Like Mr. Ducey, Gov. Brian Kemp, who is not term limited, has spent the past several months warring against masks and in favor of voting restrictions. But he is also in Mr. Trump’s cross hairs for refusing to overturn President Biden’s victory in the state in 2020 (something that Mr. Kemp doesn’t have the authority to do, a fact that doesn’t seem to register with Mr. Trump and his followers).
Mr. Kemp faces an insurgent campaign in the primary from Vernon Jones, a former Democratic legislator who switched parties this year and is running on a promise to conduct a county-by-county ballot audit of the 2020 vote. Mr. Kemp has significantly more money than Mr. Jones, but Mr. Jones has a respectable 24 percent of Republican support, according to a poll by the Trafalgar Group, which also shows that an endorsement by Mr. Trump could rocket him past the incumbent. (There’s also talk that David Perdue, who lost his Senate race to Jon Ossoff in January, might enter the Republican primary.)
No Democrat has announced a campaign, but all eyes in the party are on Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost to Mr. Kemp in 2018 and has since built a national profile, and a significant war chest, around grass-roots organizing and voter enfranchisement.
The prospect of an Abrams candidacy creates an opportunity for Mr. Kemp: Mr. Jones may be more Trump-y (he is running on a Trump-inflected “Georgia first” line), but the incumbent can claim that he’s better positioned to stave off Ms. Abrams, whom he and his Republican allies are already painting as a threat to Georgian livelihood just short of General Sherman.
Should Mr. Jones best Mr. Kemp in the primary (and if Ms. Abrams does decide to run), he would set up a historic race: the first time in modern U.S. history when both major parties nominated a Black candidate for governor.
In 2018, Laura Kelly, a Democrat, won an unlikely victory in this blood-red state, thanks to the deep unpopularity of cuts to education spending by former Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and the even deeper unpopularity of her opponent, Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state.
Ms. Kelly had hoped to benefit from a tough two-man Republican primary between Jeff Colyer, a former lieutenant governor who served as governor for a year after Brownback resigned to take a job with the Trump administration, and Derek Schmidt, the state attorney general. But Mr. Colyer pulled out of the race last month after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Until Mr. Colyer pulled out, analysts considered the race a tossup, and Ms. Kelly still has several advantages, not least of which is the still-painful memory of the Brownback years. But this is a state that Mr. Trump won by about 15 percentage points in 2020 — in fact, it’s the only 2022 race where a Democrat faces re-election in a Trump state.
Like Arizona, Pennsylvania has been a centerpoint for false claims of voter fraud after the 2020 election. This continuing obsession on the right has in turn colored the Republican primary to replace the Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, who is term limited.
Eight Republicans have declared their candidacy, though no one has emerged as a front-runner. All of them, to some degree, have embraced the pro-Trump cause, if not the specific claims about voter fraud. So far Lou Barletta, a former congressman, has attracted significant attention because of his hard-line immigration stance and name recognition, but it’s anyone’s race at this point.
Only one Democrat, Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, has entered the race, and it’s very likely to stay that way. With an open Senate seat drawing Democrats’ attention, Mr. Shapiro was able to stake a claim relatively early, and convince his party that a rally around his candidacy gave it the best shot at keeping the governor’s mansion.
Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, won election in 2018 by a margin of just 30,000 votes, and Republicans smell blood in the water. Still, it took a long time for a candidate to announce — on Sept. 9, Rebecca Kleefisch, who served as lieutenant governor for eight years under Mr. Evers’s predecessor, Scott Walker, entered the race and immediately became the odds-on favorite to win the primary.
A relative moderate, or at least a conventional Republican, she has nevertheless embraced right-wing voter-bait like robust vaccine exemptions and banning critical race theory from classrooms. She is also taking the risky strategy of leaning on her connections with Mr. Walker — he endorsed her, and his son is her campaign’s political director — even though Mr. Walker is a deeply divisive figure in the state.
As in several other battleground states, the shape of the Wisconsin governor’s race will depend in part on the Senate: in this case, whether the Republican senator Ron Johnson runs for re-election, a decision he has yet to announce.
Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and New Hampshire — it’s still early, and each of these states could end up battlegrounds. Democrats pine for a misstep by Ron DeSantis of Florida; Republicans dream of defeating Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan. As it stands, though, both incumbents will probably keep their jobs, as will two Democrats, Janet Mills in Maine (she may well face former Gov. Paul LePage, a deeply unpopular character) and Steve Sisolak in Nevada.
New Hampshire is a bit different: The incumbent, Chris Sununu, a Republican, has publicly toyed with the idea of running for Senate instead, and if he did both parties would have to weed through a half-dozen or more candidates each who are already circling the primary. Whether the result would be a tossup general election or a likely Republican win is anyone’s guess at this point.
Though let’s face it, so are most of the rest of these races; it’s 2021 after all (and soon to be 2022). And no one is banking on today’s topsy-turvy electoral fortune more than Beto O’Rourke — while most analysts consider Texas a likely Republican win, a poll this month by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas-Tyler put him just five points behind Mr. Abbott. It also has Mr. Abbott losing hard to a name that could only make sense in today’s anything-goes political climate: Matthew McConaughey.
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