Connecting state and local government leaders
Thirty-six states are holding gubernatorial contests. Here's a rundown of the ones we’re tracking headed toward Election Day.
The 2022 midterm election is a big one for governors. There are gubernatorial races happening in 36 states, with eight incumbents either term-limited or not seeking reelection. National debates over issues like abortion, inflation, immigration and crime are front and center. There are also questions over whether candidates backed by former President Trump, who have embraced falsehoods he’s pushed about the 2020 election, can prevail and what that will mean for future elections. But across the country, Democratic and Republican contenders are also staking out policy positions on state-level topics ranging from tax rebates to water shortages to bail reform and homelessness. Below is a rundown of the top races Route Fifty is watching and a look at some of the issues in play in each of them. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.
With Republican Gov. Doug Ducey term-limited, Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is running against Republican Kari Lake, a former television anchor, in a highly-charged race seen as a toss-up. A Fox News poll conducted during the final week of October showed Lake leading Hobbs by only a single percentage point (within the margin of error). Lake has garnered national attention for continuing to push the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. As secretary of state, Hobbs oversees the state’s elections and has forcefully defended their integrity. She said “with 100% confidence that elections in Arizona are secure and fair.” Arizona was one of the key states where Trump and his supporters tried in the wake of the election to overturn voting results. The Arizona Senate also conducted a months-long investigation into allegations of voting irregularities in Maricopa County, only to conclude that President Biden won by a larger margin than originally reported.
The two gubernatorial candidates have also clashed over abortion. Lake supports the state’s new ban on abortions after 15 weeks, while Hobbs opposes it. Lake has pledged to combat illegal immigration, including by completing construction of Trump’s wall on the southern border. Water scarcity hangs over the desert state, with its fast-growing urban areas. Lake identifies it as “perhaps the single most critical issue” for Arizona and has suggested that piping in water from the Mississippi (currently experiencing its own drought) or Missouri river basins could help increase supply. She points to other options, too, like desalination and increasing reservoir capacity. Hobbs has described Lake’s pipeline plans as “completely unfeasible” and warns that there “are no easy ‘silver bullet’ solutions” to the state’s water woes. She’s calling for a special “innovation initiative” focused on water and wants to prioritize efforts in areas like conservation, efficiency and groundwater management.
– Kery Murakami
Former state representative Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, and Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, are squaring off in a rematch. Kemp defeated Abrams in a tight 2018 race that generated national buzz. This time, things have been lower-key and appear to be leaning in Kemp’s favor. In recent polls, he has a widening lead—with an average advantage of nearly 8 percentage points as of Nov. 4, according to one analysis. After her 2018 campaign, Abrams was seen as a rising Democratic star in a critical swing state and as a strategist who got more Black voters to the polls. There was even talk of her joining Biden’s ticket in 2020. Abrams is a Yale-trained tax attorney, entrepreneur and writer. Kemp has a background in business, including construction and real estate, and says he got into politics in the early 2000s “out of frustration with government.”
Many of the policy rifts between the two break along predictable lines. For instance, Abrams favors toughening gun laws, repealing a ban backed by Kemp on most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, and improving voter access to the polls. Kemp is promising a $1 billion tax rebate if reelected, with payments of $250 for single filers and $500 for married couples. He highlights his push to reopen the state quickly after the disruption Covid caused, touts his overall record on the economy and a range of other policies adopted on his watch, including pay raises for teachers. Kemp makes a case that a controversial election law he signed last year actually makes it easier for people to vote and “hard to cheat” in Georgia’s elections. Trump opposed Kemp’s reelection bid, upset the governor didn’t get onboard with his attempts to reverse the 2020 election results. But in the GOP primary Kemp defeated Trump-backed candidate David Perdue by a wide margin.
Incumbent Laura Kelly, a Democrat, won election in 2018 during an election cycle when backlash against then-President Trump fueled support for Democrats. She’s now locked in a close race with Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Kansas is hardly a bastion for Democrats. Trump beat Biden there by a roughly 14-point margin in 2020. But, in an August referendum that buoyed Democrats’ hopes, voters rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have jeopardized abortion access.
Kelly pitches herself as a moderate who helped to right the state’s finances after ugly budget gaps and service cuts brought on by now-infamous tax cuts championed by former GOP governor Sam Brownback. She also points to economic development wins, including an electric vehicle battery plant expected to draw up to $4 billion of investment. And, Kelly says, if reelected she’ll push for a speedier end to the state’s sales tax on food—now set to be phased out by 2025 under legislation she signed earlier this year. Schmidt has knocked Kelly’s handling of Covid, including orders restricting church and school attendance. He says he wants to cut state spending and has a plan to encourage more people to retire in Kansas by exempting pension and Social Security payments from state income tax. Schmidt also says he wants to pay down state debt, including with the public pension system. And he’s proposed the idea of a state constitutional amendment designed to prevent transportation dollars from getting diverted to other parts of the budget.
Some high profile Kansas Republicans have endorsed Kelly, including former Kansas Attorney General Carla Stovall and former Gov. Bill Graves. Trump, law enforcement groups and the Kansas Farm Bureau are among those backing Schmidt. State Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Republican running as an independent, could siphon votes away from Schmidt. Republicans in the state have complained in recent days that Democrats are using “underhanded tactics” to lend support to Pyle and split the vote that would otherwise go to Schmidt.
Maine voters will choose between two familiar names in this month’s election, as incumbent Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, faces off against former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican. Mills became the first woman governor in Maine’s history when she took office in 2019, succeeding LePage, who was term-limited. She is touting an influx of school funding under her tenure, as well as the rollout of a voter-approved Medicaid expansion that LePage tried to stall. LePage was a hugely controversial figure during his two terms in office, seen by many as a precursor to Trump’s style of politics. He frequently clashed with the media and even other Republicans and drew national attention in 2016 for making racially-charged comments about drug dealers. This year, LePage is plugging his business background, proposing cuts to state taxes and criticizing Mills’ policies that favor renewable energy over petroleum-based products. LePage left office in 2019 with some of the lowest approval ratings of any governor in the country, saying he was “done with politics” and moving to Florida. He currently trails in the polls. LePage won both his previous elections with a plurality—rather than a majority—of voters, because of third-party candidates. Maine voters tried to limit situations like that by approving ranked choice voting for primary and federal races, but the system does not apply to the general election for governor.
– Daniel C. Vock
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is a nationally known figure, because of the Democrat’s clashes with Trump over Covid-19, a foiled plot to kidnap her and Whitmer’s forceful advocacy of abortion rights even before the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. Whitmer is also popular at home, and she consistently leads in polls against her Republican challenger, Tudor Dixon (although Whitmer’s leads have shrunk recently). Whitmer was elected in 2018 promising to “fix the damn roads” in the home state of the American auto industry, but the Republicans who control the legislature objected to her plans to raise gas taxes to do so. Instead, she found money for a smaller package focused on state roads and, in a recent campaign ad, promised to “finish the damn job” if she is reelected.
Dixon, a media personality, took the GOP nomination with support from Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, an influential figure in Michigan politics. Dixon has cast doubt on Biden’s victory in 2020 and attacked Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state for running an “illegal” election. She has also targeted schools that teach about LGBTQ people or allow transgender girls to compete in high school athletics as girls, and she promises that she’ll work to “preserve parents’ rights” when it comes to school curricula.
– Daniel C. Vock
Gov. Steve Sisolak’s election four years ago broke a two-decade-long streak of Republican control of the Nevada governor’s office and allowed Nevada Democrats to enact many of their long-sought priorities, like gun control measures and a public option for health insurance. But Democrats’ dominance in Carson City could soon end, with Sisolak facing a formidable challenge from Joe Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff who has been endorsed by Trump.
Nevada is a politically competitive state, and the governor’s race there has seen many major national debates rehashed. Lombardo criticized Sisolak for squelching business with Covid-19 restrictions, for excessive spending and for policies that he criticized as being too lenient on criminals. The governor, on the other hand, blamed Lombardo for a rise in crime, because Lombardo is sheriff of the state’s biggest county (Las Vegas is located there). Sisolak also attacked Lombardo for wanting to restrict access to abortion and for his affiliation with Trump.
Democrats currently control the Nevada Legislature, but election forecaster Louis Jacobson recently rated the contest for control of the state Senate as a “toss-up.”
– Daniel C. Vock
A Republican congressman from Long Island is giving Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul a surprisingly strong challenge in her bid to hold office in a state where Democrats should have a huge advantage. Hochul became governor in 2021, following the resignation of Andrew Cuomo amid sexual harassment allegations against him. Hochul, who hails from Buffalo and served in a low-profile post as lieutenant governor before her current job, had little time to introduce herself to voters before the campaign began.
U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin is banking on voters not being enthusiastic about their new executive and looking for a change. Like other Republicans in this cycle, Zeldin has embraced tough-on-crime messaging, punctuated during the campaign by two dramatic episodes—over the summer, the candidate was physically attacked at a campaign event and, in early October, two teenagers were shot outside his home. Concerned about a late surge by the GOP-contender, the Democratic Governors Association last week created a super PAC to support Hochul. Hochul has focused on abortion rights, Zeldin’s ties to Trump and his vote in Congress against certifying the 2020 election for Biden.
There are about twice as many Democrats as Republicans in the state, with New York City’s giant electorate leaning heavily Democratic. But a poll last week showed Hochul with just a 52% to 44% lead. Still, The Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics are forecasting the race as “likely Democrat.”
– Kery Murakami
A Republican could become the next governor of Oregon, shaking up a state long known for its progressive policies. If Christine Drazan, the former state House minority leader, wins in this month’s elections, it would be the first time in over three decades that a Republican held the top job in Oregon. Victor Atiyeh was the last Republican to serve in the post, from 1979 to 1987.
Drazan is within reach of winning despite some positions that put her at odds with the left-leaning voters who dominate the state. A three-way race and major donations from Nike founder Phil Knight to support the independent candidate are among the factors that have complicated the path for Democrats. Former state House speaker Tina Kotek is the Democratic standard bearer, but support for her candidacy has been undercut by Betsy Johnson, a former Democratic state senator who is running as an independent. The three women are vying to succeed Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, who is term-limited. The race is considered a “toss-up,” and some polls show Drazan with a narrow lead.
Homelessness, a major problem in parts of Oregon—especially the Democratic stronghold of Portland—looms large in the race, with all three candidates saying they’ll declare “a homelessness state of emergency” if elected. Drazan and Johnson have keyed in on the worries over rising homelessness and crime, while Kotek has stressed the need for more housing and services. Drazan has also said if she’s elected, she’ll “tear up” an executive order issued by Brown that is geared toward reducing air-polluting carbon emissions and that she’ll support building more lanes on highways to ease traffic congestion.
– Kery Murakami
In the Keystone State, Republican Doug Mastriano, a state senator, retired Army colonel, Trump ally and ardent backer of the former president’s false claims about the 2020 election, is running against Attorney General Josh Shapiro. They’re vying to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, in one of the nation’s most-watched swing states. Early November polls show Shapiro ahead of Mastriano by 9 to 11 points after holding a solid lead for months.
A major plank in Mastriano’s platform is a plan to tighten the state’s voting laws. He’s proposed having millions of registered voters re-register and also wants to ditch no-excuse mail-in voting and eliminate ballot drop boxes. Some observers have expressed alarm that a candidate who so enthusiastically supported Trump’s election lies is a top contender to become governor and could exert substantial influence over how the state conducts elections. On guns, Mastriano has pledged to make Pennsylvania a “Second Amendment Sanctuary” if elected. Mastriano has also been a long-time advocate of restricting access to abortions, which are now legal in Pennsylvania before the 24th week of pregnancy. As a lawmaker, Mastriano suggested in a 2019 interview that women who had abortions should be charged with murder. Natural gas production is a major industry in the state and Mastriano says he wants to roll back energy sector regulations so the state can “drill and mine like it should.” He also wants to slash the gasoline tax and taxes on corporations and clamp down on lobbying practices in Harrisburg.
Shapiro has tried to discredit Mastriano as a conspiracy theorist, while on policy he’s promised to defend abortion rights and focus on issues like improving economic equality for the state’s Black residents and expanding job training and apprenticeship programs. Although he acknowledges the importance of gas drilling to the state economy, Shapiro says he’ll prioritize the transition to clean energy, promoting solar power and other renewables and looking for investments in new technology like carbon capture. He says as governor he’d support funding to recruit and hire for open policing jobs. But he has also outlined ways he wants to revamp the criminal justice system to make it more fair, like stopping imprisonments for “technical” parole violations, creating uniform use-of-force standards for police and overhauling cash bail.
A former teacher and school administrator is the only thing stopping Republicans from running the show in one of the most polarized states in the country, and both parties are spending accordingly. The race between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and his GOP challenger Tim Michels has already cost $115 million this year, eclipsing the record of $93 million set in 2018 when Evers edged out the sitting Republican, Scott Walker.
Evers, a former state superintendent of schools, has had an acrimonious and largely dysfunctional relationship with the Republicans who have lopsided majorities in the state Legislature because of gerrymandering. The Legislature has thwarted almost all of the governor’s legislative agenda, including expanding Medicaid, increasing funding for schools and preserving abortion rights. But Evers has been able to use federal relief funds and executive actions to circumvent the lawmakers on some issues.
Michels co-owns his family’s construction company, which builds highways and transit projects (including the massive East Side Access project in New York). He has cast himself as a political outsider and secured Trump’s endorsement. Cutting corporate and personal income taxes and adopting a “parental bill of rights” for parents of public school students are among his policy goals. Michels has questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election but hasn’t been as vocal on the issue compared to some other GOP candidates. He recently drew attention for saying Republicans “will never lose another election” in Wisconsin if he is elected governor, but the comment was playing off his confidence that the GOP could make major inroads with Black voters and union members who’ve traditionally backed Democrats.
– Daniel C. Vock
What about state legislatures?
The once-a-decade drawing of new legislative districts, combined with a resurgent Republican party, could lead to an influx of new state lawmakers next year. But experts predict only a handful of chambers around the country are at risk of flipping from one party to another.
Of the roughly 7,380 state legislative seats across the U.S., 6,279, or about 85%, will be up for grabs this year, according to Mick Bullock of the National Conference of State Legislatures. NCSL expects about 20% of those elected this month to be new lawmakers, said Ben Williams, a policy specialist for the group.
Democrats believe they will be helped by the debate over preserving abortion rights, while Republicans say Biden’s sagging poll numbers and concerns about the economy, especially inflation, will help them to capture Democratic seats.
A forecast by Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics sees control of only 15 chambers nationally as competitive.
- Eight are now held by Democrats: the Houses in Alaska, Maine, and Minnesota, the Nevada Assembly and the Senates in Maine, Nevada, Colorado and Oregon.
- Seven are now controlled by Republicans: the Houses in Arizona, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and the Senates in Minnesota, Arizona and Michigan.
Williams noted that, with few exceptions, the party of the president has lost state legislative seats in past midterm elections.
For more details on this year’s battles to control state legislatures, see Route Fifty’s recent coverage here.
– Kery Murakami