In 2018, Democrats sliced deeply into Republicans’ commanding hold on U.S. governorships.
They flipped seven states, including Michigan and Wisconsin, foreshadowing changes in a Midwest region that helped send Joe Biden to the White House two years later, after Donald Trump had built his winning coalition there in 2016.
As those same states prepare to hold elections for governor again in 2022, the landscape looks different for Democrats. Trump is out of office, but very much involved in GOP politics. Biden has seen his popularity plummet during his first year as president. Republicans last month picked up the governorship in Virginia, a state that was decisively trending blue. And Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey survived a re-election bid that was much closer than anyone expected.
Between high-voltage partisan primaries and general elections in presidential battleground states, the scene is set for a competitive year, particularly for incumbent Democrats.
Here are 10 races that deserve close attention:
The Peach State presents perhaps the biggest headache for Republicans in 2022. Gov. Brian Kemp, who won four years ago as a Trump loyalist, will need to get past former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Trump-endorsed primary challenger, if he wants a second term. A poll commissioned by Atlanta’s Fox affiliate shortly after Perdue entered the race found Kemp with a wide lead. The margin narrowed to a dead heat when voters were told about Trump’s endorsement.
Trump is furious that Kemp refused to rig Georgia’s election results in his favor and has mused that perhaps it would have been better if Democrat Stacey Abrams had beat Kemp in 2018. Abrams, who narrowly lost that race, has announced she is running again, this time with a higher national profile — effectively clearing the Democratic primary field.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is term-limited, and the GOP primary features a crowd of candidates cozying up to Trump and his supporters. Kari Lake, a former TV news anchor in Phoenix, scored Trump’s early endorsement and leads early polls, but that hasn’t cleared the field. Also running are former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, who boasts support from Trump-friendly Sens. Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham; state Treasurer Kimberly Yee; businessperson Steve Gaynor; and Karrin Taylor Robinson, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents.
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who has emerged as a leading voice against Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen, is widely favored to win the Democratic nomination.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers unseated then-Republican incumbent Scott Walker by a slim margin in 2018. And with Wisconsin establishing itself as one of the major battlegrounds of the Trump era, odds are on another close race as Evers seeks a second term in 2022.
Walker’s former lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, a former TV news anchor in Milwaukee, has emerged as the GOP front-runner, but she could soon have competition from Kevin Nicholson, who lost a 2018 Senate primary. Trump has urged former U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy to run, but the ex-MTV “Real World” star has signaled no plans to enter the primary.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has emerged as a national figure since her vow to “fix the damn roads” helped her win in 2018. She implemented strict Covid-19 public health orders, facing backlash from Republicans who worked to curb her authority. She was targeted in an alleged kidnapping plot by anti-government extremists driven by anger over those pandemic orders. Biden considered her for vice president. But some of her personal decisions during the pandemic, such as flying on a private plane to Florida not long before warning Michiganders against out-of-state travel in early 2021, have also come under scrutiny.
Republicans have a crowded, unsettled primary contest. The early front-runner is James Craig, the recently retired Detroit police chief. Other GOP contenders to watch include Tudor Dixon, a conservative commentator with strong ties to Trump world; Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who became a high-profile activist against Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions and has shown impressive fundraising skills; and Kevin Rinke, a self-funding former car dealer.
Gov. Steve Sisolak is another potentially vulnerable Democrat in a state known for close elections. Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, who lost a 2018 re-election bid, is seeking the GOP nomination. His top competition is Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo.
Democrats may have no better opportunity to pick up a governorship. Gov. Larry Hogan, a uniquely popular Republican in a deep blue state, is term-limited — and his lieutenant governor has passed on running to succeed him. Hogan has endorsed a member of his Cabinet, Secretary of Commerce Kelly Schulz. Trump has endorsed Daniel Cox, a state lawmaker.
On the Democratic side, state Comptroller Peter Franchot and Tom Perez, the former national party chair, top a large field of well-known candidates. They include former state Attorney General Doug Gansler; former U.S. Secretary of Education John King; former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker; and author Wes Moore.
Maryland is to Democrats what Kansas is to the GOP. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbents on the ballot in 2022. She won over the polarizing Republican Kris Kobach, a Trump acolyte, in a deep red state. She’s likely to face state Attorney General Derek Schmidt in her re-election bid. Cook Political Report rates the race a tossup.
Democrats appear to have cleared the field for state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, making this one of the party’s stronger prospects for a hold in 2022, with Democratic incumbent Tom Wolf term-limited. Shapiro has a national profile and outperformed Biden and other Democrats in key areas of the state when both were on the ballot in 2020.
Republicans, meanwhile, have a crowded and potentially messy primary that is likely to feature state Sens. Jake Corman and Doug Mastriano, both of whom have indulged Trump’s stolen election lies, and former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, who lost a 2018 Senate race.
The Sunshine State is trending red, but with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis up for re-election, Democrats are eager to weaken one of the GOP’s top presidential prospects.
DeSantis’ lax pandemic management, opposition to vaccine mandates and appetite for culture wars over issues like critical race theory have emboldened his opponents. But Democrats could be in for an expensive primary. Polls have shown a battle brewing between U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist — a former governor who was a Republican when he held the job from 2007 to 2011 — and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. Democratic State Sen. Annette Taddeo is also running.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, the first woman to hold the job in Maine, is up for re-election, and Cook Political Report has the race leaning her way. But with Paul LePage, Mills’ Republican predecessor, angling for a comeback, the race could get heated. LePage, known for his in-your-face conservatism and “Trump before Trump” persona, left office as one of the most unpopular governors in the country, according to polling by Morning Consult.
A wild card for Republicans could be Maine’s ranked choice voting primaries. Voters approved the system in 2016, partially in response to LePage’s stormy tenure and his victories by plurality. Ranked choice voting, which isn’t used in general elections for governor in Maine, allows voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference. As low-performing candidates are eliminated, their second-choice votes are reallocated until someone reaches a majority.
Honorable Mentions: Ohio and Texas
Both the Buckeye and Lone Star states are likely to favor their respective GOP incumbents, Mike DeWine and Greg Abbott. Both are long-tenured public officials who have been popular in their party and with voters at large. But both also are facing primary challengers on the right — and not from the usual gadflies often attracted to unwinnable races.
DeWine’s early restrictions and mandates on businesses to slow the spread of Covid-19 infuriated many base conservatives and inspired the candidacy of former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci. Abbott was one of the first governors to lift pandemic restrictions, but that he implemented them at all is a core grievance being advanced by Allen West, the former Florida congressman who briefly served as the Texas state GOP chair, and state Sen. Don Huffines.
DeWine and Abbott are still favored to win their primaries, but things will get ugly. DeWine would face either former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley or former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley in the general election. Abbott would face former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost a close Senate race to Cruz in 2018 and made an unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
Trump has endorsed Abbott and has stayed out of the Ohio GOP primary — for now.