(NewsNation) — While much of the attention this midterm season is directed at who will control the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats are also eyeing three dozen governors’ mansions.
Twenty governorships currently held by Republicans are up for grabs, in addition to 16 on the Democratic side. However, just a handful have emerged as critical pickup opportunities for either side. Democrats have gone on the offensive in more red-leaning states like Texas and Georgia, while Republicans are fielding contenders of their own in blue-leaning states like Oregon and Nevada.
Unlike congressional elections that tend to be more nationalized, gubernatorial races focus more on state-specific and local issues, with voters often weighing factors like a candidate’s character and charisma more heavily. Yet the races are also affected by national politics, and Democratic candidates will still have to contend with the headwinds their party faces this year.
Here are seven gubernatorial races we’re watching this November.
Term limits barred Gov. Doug Ducey (R) from running for another term in office, leaving the seat open. Former local news anchor Kari Lake and state Secretary of State Katie Hobbs emerged as the respective Republican and Democratic nominees following the early August primaries.
Lake, who received former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, has been scrutinized for her support of hard-right stances on the 2020 election and abortion, though she has attempted to moderate her messaging after the primary. Hobbs made a name for herself after the last election for certifying the state’s results as Trump peddled the baseless claim that he won it, and for her criticism of the former president.
The race has proven to be competitive. A CBS News-YouGov Battleground Tracker survey released this week showed the two tied at 49 percent each, well within the margin of error. Phil Cox, former executive director for the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and adviser to numerous Republican candidates across the country, suggested the “issues matrix” in the state was in Lake’s favor.
“It’s the economy, crime and immigration. And that’s what’s unique about Arizona, as opposed to some other states, is that immigration is really a top three issue. And Republicans like Kari Lake have an advantage on that issue,” he said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has earned himself a reputation as a hard-charging culture warrior with national ambitions since taking office in early 2019. And despite his polarizing persona, he’s still considered a heavy favorite to win reelection next month.
Recent polling shows him leading his Democratic opponent, former Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), by as much as 11 percentage points. And DeSantis has already raised more than $130 million for his reelection bid — a sum that Crist simply can’t match.
But that doesn’t mean that victory is a foregone conclusion for DeSantis.
Florida has a knack for political surprises, and even Republicans expect the race to be closer than some of the forecasts. At the same time, DeSantis has found himself back in the spotlight as the state works to recover from Hurricane Ian, which leveled parts of Florida last week.
Any misstep or perception that DeSantis isn’t doing enough to aid the recovery could come back to haunt him. What’s more, DeSantis is seen as a potential contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nod, and a lackluster showing in November could be seen as a weakness, even if he ends up winning a second term in the governor’s mansion.
The gubernatorial race in Georgia is a rematch of 2018, when now-Gov. Brian Kemp narrowly defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by only about 55,000 votes.
Abrams is the Democratic nominee once again, but she may be facing a tougher fight this time around. Not only are Democrats nationwide facing a more challenging political environment than they were four years ago, but Kemp now has the advantage of incumbency and an above-water approval rating.
Kemp also passed a key test of his political staying power this year when he beat former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) in a bitter primary fight that saw Trump campaign against the incumbent governor.
Of course, Abrams remains a formidable challenger. She’s a proven fundraiser and her celebrity status among Democrats could help drive turnout in her favor come November.
The outcome of the race could also prove pivotal for Abrams’s political future.
President Joe Biden considered her as a possible running mate in 2020 before ultimately choosing Vice President Harris, and how Abrams performs in this year’s gubernatorial race could make or break her future prospects on the national stage.
Gov. Laura Kelly (D) is fighting for a second term this November as Republicans see the Sunflower State as a critical pickup opportunity, with outside groups like the RGA all in. Kelly won her first term in 2018 by 5 percentage points against Republican Kris Kobach, but the state often leans red, electing Trump by double digits in 2016 and 2020.
Key groups that either stayed neutral in the last gubernatorial election or endorsed Kelly have backed GOP contender Derek Schmidt this time, including the Fraternal Order of Police, Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas State Troopers Association. But an unknown factor is how the issue of abortion could play in the race given how it galvanized voters who struck down a restrictive ballot measure earlier this summer.
“This is the midterm election where, you know, a lot of groups and folks sort of, you know, retreat to their usual political corners,” said Eric Hyers, who’s worked on campaigns for Democratic candidates like Gov. Andy Beshear in Kentucky and former Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana.
“I think the path for Democratic governors, especially in tougher states for Democrats, is to really, really focus on making the lives of their people better and running the state, presiding over the economy and presiding over the state budget in an efficient, pragmatic way. And that’s what Gov. Kelly’s done,” he added.
An Emerson College Polling-The Hill survey released last month showed Kelly receiving 45 percent support among likely voters compared to Schmidt with 43 percent, though it falls within the margin of error.
Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) is also fighting for a second term in office, against Republican candidate and Trump endorsee Joe Lombardo, while also combating certain headwinds that the party’s facing nationally.
For one, residents are still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and the toll it took in Nevada, a tourism-heavy state. A CNN poll released on Thursday showed that the economy was considered the most important issue among likely voters at 44 percent, followed by abortion next at 14 percent. That same poll found Lombardo leading Sisolak by 2 percentage points at 48 percent and 46 percent respectively, though the result falls within the margin of error.
But some politicos argue that governors might not fall prey to the headwinds Democrats are facing nationwide given they’re running different races than congressional candidates.
“What makes governors’ races so unique and able to defy national political trends easier than federal races are that people really do have a different process when it comes to making up their minds as to who they’re going to support,” Hyers said. “And for governor, it’s who is going to make my life better, who has the policies that are going to have a tangible impact on my life, and who do I trust to run this state in a competent way that will make things easier for me.”
Oregon hasn’t elected a Republican for the governorship since 1982, but given that Gov. Kate Brown (D) has emerged as one of the most unpopular governors in the country — she ranks fifth most unpopular governor, according to Morning Consult — Republicans see the state as a key pickup opportunity.
Brown was criticized for imposing strict COVID-19 lockdown measures and was in office as the state witnessed weeks of protesting in Portland in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. State House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R), who is running for the governorship,, has sought to tie her Democratic opponent, former state House Speaker Tina Kotek (D), to Brown.
“I think she’s got a great chance to win. You know … her message is meeting voters right where their top concerns are on the economy, on crime and on homelessness, which is a huge issue in the state,” said Cox, the former executive director for the RGA.
It’s effectively a three-way race between Kotek, Drazan and former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, a former Democrat who’s running unaffiliated. Johnson, who has polled in third place, has been considered a bit of a disruptor given her financial edge and the fact that she’s polled higher than typical third-party candidates. An Emerson College Polling survey released this week found that Drazan received 36 percent support while Kotek received 34 percent and Johnson received 19 percent, suggesting Johnson could siphon off votes.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) appears on track for an easy win next month over his Democratic rival, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas). If that victory materializes, it will mark the latest disappointment for Democrats in a state that they have long insisted is on the cusp of political change.
Unlike Democratic candidates in other parts of the country, O’Rourke hasn’t seemed to benefit from the burst of momentum that followed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and recent polling has shown Abbott’s lead expanding.
While the Texas governor’s mansion appears unlikely to flip this year, O’Rourke’s campaign marks the latest attempt by the former congressman to stage a comeback following his closely watched — though ultimately unsuccessful — bid to oust Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2018.
That makes the stakes particularly high for O’Rourke. After his 2018 loss to Cruz and his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, another defeat would likely only raise further questions about the former rising star’s future political prospects.