Governor races to test COVID-19 response, Trump influence

Voters in most states will head to the polls over the next 20 months to choose governors in what is likely to represent referenda on the patchwork responses to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recovery ahead, with both the current and former president looming large over elections that were once hyperlocal affairs.

Thirty-six states will elect governors in 2022, and at least seven of those states will choose a new governor to replace a term-limited incumbent. Two states — New Jersey and Virginia — will choose governors this year.

Republicans are defending 20 states they currently control, including five that President Biden won in 2020 — Arizona, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Georgia. The GOP will try to hold open seats in Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska and Maryland.

Democrats have 18 incumbents whose terms expire at the end of this year or next, including retiring governors in Virginia, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Hawaii. Just one Democratic governor, Kansas’s Laura Kelly, faces reelection in a state former President Trump carried in 2020.

Both parties will contest Democratic-held seats in Virginia this year and in Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine and Minnesota next year and Republican-held seats in Florida, Iowa and Ohio in 2022. Texas, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico are also likely to draw prominent challengers, though it is unclear whether they will emerge as competitive contests.

The number of open seats may expand: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has not said whether he will run for reelection. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is considering a Senate bid. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is under pressure to resign or retire in the midst of swirling scandals.

It is notoriously difficult to beat sitting governors. In 158 gubernatorial elections held since 2010, only seven incumbents have lost their jobs. No sitting Democrat has lost reelection since Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland lost in the 2010 Republican wave.

Now, as the nation draws closer to ending the coronavirus pandemic and entering what forecasters predict will be a robust economic recovery, most governors running for reelection are likely to find themselves the beneficiaries of falling unemployment rates, robust job growth and budget surpluses, thanks in part to the federal government’s coronavirus relief measures. That is likely to make it difficult for challengers, even in states where voters take a dim view of their governor’s response to the pandemic.

“Any sort of disaster gives a governor an opportunity to be a real leader. The strong leader characteristic matters more than just about anything else,” said Corey Platt, a former political director at the Democratic Governors Association. “It’s hard to beat an incumbent who hasn’t committed a fireable offense that everybody knows about.”

Early polling suggests that most governors are emerging from the pandemic with relatively healthy approval ratings. A survey from the Covid States Project, a consortium of researchers from Northeastern University, Rutgers, Northwestern University and Harvard, found a majority of voters approved of a governor’s handling of the pandemic in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and Ohio, all states where governorships are up for election next year.

There are notable outliers: The poll registered low marks for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), as well as Kansas’s Kelly.

In interviews with strategists across the nation, Republicans said their candidates were likely to run races as much against the Biden administration as against their Democratic opponents.

“Washington is still irreparably broken. They don’t have to balance their books. They are indebting multiple generations and the firewall between chaos in the nation’s capital and reason and stability and good government and good management is in state capitals across the country,” said Danny Diaz, a Republican strategist who advises retiring Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R). “There needs to be a check and there needs to be a balance, and I think a big part of that is state governance.”

But the other specter looming over Republican chances is Trump and candidates in his mold who are likely to contest primaries in key states. In Arizona, the battle to replace Ducey will likely pit a Republican in his mold against a more radical candidate who pitches him- or herself as the next incarnation of Trump. Georgia’s Kemp is all but certain to face a challenge from the right, backed by a former president who harbors a simmering rage against a governor who could not alter election results in a state Trump lost.

Similar primaries are bubbling up in Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota. Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), who channeled Trump before Trump even entered electoral politics, is threatening a comeback bid. In Wisconsin, former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus is considering a bid against Gov. Tony Evers (D), as is former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R).

But voters still see governor’s races differently than they do federal contests for House or Senate seats. Red states and blue states routinely elect governors from both parties, in part because the issue sets in individual states vary so widely.

“People feel like they know their governor better than they know their congressman or their U.S. senator,” said Michael Leavitt, a Republican strategist who advised Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). “You don’t have nearly the type of gridlock or partisanship like there is in Washington, D.C.”

Since 2000, all but two states, Washington and Oregon, have elected Republican governors. Over the same period, all but three states — South Dakota, Utah and Alabama — have elected Democratic governors.

“Governor’s races are more local than Senate races, their statewide counterparts, in large part because of a governor’s impact on schools and jobs,” said Martha McKenna, a Baltimore-based Democratic strategist. “The bottom line in gubernatorial races is leadership. Candidates for governor need to demonstrate that they have strong managerial and communications skills.”

Tags 2022 Andrew Cuomo Brian Kemp Charlie Baker Chet Culver Chris Sununu Coronavirus Donald Trump Doug Ducey Gavin Newsom governors Joe Biden Laura Kelly Pandemic reelection Reince Priebus Ron DeSantis Ted Strickland Tony Evers
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