Governors across the country are bracing for contentious reelection bids after over a year in the national spotlight leading the response to the coronavirus pandemic in their respective states.
Thirty-six governor’s mansions will be up for grabs in 2022, with 29 governors running for reelection. Those executives running for another term will almost certainly have to defend their pandemic responses — and often from both sides.
In Florida, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Rep. Charlie CristCharles (Charlie) Joseph CristGovernors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight Trump announces endorsement in GOP race to replace Crist in Florida GOP leader taking proxy voting fight to Supreme Court MORE, the two main Democratic gubernatorial candidates, have hammered Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisDemocrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms California dreaming did not become reality for Republicans Florida landlord requiring proof of vaccinations from tenants MORE (R) over his laid-back response as coronavirus cases rise, and in Texas, Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottBiden administration announces federal support for patients, abortion providers in Texas California dreaming did not become reality for Republicans Judge schedules Oct. 1 hearing on DOJ request to halt Texas abortion law MORE’s (R) own primary opponents have said his early pandemic response was too stringent. While both Abbott and DeSantis are said to be contemplating presidential bids in 2024, they must first be reelected to their current posts in 2022.
In Michigan, the multiple Republicans challenging Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerGovernors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight Protesters crash former Detroit police chief's gubernatorial announcement event Former Detroit police chief launching gubernatorial campaign vs. Whitmer next week MORE (D) argue that her pandemic response has not only been too stringent, but hypocritical.
Meanwhile in New York, Republicans say they are gearing up to target recently sworn Gov. Kathy HochulKathy HochulNY governor orders immediate release of 191 inmates from Rikers Island Letitia James holding private talks on running for New York governor: report Governors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight MORE (D), tying her to her scandal-ridden predecessor, former Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoLetitia James holding private talks on running for New York governor: report Governors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight Tucker Carlson says he lies when 'I'm really cornered or something' MORE (D).
All four incumbents are relatively firm in their standings. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Hochul’s and Whitmer’s races as “likely Democratic” and “lean Democratic” respectively, while Abbott’s and DeSantis’s races are also respectively “likely” and “lean” Republican.
To be sure, other issues, like the abortion fight in Texas or the state of the economy, will play a role in the races. But with no end in sight for the pandemic, governors facing reelection will almost certainly be judged at the ballot box for their coronavirus responses.
“It’s definitely going to be an important issue. Some of that depends on how the economy is doing,” said Michigan-based Democratic consultant Adrian Hemond.
“She’s an incumbent governor, so if the economy is doing well, it’s a huge advantage,” he continued, referring to Whitmer. “If it’s not, that’s all anyone’s going to talk about.”
Democrats say governors, like Whitmer, are at an advantage because they get to preside over their state’s distribution of the funds from President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE’s American Rescue Plan.
A chorus of Republicans have already jumped into their party’s primary to challenge Whitmer in the general election. Retired Detroit police officer James Craig launched his campaign on Tuesday, joining nine other Republicans, including right-wing media figure Tudor Dixon.
An EPIC-MRA poll released last month showed Whitmer narrowly leading Craig 45 percent to 44 percent in a hypothetical match-up.
In addition to the economy, GOP candidates and groups have already began swiping at Whitmer for her pandemic response, calling it an example of hypocrisy.
“She was kind of berating people and lecturing them and pointing her fingers, scolding them, while she was doing the exact same thing,” said Joanna Rodriguez, deputy communications director at the Republican Governors Association (RGA).
The RGA announced in May it would spend more than $500,000 on a TV ad effort to target Whitmer ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. The ad released in May specifically criticized Whitmer for flying to Florida to visit her father during the coronavirus pandemic when she closed nursing homes in her own state. The trip took place from March 12 to March 15. Whitmer eased restrictions on nursing home visitations on March 2.
Democrats maintain that the strategy of hitting Whitmer on the issue of hypocrisy likely won’t impact voters in their day-to-day lives.
“It doesn’t relate to their everyday concerns,” said David Turner, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association. “They want a leader who is going to be taking the pandemic seriously, who’s going to be balancing the various parts of society to make sure that they work to keep people safe and healthy.”
In Florida and in Texas, DeSantis and Abbott have both faced criticism for their handling of the pandemic from the left. Both governors have worked to appeal to their conservative bases through pushing back on localities instituting vaccine and mask mandates, but Abbott’s primary opponents have criticized him for instituting a statewide mask mandate last year.
Abbott faces primary challenges from former state GOP Chairman Allen West, former state Sen. Don Huffines (R) and conservative political commentator Chad Prather.
But Abbott’s supporters are brushing off the primary challenges, citing his approval ratings among Republicans in the state and his endorsement from former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE.
“There is no one that thinks that Gov. Abbott is not going to be the Republican nominee,” Rodriguez said. “At this point, there’s no probable path for someone to challenge Gov. Abbott, realistically.”
In Florida, the Democratic primary to challenge DeSantis in the general election will be the most-watched gubernatorial primary. Crist and Fried have hit DeSantis over his lax handling of the pandemic and pushback against localities looking to institute mandates as the delta variant has surged in the state.
“It’s not just that DeSantis is saying we’re not going to have a statewide mandate and that localities are free to choose,” Turner said. “He’s penalizing people for trying to do the right thing in the pandemic, and I think voters are 100 percent going to hold that against him in a general election.”
DeSantis’s approval rating fell from 54 percent in June to 48 percent in the latest polling from Morning Consult. But the governor still stands strong with his base, holding an 83 percent approval rating from Republicans.
The governor’s allies argue that DeSantis’s approach to keeping the economy open and touting monoclonal antibody treatment against the virus will help him with voters.
“That treatment keeps people out of the hospital. It keeps people from getting seriously sick,” Rodriguez said. “If ultimately people are going to make the decision to continue to live their lives or choose not to get vaccinated and they do end up getting sick, making sure that treatment is available and accessible across the state equally is something he’s made an incredible priority.”
In New York, Hochul is set to be one of the most unique test cases in next year’s midterms, having been sworn-in just last month. Hochul took office after a damning report from Attorney General Letitia James (D) found that Cuomo sexually harassed and bullied numerous women during his time as governor. Additionally, Cuomo is still under investigation for nursing home deaths in New York during the pandemic.
A number of Republicans have launched their campaigns for governor in the largely blue state, including Rep. Lee ZeldinLee ZeldinGovernors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight Republicans hit Biden over Afghanistan, with eye on midterms McCarthy: 'There will be a day of reckoning' for Biden MORE, who said in July he brought in $4 million in the first three months of the campaign.
While Hochul was not governor during the beginning of the pandemic, Republicans are eager to tie her to Cuomo.
“While the bucks may have stopped with Cuomo, Cuomo was not the only person responsible for the decisions that were made,” Rodriguez said. “She could have very easily spoken out and criticized him if she had an objection and she chose not to.”
But Democrats point to Hochul’s different leadership style than Cuomo and her distance from him during his administration.
“It’s very, very clear that she did not have the traditional president-vice president shared decision making role together,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Jon Reinish.
“She was not a policy-making deciding figure at the table when it came to COVID response, both the good and the bad,” he added.
Democrats also said they were confident they would easily be able to defend New York, given its status as a reliably blue state.
“If the Republicans want to go chasing after the governorship of New York, we welcome that and encourage them to spend their money there,” Turner said.