It’s more than midterms next year: State fights that matter

A George Mason University student votes in Fairfax, Va., on Tuesday, November 2, 2021.
Julia Nikhinson

The political narrative for 2022 is whether a Republican takeover of the House is a lock, and what are the handful of Senate races that determine party control?

These outcomes will shape the remainder of Joe Biden’s first term, and the 2024 presidential election. The stakes are humongous.

So are a handful of critical state elections, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — all battlegrounds — with major national implications for voting rights and possibly deciding how presidential electors are awarded. (Other than Michigan, these states also have competitive U.S. Senate contests.)

Michigan: This state may be politics central in 2022; “Everything is up for grabs,” says Bill Ballenger who writes the authoritative Ballenger Report on Michigan politics.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is polarizing. She moved aggressively and effectively against the COVID outbreak. That generated a ferocious backlash; white nationalists planned to kidnap her and put her on trial. They were caught by the FBI. Currently voters are split on her job performance.

The Republican contenders, however, aren’t yet creating any sparks. A former Detroit police chief, James Craig, a Black conservative, has been the early favorite, but has been a lackluster candidate, says Ballenger. In a big field, others include Tudor Dixon, a right-wing television anchor, a wealthy automobile dealer, and a leader of a group that is calling for Whitmer’s arrest.

Responding to Trump’s phony claims of massive voter fraud, most Republican candidates — as well as the Republican majority in the state legislature — are pushing voting restrictions. However, it’s conceivable their majority in the State House, largely a product of gerrymandered districts, would be jeopardized by a new independent redistricting commission, approved by voters over GOP opposition. The commission’s final map faces certain legal challenges, prolonging uncertainty.

Adding to the chaos, Michigan has a quirky constitutional provision under which — with about 340,000 signatures — a measure can be sent to the legislature and approved without the involvement of the governor. Conservatives are enlisting voter suppression petitions now. That too might face legal challenges.

Wisconsin: There is no more purple state, the “tipping point in the last two presidential elections,” notes Democratic party chair Ben Wikler.

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, won by a little over a point in 2018. Not much has changed. He gets good marks for his handling of the pandemic, but only breaks even in overall job performance.

The GOP front-runner, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is embracing everything Trump, though the ex-president stiffed her, suggesting another candidate should run. Kleefisch also suffered a setback last month when she was deeply involved in a recall of a suburban Milwaukee school board, objecting to COVID restrictions and teachings about racial equality. The recall was decisively defeated.

On voting rights, the stakes couldn’t be bigger. Evers has rejected Republican measures on voting restrictions. Kleefisch has signaled she’d be flexible on which electors to approve in the next presidential race. The governor certifies electors. In a situation like last time, when Biden won by 20,000 votes amid false claims of fraud, the Republicans could decide not to send the Democratic electors to Washington.

Pennsylvania: This is probably the Democrats’ brightest spot — unless the midterm political climate is lethal. The certain Democratic candidate for governor, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, has twice won statewide elections; in 2020, while Democrats other than Joe Biden fared poorly, Shapiro was reelected by more than 300,000 votes.

A number of the Republican state legislators have bought into Trump’s phony election fraud charge and vow to change the rules. But none of the roughly dozen possible gubernatorial candidates, with a heavy dose of Trumpites, seems very formidable.

Dana Brown, a political scientist and director of the PA Center for Women and Politics at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, notes abortion effectively will be on the ballot next year too. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed three anti-abortion bills.

North Carolina: The Democratic governor was reelected last year, and the GOP right-wing legislature is entrenched — but there are crucial contests for the state supreme court, which currently has a 4-3 Democratic majority.

The state courts have served as a bulwark against some of the excesses of the legislature. This past week, the supreme court deferred next year’s primaries for several months until a highly partisan Republican redistricting map is reviewed. Several years ago, a partisan and racially motivated Republican map was rejected, as were efforts to repeal racial protections.

The two seats up next year are both held by Democrats, one by Sam Ervin IV, the grandson of the fabled Watergate U.S. senator. There will be a fierce fight over the other seat with Republicans pouring in tons of resources.

The result could affect gerrymandering and possibly abortion and educational issues. “Typically, we have not thought of state supreme courts as powerful entities,” says Gene Nichol, a law professor at the University of North Carolina. “They are now.”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags 2022 election cycle 2022 midterms Electoral College Gretchen Whitmer Joe Biden josh shapiro Michigan North Carolina Pennsylvania presidential electors Rebecca Kleefisch state elections the big lie Tom Wolf Tony Evers trumpism voting rights Voting Rights Act Wisconsin

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