The Gubernatorial Races: Look to the West
A Commentary By Kyle Kondik
The most question marks about 2022 lie west of the Mississippi; rating changes in MD, NY, OR.
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— The 5 governorships we see as Toss-ups are all located west of the eastern time zone: Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, Wisconsin, and — now — Oregon.
— The large number of incumbents running this year may limit the number of governorships that change hands.
— Democrats continue to have the 2 clearest pickups, the open seats in Maryland and Massachusetts. However, Democrats also are defending 4 of the 5 Toss-ups.
Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating changes
A western gubernatorial focus
One of the fun factoids released by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years is the location of the center of population of the United States. The first measurement, in 1790, placed the center of population in Kent County, MD — east of Baltimore. Now, the center of population is in Wright County, MO, located in what is roughly the south-central part of the state. The movement of the population center west over the course of the nation’s history is an indicator of the country’s western population growth.
In looking at our evolving gubernatorial ratings, we see something similar — the political center of gravity has moved west over the course of the cycle.
Think about how the races have evolved. Pennsylvania, for instance, looked as though it would be one of the Republicans’ top pickup opportunities this cycle. But the nomination of far-right state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) has many Republicans wondering if it’s even worth spending money there as state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) seeks a third straight Democratic term in Harrisburg following outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) 2 terms. Candidate problems and campaign developments threaten the GOP’s ability to unseat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in Michigan, and the party also has had to essentially give up on defending open seats in Maryland and Massachusetts.
In the Southeast, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) does not appear to be in any real danger as he seeks to extend the GOP’s gubernatorial winning streak there to 7. And Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA), after demolishing Donald Trump-backed former Sen. David Perdue (R) in a May primary, appears to hold a persistent lead in his rematch with former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D). The decisions by Govs. Chris Sununu (R-NH) and Phil Scott (R-VT) to each seek a 4th, 2-year term means that Democrats almost certainly will have to look at least 2 more years down the road to seriously compete for either.
But moving west, the story is different. In the Midwest’s Wisconsin, a state accustomed to high-level competition, Gov. Tony Evers (D) may have a small lead over the newly-minted GOP nominee, businessman Tim Michels (R), but the race still appears to be a genuine Toss-up. Roughly as vulnerable as Evers are a couple of other Democratic incumbents, Govs. Laura Kelly (D-KS) and Steve Sisolak (D-NV). For reasons we’ll get into below, we now view the 3-way open-seat race in Oregon as a Toss-up; the open-seat race in Arizona also remains a Toss-up. Of all the remaining Democratic-held governorships that remain rated at least Leans Democratic, the one we see as closest to being a true Toss-up is not swing states Michigan or Pennsylvania but, instead, blue state New Mexico, another state out west.
Overall, of our 5 Toss-ups, 4 are located west of the Mississippi — Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, and Oregon — and the fifth, Wisconsin, touches the river.
We’ll take a closer look at the individual races below. But first, let’s remind ourselves about the current state of the governorships.
Map 1 shows the current party control of governorships. Republicans control 28 governorships and Democrats control 22. Despite the GOP’s numerical edge, a slight majority of the population of the 50 states, 51%, live in states with Democratic governors.
Map 1: Current party control of governorships
Of the 48 states that elect governors to 4-year terms — New Hampshire and Vermont remain the 2-year term holdouts, and those races are contested in both presidential and midterm years — 34 hold their elections in midterm years. Map 2 shows the races this year and our ratings of those races. Republicans are defending 20 governorships this year, while Democrats are defending 16.
Map 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings
Incumbency is a significant feature of this year’s gubernatorial map, which may serve to limit the total number of party flips.
Of the 36 races on the ballot, as many as 28 races will feature incumbents on the general election ballot. In the last 5 midterms (2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018), 57 governorships have changed hands in the general election but only 12 involved an incumbent being defeated, while 45 involved an open seat flipping. So roughly 4/5s of the time a governorship changed party hands, an incumbent was not running in the general election. Incumbents may also be aided this year by a lack of state-level financial problems; as Senior Columnist Louis Jacobson noted in a recent Crystal Ball piece on the popularity of sitting governors, federal stimulus has, at least in the short term, filled state coffers and allowed state governments to hold off on painful cuts that can sometimes be politically damaging.
Like the nation’s center of population, let’s start in the east and then move west.
A couple of open seats, unsurprisingly, represent the 2 clearest offensive opportunities for either side: Maryland and Massachusetts, a pair of deeply Democratic states that are governed by popular, moderate, and retiring Republican governors: Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker, respectively. Hogan is term-limited; Baker could have run for a third term but decided not to, and he very well might have lost the primary to a Trump-backed candidate, 2018 Senate nominee Geoff Diehl (R). Diehl is the favorite to win the nomination over a more moderate candidate, businessman Chris Doughty (R). Assuming that Diehl is nominated, we probably will move this race from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic, as state Attorney General Maura Healey (D), the likely Democratic nominee, is very well-positioned to win. We are going ahead and moving Maryland from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic, as it appears right-wing state Del. Dan Cox (R) does not have any path to victory against veteran and author Wes Moore (D), the political newcomer who defeated more credentialed opponents in last month’s primary.
We are also making the same move in New York state, where Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) is facing off against Rep. Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1) in her bid for a first elected term. The Empire State has just become too blue to allow a conservative Republican like Zeldin to win statewide.
Republican incumbents are in great shape to hold New Hampshire and Vermont. Elsewhere in New England, Gov. Ned Lamont (D-CT) has posted surprisingly robust approval ratings as he faces a rematch with businessman Bob Stefanowski (R). Next door, Gov. Dan McKee (D-RI) — who took over when his predecessor, Gina Raimondo (D), became Secretary of Commerce — has to get through a primary against, most notably, Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea (D) and former CVS executive Helena Foulkes (D). The primary victor is likely to face newcomer Ashley Kalus (R). If things break right for Republicans down the stretch of the election, Connecticut or Rhode Island might be like New Jersey’s race was last year — surprisingly close and competitive.
As of now, the hottest race in New England comes in Maine, where Gov. Janet Mills (D) is seeking a second term against her predecessor, former Gov. Paul LePage (R). Our understanding is that while this race remains a viable Republican target, it has not moved into true Toss-up territory yet. It definitely remains worth watching, though, as we can imagine LePage — who has been on decent behavior recently, given his typical penchant for stirring controversy — rallying the state’s large cadre of white, working-class voters to victory once again.
A key thing to watch in Pennsylvania is whether the well-heeled Republican Governors Association actually decides to spend there; as it is now, Shapiro has a ton of money to spend while Mastriano hardly has any. The Keystone State is so competitive that we would not expect Shapiro to win by the big margin that some polls show given what we still expect to be a Republican-leaning overall political environment, but it does appear that Shapiro retains the edge. The same is true of Whitmer in Michigan, which is really the only swing state that appears likely to have a statewide ballot issue on abortion this year. That issue dominating the race is just fine for Democrats, who have already highlighted GOP nominee Tudor Dixon’s (R) stringent anti-abortion stance.
As noted above, GOP incumbents DeSantis in Florida and Kemp in Georgia both appear to be ahead in their races. One very clear bright spot for Republicans is that, in our eyes, all of their incumbent governors are favored to win. Kemp is really the only one who appears locked in a legitimately close race. We’ll see if Florida comes online at some point, but the political trendlines for Democrats in that state are bad even as it remains competitive. We might as well mention Texas in this group; Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is seeking a third term against former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16). Like Abrams in Georgia, O’Rourke gives Democrats in Texas an energetic and well-funded challenger — but also gives Republicans a useful foil to inspire their own turnout.
We may not have a strong handicap in aforementioned Wisconsin until the weekend before the election — and even then, we might not feel very confident about it. In picking businessman Tim Michels (R) as their nominee, Republicans probably rolled the dice a bit more than if they had picked former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R): Michels may have some added appeal as more of an outsider candidate, although he’s also less vetted than Kleefisch, who served a couple of terms as former Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) no. 2. Next door in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz (D-MN) faces former state Sen. Scott Jensen (R), a one-time moderate who moved to the right during the political battles over the pandemic. The environment will be the main determinant of how vulnerable Walz truly is.
Kansas, where Gov. Laura Kelly (D) is seeking a second term, remains the most obvious Republican pickup opportunity, if only because it is by far the reddest state that Democrats are defending. But Kelly, despite running in a clearly Republican-leaning state, is not dead in the water, and there are questions about how strong of a campaign her opponent, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R), is running. Kelly’s approval rating remains above water, it appears, and she may be able to thread the needle much like Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA) did in 2019. Edwards, like Kelly, initially won office by defeating a weak Republican opponent — Edwards beat scandal-plagued then-Sen. David Vitter (R), while Kelly beat the very right-wing Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) in 2018. Edwards then survived in 2019 against businessman Eddie Rispone (R), who was a better candidate than Vitter but was not exactly top-tier, either. Schmidt is probably comparable in candidate quality to Rispone, and that very well may be sufficient for him to win. But we thought this race might’ve drifted into clear Leans Republican territory by now, and our understanding is that it has not. Pro-abortion rights forces just won a major victory on abortion in Kansas earlier this month as voters strongly rejected a statewide ballot issue that would have given the state’s GOP legislature the power to restrict abortion rights. We do wonder if the Democratic intensity over abortion will remain in this state, or if the August vote put the issue more on the backburner for November (certainly Republicans are hoping for the latter, given the lopsided margin against their side in the vote a couple of weeks ago).
Nevada is another Toss-up defended by a Democratic incumbent, Gov. Steve Sisolak (D). Back in June, Republicans picked Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo (R) as their standard-bearer, and he was probably the best candidate running. Most of the time, one wouldn’t consider a county-level official to be all that prominent, but in Nevada — which is in some ways a city-state — Las Vegas’s Clark County casts about 2/3rds of the statewide vote. With crime an issue, Sisolak and Lombardo are trying to see whether they can blame the other. The Senate and gubernatorial races likely will run fairly closely to one another — in 2018, Sisolak won by 4 points and now-Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) won by 5 — and as we wrote a couple of weeks ago, we think Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) is the most vulnerable Democratic senator this year. If that’s the case, then it stands to reason that Sisolak is awfully vulnerable too.
We mentioned above that we are moving Oregon’s open-seat race from Leans Democratic to Toss-up. This is despite the state’s blue lean and the fact that Republicans have not won a gubernatorial race there since 1982. However, the state is hosting an unusual 3-way race among a trio of women who are all recent members of the state legislature: former state House Speaker Tina Kotek (D), former state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R), and former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, an unaffiliated, former Democrat who is more conservative than most of the members of her former party and who has been backed by Nike co-founder Phil Knight. The race sets up an unusual situation where the winner may not need to crack even 40%. Additionally, the 3 candidates all served concurrently in the state legislature, which should provide the campaigns ample opportunities to draw contrasts among the candidates. Outgoing Gov. Kate Brown (D) is deeply unpopular, and there may be some desire for change in the Beaver State. Johnson, the independent, would still be the most surprising winner, and Kotek and Drazan both will be working to try to prevent their voters from flocking to her banner. There’s just enough uncertainty here that we’re looking at the race as a Toss-up now.
We are not quite there yet in another western blue state, but it’s becoming clearer to us that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) is locked in what appears to be a very close contest with 2020 Senate nominee and former TV meteorologist Mark Ronchetti (R). Unlike many other Republicans, Ronchetti has tried to show some nuance on the abortion issue, and Lujan Grisham has a number of vulnerabilities, as documented by Axios’s Russell Contreras and Josh Kraushaar, that by themselves aren’t much, but could be harmful to her taken together. We still give Lujan Grisham a small edge, owing to incumbency and the state’s overall lean.
Next door, in Arizona, is another open Toss-up. Republicans have nominated a fringe candidate, former TV newscaster Kari Lake (R), who just won the GOP nomination with a backward-looking campaign over imagined voter fraud in the 2020 election. She faces Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), who had to belatedly apologize last year over an employment discrimination controversy dating back to her time as the state Senate minority leader (a Black woman was fired from her job as a Senate aide and successfully sued over the matter). We ultimately have some questions about how well Hobbs can capitalize on Lake’s problems, making Arizona a pure Toss-up, still.
A couple of dark horse races out west that could end up becoming competitive are bids for second terms by Govs. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Mike Dunleavy (R-AK). Polis’s political strength is respected not just by Democrats, but Republicans as well. He faces a credible opponent, state Board of Regents member Heidi Ganahl (R), but he seems well-positioned right now. While we rate both of Colorado’s top statewide races as Likely Democratic, we think it’s likelier that Sen. Michael Bennet’s (D-CO) reelection bid becomes truly engaged than the gubernatorial race (and it may be that both races remain relatively sleepy).
Dunleavy, meanwhile, is trying to become the first Alaska governor to win a second elected term since former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) was reelected in 1998. The incumbent advanced in Alaska’s new top-4 election system, but he has a couple of notable opponents who also advanced: former Gov. Bill Walker, who was elected as an independent in 2014, and former state Rep. Les Gara (D).
Overall, our best guess right now is that there will not be a ton of net change in the governorships. Democrats appear very likely to flip the open seats of Maryland and Massachusetts and they have another prime open-seat target in Arizona, but Republicans may be able to make up for losses (and then some) by flipping a number of the vulnerable Democratic-held governorships we’ve noted above — with many of the best targets coming west of the eastern time zone.
See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.
See Other Political Commentary.
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