Why Republicans should be nervous about their gubernatorial candidates
The decision of the high court annulling Roe vs. Wade shifts the issue of abortion to the states, where legislatures and governors will determine what access, if any, women will have to abortion. In the absence of federal action, states have begun enacting laws restricting the right to vote, and depending on what happens during the Supreme Court’s next term, state legislatures may be even more empowered. to establish rules for future elections.
About half a dozen states – unsurprisingly, these are the states that decided the 2020 presidential election and are likely to decide the race of 2024 also – organize competitions for the governor. Republicans’ hopes of extending their grip on state government will depend on the results. But the GOP the odds will be affected by the quality of its candidates – and right now that’s a potential problem.
Republicans control both legislative houses in 30 states, compared with 17 for Democrats, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans have full control of state government—legislature plus governorship—in 23 states; Democrats 14. For Democrats, gaining control of state legislatures remains a major challenge, making holding or toppling governorships a top priority in the ongoing battle over the direction of state policy.
The composition of these presidential battlegrounds looks like this: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin have Republican legislatures but Democratic governors. Georgia and Arizona have Republican governors and Republican legislatures, while Nevada has a Democratic governor and legislature. All should see competitive gubernatorial races come November.
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Republicans named their top candidates in two of those states. In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp won a primary victory over former U.S. Senator David Perdue, who had the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. Kemp will face Democrat Stacey Abrams in a rematch of their 2018 run, with the odds slightly in her favor. In Nevada, Republicans nominated Clark County (Las Vegas) Sheriff Joe Lombardo to challenge Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. Lombardo was the favorite of Trump and establishment Republicans.
In the other four states, however, Republicans are unsure whether they have or will end up with their most credible general election candidates.
Pennsylvania’s general election is already set, pitting Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro against Republican Senator Doug Mastriano. In Mastriano, Republican primary voters chose a Holocaust denier as their candidate, someone who promulgated Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. In a state that remains tightly divided, the question is whether a Republican with that profile can generate Trump-like turnout among the GOP base in rural areas or disable enough suburban and swing voters to put Shapiro in office.
Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona hold their primary elections in early August, and in each state the competition for the Republican nomination has left open the question of whether the party will end up with its strongest candidates.
Start with Wisconsin: Democratic Gov. Tony Evers barely won in 2018, in a good year for Democrats. Former Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who served two terms with the then Governor. Scott Walker, was considered the likely Republican nominee and for most of 2021 and early 2022, GOP strategists say. She seemed to be doing everything right.
Then things changed. The primary was muddied by continued GOP infighting over the 2020 election results and the entry of more candidates. Businessman Tim Michels joined the race in April and later won Trump’s endorsement. Meanwhile, Kleefisch fell short of the 60% threshold needed to gain party approval at the recent state Republican convention.
A recent Marquette University Law School poll showed a statistical connection between Kleefisch and Michels among GOP primary voters. Both support an 1849 state law banning abortion and oppose exceptions for rape or incest.
The general election is expected to be close, but as Republicans settle their differences, the Marquette Law School poll showed Evers leading the two candidates, with Kleefisch trailing by four percentage points and Michels by seven. Republicans see either candidate as capable of winning in November, but some believe Kleefisch is better prepared for a tough contest.
In Michigan, Republicans ran into even more trouble sorting out their challenger from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Privately, GOP strategists remain worried about the November race.
Initially, Republicans thought they had an ideal candidate in James Craig, a former Detroit police chief. But it never lived up to the advance billing. Recently, he was eliminated from the primary ballot because he did not have enough valid signatures on his petitions; he was one of five candidates withdrawn from the ballot over signature issues. He is mounting a print campaign, just like another of those who were deemed ineligible.
Ryan Kelley, another candidate, was recently arrested for a misdemeanor in connection with the federal investigation into the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. Whatever that may mean for a general election race, the charges are seen as giving Kelley a short-term boost in a race where most GOP primary voters say President Biden was not legitimately elected. .
There are no favorites at this stage. A recent poll for the Detroit Free Press by the firm EPIC-MRA showed Kelley slightly ahead of the others in the race, but with just 17%. Nearly half of Michigan Republicans are undecided in the governor’s primary. With Biden significantly under water in the state, Whitmer still faces a tough re-election, but given all the issues among Republicans, she could have considerable opportunities to paint her eventual opponent as unsuited for the job.
In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is term-limited, so the state will have an open race.
Ducey drew the ire of Trump for certifying the 2020 results, and the election remains a key issue in the primary campaign to select a GOP nominee. The party’s primary presents a clear contrast between the Trump wing of the party and the establishment wing. Kari Lake, a former television anchor in Phoenix, has Trump’s endorsement and has made the former president’s false claim of a fraudulent 2020 election central to his campaign. Karrin Taylor Robson, the other most prominent candidate, is running as a more traditional conservative Republican.
Trump’s endorsement matters a lot in the race, and Lake was considered the nominal frontrunner. Some Robson supporters believe former Congressman Matt Salmon’s recent decision to quit the race will bring more traditional GOP voters into Robson’s column. A wrinkle in the race came late last month: After Lake denounced drag queens as dangerous to children, it was revealed that she had attended a drag queen’s performances in the past.
In a year favoring Republicans, party strategists believe Robson would be favored over Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is her party’s favorite. Republicans have worried all year about the possibility of Lake being their nominee, fearing she could hurt their chances of taking the job. Still, given the surroundings and her communication skills, she too could be elected governor, though what kind of governor she would be is another matter. There is one certainty: a Democratic victory in November would put a roadblock in front of the Republican-controlled legislature.
In the red state of Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly — elected in 2018 against a flawed GOP nominee — is clearly vulnerable, and a GOP victory would give the party full control of state government. But ahead of the November election, Kansas will provide a first look at abortion politics. The Aug. 2 primary includes a ballot measure that would essentially overturn a state Supreme Court ruling that the Kansas Constitution includes a right to abortion.
The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter lists the gubernatorial races in Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin as draws. The Cook team moved Pennsylvania from a draw to a Democratic lean after Mastriano won the GOP primary. That’s why the August round of the Republican primaries will be closely watched by both sides.