2022 Red Wave Could Sweep Governor’s Races, Too

Former president Donald Trump introduces Arizona Republican candidate for governor Kari Lake at a rally in Florence, Arizona, on January 15, 2022. Photo: Ross D Franklin/AP/Shutterstock

Republicans have high hopes for the 2022 elections, as midterms typically show a loss of support for the party controlling the White House. So far, talk of a possible “red wave” has mostly focused on implications for Congress, as the entire House and a third of the Senate are up for reelection. But a red wave could sweep governor’s races as well, giving the GOP power in a host of competitive states. The recent historical precedents are clear. Democrats gained six net governorships in 2006 and seven in 2018 (the midterms after President George W. Bush’s reelection and President Donald Trump’s election), while Republicans gained six in 2010 and two in 2014 (the two midterms after President Barack Obama’s election and reelection).

Democrats do enter the cycle with a thumb on the scales: There are two very blue states in which very popular moderate (and anti-Trump) Republicans are stepping down and will very likely be replaced by Democrats: Maryland and Massachusetts. And there is already one anomalous Democratic governor in a deep red state: Kansas governor Laura Kelly. She won’t have the benefit of facing extremist Kris Kobach this time around, as state Attorney General Derek Schmidt has already cleared the GOP field. But Kelly has reasonably good job-approval numbers and is holding her own in early polls, so her race will be a good test of the power of the national environment.

There is already a sizable number of “toss-up” gubernatorial contests in well-established battleground states. A 2022 Republican wave could mean the end of Democratic-held governorship in four of these states — Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And the same goes for Arizona and Georgia, where Republicans currently hold the governorship, but Democrats have been gaining some momentum.

In many of these competitive gubernatorial races, it’s too early to project who will be the nominee. This is particularly true on the Republican side, as Donald Trump threatens to insert himself into these races. His intervention could produce extremist nominees and divide state parties, while making voters’ opinion of Trump a key issue in general elections that are normally referenda on the current president.

Trump’s meddling has already created problems for Republicans in Georgia, where the ex-president has convinced former U.S. senator David Perdue to challenge incumbent governor Brian Kemp in a cage match whose survivor will face formidable Democrat Stacey Abrams. In Arizona, Trump endorsee Kari Lake and former representative Matt Salmon have been so vicious in their competition for the MAGA vote that it might hurt whoever wins the GOP primary in their probable general election matchup with Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. Similarly, in increasingly red Ohio, if former representative and self-designated MAGA man Jim Renacci upsets incumbent governor Mike DeWine in the GOP primary, the Democratic nominee (either Dayton mayor Nan Whaley or Cincinnati mayor John Cranley) could become competitive very quickly.

The full picture of what the midterms might mean for state governments will become clearer when redistricting is done and the state legislative battlegrounds emerge. At the moment, Republicans hold trifectas (control of the governorship and the entire legislature) in 23 states, with Democrats holding 14 and 13 states having divided power. Gubernatorial contests could definitely reestablish Republican trifectas in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that were lost in 2018, while shoring up trifectas in Arizona and Georgia that looked to be in trouble. Democrats should regain ancient trifectas in Maryland and Massachusetts, and even a strong Republican wave shouldn’t do much damage in Democratic strongholds like California, Illinois, and New York. In addition to Trump, there are some other wild cards in play, including the possibility of Democratic turnout surges if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, returning abortion policy to legislatures and governors. But right now, the momentum favors the GOP.

2022 Red Wave Could Sweep Governor’s Races, Too