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Four Red-Hot Governors Races That Could Shape 2024

Nevada governor Steve Sisolak debating his Republican opponent, Joe Lombardo. Photo: Ellen Schmidt/AP/Shutterstock

While governors tend to receive far less election coverage than federal officials, they have a profound effect on public policy virtually everywhere. And given MAGA Republicans’ demonstrated interest in using the levers of state government to control or reverse the outcome of presidential elections, the 2022 gubernatorial races could matter a lot in 2024 as well.

There are 36 gubernatorial contests on the ballot on November 8, but only eight are competitive, going by the ratings of the wizards at the Cook Political Report. Of those, half are in 2024 battleground states (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin). Here’s a closer look at these races, which could affect not just the citizens of each state but the national landscape for the next presidential election.


Arizona: Kari Lake vs. Katie Hobbs

The extremely competitive gubernatorial contest in Arizona is a source of ongoing angst for Democrats. Their candidate, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, had an unobstructed route to the nomination and has acquitted herself well in fights over the bizarre effort launched by a GOP faction to “audit” the 2020 results in the state, which Hobbs supervised and certified (along with term-limited Republican governor Doug Ducey). Meanwhile, GOP nominee Kari Lake, an early Donald Trump endorsee, is an unrepentant election denier and a font of extremism on abortion and other subjects. She narrowly won her primary after virtually the entire Arizona GOP Establishment backed wealthy challenger Karrin Taylor Robson. Lake has eschewed the usual move-to-the-center maneuvers most extremists (like her ticket mate, U.S. Senate GOP nominee Blake Masters) undertake in general elections; she has also skipped heavy TV advertising in favor of creating her own “earned” media and focusing on grassroots organization of conservatives.

Lake is, however, an extremely well-known figure in Arizona thanks to years on the airwaves as a local TV anchor. And Hobbs, to the consternation of many Democrats in and beyond Arizona, is running a questionably effective campaign that has spurred controversy by refusals to debate Lake and an inability to shake allegations that she was responsible for the discriminatory firing of a Black employee during her service in the state senate.

By all accounts, this race has been and remains very close. Lake leads by a single point in the RealClearPolitics polling averages. If Lake wins — and particularly if that win is accompanied by a victory for arch–election denier Mark Finchem, the GOP candidate for secretary of state – Arizona may enter the 2024 presidential cycle as hostile and potentially insurrectionary ground for the candidate who won there in 2020, Joe Biden.


Georgia: Stacey Abrams vs. Brian Kemp

This race is essentially a grudge rematch between a national Democratic icon, Stacey Abrams, and a savvy conservative politician, Brian Kemp, who has used his incumbency and the independent street cred associated with his successful defiance of Donald Trump in both 2020 and 2022 to rebrand himself as attractive to swing voters.

Kemp may be benefiting from the contrast between his exceptionally steady campaign and the wild chaos of ticket mate Herschel Walker’s Senate bid. But it’s also possible pollsters and pundits are underestimating Abrams’s legendary voter-mobilization skills and an issue landscape that could yet trip up the still-extremist Kemp. Both candidates are universally known and have well-financed campaigns with Abrams actually having a fundraising edge.

The Republican currently leads in the RealClearPolitics polling averages by five points. But one recent survey from Quinnipiac shows a nearly dead-even race. And it’s worth noting that Abrams overperformed the polls last time these candidates met in 2018, when Kemp won by an eyelash.

Two candidate debates later this month could be highly influential in the end-game of this contest.


Nevada: Joe Lombardo vs. Steve Sisolek

Nevada is becoming an evenly divided state with a modest but real pro-Republican trend that Democrats have recently held off by superior organization (more specifically by the labor-based turnout machine built by the late Senator Harry Reid). This election could be an inflection point in the state’s evolution, one way or another, with close races up and down the ballot. While the Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and MAGA Republican Adam Laxalt is getting the most national attention, the gubernatorial fight between incumbent Democrat Steve Sisolak and Clark County’s Republican sheriff Joe Lombardo is drawing plenty of attention locally. Both these men are veteran Las Vegas politicians with Sisolak serving on and then chairing the Clark County Commission before winning the governorship in 2018 and Lombardo becoming sheriff after a career in law enforcement. Lombardo is probably best known for his role in investigating the 2017 Mandalay Bay mass shooting, after which he endorsed some modest gun-control measures.

Sisolak’s biggest problem is being an incumbent in a period of considerable unease in Nevada, as summed up recently by the Washington Post:

Nevada has one of the highest inflation rates in the country; gas prices still hover above $5.50 per gallon, sometimes surpassed only by California. High costs and economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic have hit communities Democrats hope to get to the polls hard, adding to the challenges of a lower-turnout midterm year. Republicans say they see a chance to make inroads in this diverse state, where a high proportion of residents do not have college degrees.

Another sign of disgruntlement with the status quo was the decision by the Clark County teachers union not to endorse a gubernatorial candidate, which was perceived as a slap at Sisolak. But Sisolak’s job approval ratio (according to Morning Consult) is a not-so-bad 50-44.

Lombardo was endorsed by Donald Trump shortly before he won the GOP primary, but it was more a matter of Trump climbing on a bandwagon than a reflection of deeply held MAGA views. The candidate has not embraced Trump’s election fables and has tried to wave away the abortion issue as something resolved by Nevada voters in a 1990 ballot initiative establishing abortion rights prior to fetal viability. Unusually for a Republican, Lombardo has some vulnerability on the crime issue as sheriff during a violent crime spike in Las Vegas.

Polls have consistently shown a close race with Lombardo currently leading in the RealClearPolitics polling averages by 1.8 percent.


Wisconsin: Tony Evers vs. Tim Michels

In Wisconsin, the two parties have battled each other to an angry draw repeatedly since 2010 with Republicans consistently if narrowly controlling the legislature and Democrats winning back the governorship in 2018 with Tony Evers, who is running for a second term this year. The last two presidential elections in Wisconsin were famously very close with Trump winning in 2016 and losing in 2020.

Evers has suffered from the usual complaints about COVID-19 prevention policies and rising crime and disorder but has built a large state-budget surplus and is promoting his own version of tax cuts. A career educator (he was state superintendent of schools when he first ran for governor), Evers is easy to distinguish on education from his Republican opponent, who backs universal school vouchers parents can use to take kids out of public schools. As you might expect in this polarized state, Evers’s job-approval ratio (per Morning Consult) is barely above water at 49-46.

Tim Michels is a wealthy construction executive who upset longtime GOP favorite and former state lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch after snagging a late Trump endorsement. He’s running on a very Trump-like businessman-outsider message and is largely self-financing his campaign. Like most Wisconsin Republicans, Michels echoes some of Trump’s stolen-election fables and has said he is “open” to decertifying Biden’s 2020 election win in Wisconsin, whatever that means.

Michels has gone heavily into the anti-crime message many Republicans are deploying, blaming Evers for the violent unrest in Kenosha in 2020 and benefiting from law-enforcement hostility to the incumbent and his lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes (who is running for the U.S. Senate). And like many Republicans, Michels is trying to walk back an extreme position on abortion, suddenly endorsing rape and incest exceptions to a hypothetical ban.

Ultimately, the biggest difference between these two candidates is the party label next to their names. And this has become one of the closest contests in the country with Michels overcoming an early Evers lead; at present, the two candidates are tied in the RealClearPolitics polling averages. The Democrat beat legendary conservative pol Scott Walker by 1.1 percent in 2018. If Evers wins again, it won’t be by much more of a margin.

The sole debate between Evers and Michels takes place on the evening of October 14.


Four other competitive races that matter mostly to locals

In deep-red Kansas, incumbent Democrat Laura Kelly is in surprisingly good shape. A deep split in the Republicans ranks when veteran extremist Kris Kobach won the GOP nomination helped Kelly win in 2018. Her current opponent, three-term attorney general Derek Schmidt, has a more mainstream image, but his campaign is regularly described as sluggish and underwhelming. Kelly is quite popular (with a job-approval ratio of 55-39 per Morning Consult), and her campaign has definitely been supercharged by the resounding defeat of an anti-abortion state constitutional ballot measure in August. Kelly is slightly ahead in sparse public polling, but if there’s such a thing as momentum in politics, she has it.

In Maine, a traditionally blue state that has been trending red, incumbent Democrat Janet Mills is being challenged by the dark lord of Maine conservatism, former two-term governor Paul LePage. This initially looked like a very competitive race, but Mills appears to have taken control of the contest with a double-digit lead in all three public polls published in September. LePage stumbled badly on the abortion issue in a recent debate, contradicting himself repeatedly. And for the first time in his career, LePage won’t benefit from a major independent candidate splitting the moderate-to-liberal vote.

New Mexico’s Democratic governor Michelle Lujan Grisham was thought to be in some danger earlier this year. Crime was spiking in Albuquerque, and the incumbent had been damaged by a mini-scandal over governor’s-mansion luxuries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans also found an attractive candidate in former local-TV meteorologist and 2020 Senate nominee Mark Ronchetti. But the barn-burner contest hasn’t quite developed, despite aggressive tactics from both candidates. The incumbent has pounded Ronchetti on the abortion issue (he has hedged his past opposition to abortion by calling for a constitutional referendum) and has benefited from her roots in New Mexico’s Hispanic electorate. She has a 51-42 job approval ratio and leads in the RealClearPolitics polling averages by 9 percent.

And finally, while Oregon is nobody’s idea of a battleground state, Democrats are in danger of losing the governorship there for the first time since 1982. Term-limited Democratic incumbent Kate Brown is the most unpopular governor in the country (with a 40-56 job approval ratio), amid general disgruntlement over a homelessness and drug-addiction crisis centered in Portland. Democratic nominee Tina Kotek is the longtime Speaker of the Oregon House and very much identified with the state’s Democratic Establishment and controversial public-sector unions. In addition, the race features a very well-financed ex-Democratic independent candidate, Betsy Johnson, running on a pro-business but also pro-abortion-rights platform, who is perceived as cutting into Kotek’s expected vote. That has created an opening for Republican Christine Drazan, a relatively moderate GOP legislator who is understandably running on a “time for change” message. Joe Biden is trying to help Kotek with some personal barnstorming on her behalf, but anything could happen here with Drazan holding a three-point lead in the RealClearPolitics polling averages over her two rivals.

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Four Red-Hot Governors Races That Could Shape 2024