2022 midterms

Democrats Made Gains in the States, Too

Governor-elect Wes Moore gives Democrats a long-awaited trifecta in Maryland. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

While much of the national focus on and after Election Day was on the tense battle for control of both chambers of Congress, a lot of state offices (including 36 governorships) were on the ballot as well. But the national narrative of Democrats exceeding low expectations extended to state elections as well.

Democrats predictably flipped two governorships in deep-blue states anachronistically held by term-limited moderate (and anti-Trump) Republicans, Maryland and Massachusetts, securing trifecta control in both with Wes Moore in the former state and Maura Healey in the latter. Beyond that, Democrats mostly fended off threats to the governorships they already controlled.

Republicans were optimistic early in the cycle about knocking off Democratic incumbents in Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, and winning open Democratic-controlled governorships in Oregon and Pennsylvania (right at the end they also thought in a wave election they might pick off New York, too). But instead Laura Kelly of Kansas won a close race against Republican attorney general Derek Schmidt, and Tony Evers of Wisconsin turned back a big challenge from Republican businessman-outsider Tim Michels. Other Democratic incumbents won more comfortably. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan beat MAGA champion Tudor Dixon by ten points; Tim Walz of Minnesota defeated Republican state legislator Scott Jensen by seven points; and Michelle Lujan Grisham won over former local TV meteorologist Mark Ronchetti by six points. The GOP candidates in all these races were considered quite viable at one point or another. In Maine, Democratic incumbent Janet Mills trounced former two-term GOP governor Paul LePage by 13 points in a highly cathartic win for her party.

Democrats suffered one loss by an incumbent governor: Nevada’s Steve Sisolak lost a close race to Republican Joe Lombardo in a state where nearly every contest was a barnburner.

In the open governorships, Pennsylvania Democratic attorney general Josh Shapiro disposed of the Trump-backed extremist Doug Mastriano by 14 points, and in a mild but very nice surprise for Democrats in Oregon, Tina Kotek came from behind to defeat Republican legislator Christine Drazan, who had led in nearly every poll since the race began.

There are two unresolved gubernatorial races. In Alaska, Republican incumbent Mike Dunleavy is currently at 52 percent with 80 percent of the vote in; even if he slips below a majority he probably has enough support to survive a ranked-choice showdown with either Democrat Les Gara or indie Bill Walker; the results will be finalized by November 23. And in Arizona, an open governorship now controlled by Republicans, Democratic attorney general Katie Hobbs has a small lead over MAGA candidate Kari Lake with more than 83 percent of the vote in. All in all, it was a good cycle for Democratic gubernatorial candidates, considering the usual losses the non-White House party has in midterms. (Democrats netted seven governorships in 2018.)

Democrats also did relatively well in closely contested state legislatures. They flipped both chambers in Michigan, along with the Minnesota House and the Pennsylvania House. The have a chance of winning control in Arizona as well while holding off Republican drives to flip legislature chambers in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, and Nevada. They increased the number of state government “trifectas” they hold to 18 (they held 14 before this election) compared to 23 for Republicans (who are still benefitting from the huge state gains they made back in 2010).

Perhaps most significantly, a MAGA effort to take over the election machinery in likely 2024 battleground states appears to have fallen short. Election deniers Kristina Karamo of Michigan, Kim Crockett of Minnesota, and Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania (where the governor controls the election machinery) all definitively lost, while Mark Finchem of Arizona and Jim Marchant of Nevada both trail their opponents with votes still coming in.

But that’s not to say Republicans didn’t have their moments in state elections. In states where they performed well, they performed very well. That was most notable in Florida, where the GOP increased legislative margins significantly while winning every statewide office and carrying such Democratic bastions as Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County. In Georgia, Senator Raphael Warnock’s narrow vote margin over Herschel Walker obscured the fact that the rest of the Democratic ticket did poorly. In Iowa, which was a highly competitive state at every level as recently as 2012, two Democratic statewide elected officials who first won their offices in 1978 (Attorney General Tom Miller) and 1982 (State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald), and who have survived many big Republican wave elections, both lost this year. Ticket-splitting did not return everywhere.

State elections don’t get much attention in presidential cycles, particularly those that look as fascinating and consequential as the one approaching now. But the two parties are in position of greater competitive balance at the state level than they have been for a while, and given the big decisions on issues ranging from abortion policy to election laws
they will be making next year and beyond, that matters a lot.

Democrats Made Gains in the States, Too