The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A growing threat to democracy: Trumpist gubernatorial candidates

Scott Jensen, a candidate for the Republican endorsement for governor in Minnesota. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
5 min

The threat that Republicans pose to democracy is usually thought to emanate from Donald Trump and his allies, or from the House Republicans who regularly dabble in insurrectionism and flirtations with political violence.

But far too little attention is paid to the threat posed by potential future Republican governors.

This is underscored by a bizarre story out of Minnesota. The Star-Tribune reports that one of the leading GOP candidates, former state senator Scott Jensen, seemed to threaten the Democratic secretary of state with imprisonment.

At a recent party convention, Jensen railed that the GOP’s attitude toward voting is that “if you cheat, you’re going to jail.” He then added that Secretary of State Steve Simon should “check out to see if you look good in stripes.” Under Republican rule, Jensen added, “the hammer’s coming down.”

Whatever that was supposed to mean, if any state were immune from the Republican attempt to turn voting into a venomous culture war issue, it might have been Minnesota. It’s often considered the most civic-minded state in the county, and usually has very high rates of voter turnout.

That this ugliness has now come to Minnesota is a reminder that if some of the Republicans running for governor around the country win their races, they could pose a threat to democracy, either through voter suppression efforts or even possibly via an effort to overturn the 2024 election. Alternatively, defeating them could protect against just such attacks on our system.

After all, you’d think governor’s races would be less susceptible to election denial lunacy. Governors have to be pragmatic, and in many states, candidates for the office do campaign that way. It’s why voters still elect governors from the other party, as deep-red Kentucky picked Democrat Andy Beshear, and deep-blue Maryland chose Republican Larry Hogan.

For the first time, however, we’re getting gubernatorial contests in key swing states after Donald Trump attempted a coup. And in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all of which have such races, Republicans control the legislature while the governor is a Democrat, meaning GOP victories would mean total Republican control at the state level.

Similarly, Georgia and Arizona also have gubernatorial contests, and in them a Democrat could win while Republicans retain control of the legislature. All could be places where a radical legislature attempts new rounds of voter suppression after the midterm elections. Democratic governors would be a bulwark against that.

This could even happen in Minnesota, where power is on a knife edge. In addition to this year’s tight governor’s race, Democrats hold a slim advantage in the State House while Republicans control the state senate by an equally small margin. It’s the only state in the country where the legislature is divided, but it might not be after November.

All this puts Democratic governors in a key position. Beyond acting as a check on more voter suppression, electing Democrats could prevent the worst case scenario in 2024. In it, a GOP governor in a key swing state could theoretically certify presidential electors for the GOP candidate even if he lost the state’s popular vote.

If the Electoral Count Act of 1887 is not reformed to build in safeguards against sham electors certified by a governor — or, for that matter a state legislature — and a GOP-controlled House of Representatives counts those electors, they would stand. That could flip a state or, in an extreme scenario, flip a presidential outcome.

That’s why it’s so important that former senator David Perdue must fail in his challenge to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in the Republican primary. Perdue has telegraphed a willingness to execute such a scheme, and while he might not go through with it, letting him anywhere near control of that process seems like a very bad idea.

It’s also why it’s distressing that other Republican gubernatorial candidates in swing states have signaled openness to future subversion efforts. The front-runner in the GOP gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania played a key role in Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 loss. A top candidate in the Wisconsin gubernatorial primary has said Trump’s loss was “rigged.” And in Arizona, a relentless promoter of election lies is in the lead.

In all these cases, what’s being advertised is something like an openness to treating election losses as inherently illegitimate and nonbinding. It should be obvious that such people should be kept as far away from the 2024 presidential certification process as humanly possible.

To be clear, there has been some good news. In some states, such as Idaho and Ohio, the extremist Trumpists mounting primary challenges to incumbent Republican governors don’t seem to have caught on.

That plus a likely Kemp victory over Perdue may suggest a limit to the GOP electorate’s appetite for turning American politics into a nonstop war over voting. But there will still be enormous pressure on Republicans everywhere to use whatever power they have to suppress votes for the next two years, then try to subvert the 2024 election for Trump or an imitator, should he legitimately lose.

And governors may be the only ones in a position to stop them.