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Why Republicans should be nervous about their candidates for governor

Swing-state contests could shift the party balance and give the GOP more power, but election deniers could be the face of the party in some key races

Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor, gestures to the cheering crowd during his primary night election party on May 17, 2022, in Chambersburg, Pa. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Thanks to the Supreme Court, the battle for control of the House and Senate isn’t the only major story in this year’s midterm elections. Now there is renewed focus on the states, where a handful of gubernatorial races could change the balance of power between the parties and determine the future of abortion and voting rights, not to mention influencing who is elected president in 2024.

The high court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade moves the abortion issue to the states, where legislatures and governors will determine what access, if any, women will have to abortions. In the absence of federal action, states have begun enacting laws restricting voting rights, and depending on what happens in the Supreme Court’s next term, state legislatures could be even more empowered to set rules for future elections.

Roughly half a dozen states — not surprisingly, they are the states that decided the 2020 presidential election and are likely to decide the 2024 race, as well — have competitive contests for governor. Republicans’ hopes of expanding their hold on state government will hinge on the outcomes. But the GOP’s chances will be affected by the quality of its candidates — and right now, that’s a potential problem.

Republicans control both legislative chambers in 30 states, compared with 17 for the Democrats, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans have full control of state government — legislature plus the governorship — in 23 states; the Democrats 14. For Democrats, winning control of state legislatures remains a major challenge, which makes holding or flipping governorships a major priority in the ongoing battle over the direction of state policies.

The lineup in 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 are expected to see competitive gubernatorial races in November.

A guide to the 2022 midterm elections

Republicans have nominated their strongest candidates in two of those states. In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp cruised to 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 race, with the odds slightly in his favor. In Nevada, Republicans nominated Clark County (Las Vegas) Sheriff Joe Lombardo to challenge Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. Lombardo was the favorite of both Trump and establishment Republicans.

In the other four states, however, Republicans aren’t sure 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 state Sen. Doug Mastriano. In Mastriano, Republican primary voters picked an election denier as their nominee, someone who has promulgated Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. In a state that remains closely divided, the question is whether a Republican with that profile can generate Trump-like turnout among the GOP base in the rural areas or turn off 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 what was a good year for the Democrats. Former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who served two terms with then-Gov. Scott Walker, was seen as the likely Republican nominee and for most of 2021 and early 2022, say GOP strategists. She seemed to be doing everything right.

Then things changed. The primary has been scrambled by continued GOP infighting over the results of the 2020 election and the entry of more candidates. Businessman Tim Michels joined the race in April and later got Trump’s endorsement. Meanwhile, Kleefisch fell short of the 60 percent threshold needed to get the party’s endorsement at the recent state Republican convention.

A recent Marquette University Law School poll showed a statistical tie 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 sort out their differences, the Marquette Law School poll showed Evers leading both candidates, with Kleefisch trailing by four percentage points and Michels by seven. Republicans see either candidate as able to win in November, but some believe Kleefisch is more prepared for a tough contest.

In Michigan, Republicans have experienced even more problems in sorting out their challenger to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Privately, GOP strategists remain worried about the race in November.

At the start, Republicans thought they had an ideal candidate in James Craig, a former Detroit police chief. But he never lived up to advance billing. Recently, he was knocked off the primary ballot because he didn’t have enough valid signatures on his petitions; he was one of five candidates taken off the ballot for signature problems. He is mounting a write-in campaign, as is another of those who were ruled ineligible.

Ryan Kelley, another candidate, was recently arrested on misdemeanor charges as part of the federal investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Whatever that might 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 is no favorite at this point. A recent poll for the Detroit Free Press by the firm EPIC-MRA showed Kelley marginally ahead of the others in the race, but with just 17 percent. Nearly half of Michigan Republicans are undecided in the gubernatorial primary. With Biden significantly underwater in the state, Whitmer still faces a challenging reelection, but given all the problems among Republicans, she could have considerable opportunities to paint her eventual opponent as unsuited for the office.

In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is term-limited, so the state will have an open race.

Ducey drew Trump’s wrath for certifying the 2020 results, and the election remains a key issue in the primary campaign to select a GOP nominee. The party primary features 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 put the former president’s false claim about a fraudulent election in 2020 at the center of her campaign. Karrin Taylor Robson, the other most prominent candidate, is running as a more traditional conservative Republican.

The Trump endorsement counts for a lot in the race, and Lake has been seen as the nominal front-runner. Some backers of Robson believe the recent decision by former congressman Matt Salmon to quit the race will bring more traditional GOP voters to Robson’s column. One wrinkle in the race came late last month: After Lake had been denouncing drag queens as dangerous to children, it was revealed that she had attended the shows of a drag queen 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 front-runner. Republicans have been fretting all year about the possibility of Lake as their nominee, fearing she would compromise their chances of holding the office. Still, given the environment and her communication skills, she, too, could be elected governor, although what kind of governor she would be is another question. There is one certainty: A Democratic victory in November would put a roadblock in front of the Republican-controlled legislature.

In red-state 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 before the November election, Kansas will provide an early look at the politics of abortion. The Aug. 2 primary includes a ballot measure that would essentially invalidate 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 toss-ups. The Cook team shifted Pennsylvania from a toss-up to leaning to the Democrats after Mastriano won the GOP primary. Which is why the August round of Republican primaries will be closely watched on both sides.

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