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Where The GOP Could Make Or Break Its Chances In 10 Key Governors’ Races

Where The GOP Could Make Or Break Its Chances In 10 Key Governors’ Races

The governor’s mansion has recently been a strong point for Republicans, as they’ve held a majority of the country’s governorships since the 2010 election. In fact, they currently control 28 governorships to the Democrats’ 22, and with 36 governorships up this year, they could widen that advantage, especially considering that President Biden’s approval rating is in the low 40s and the national political environment looks friendly toward Republicans. However, GOP gains in 2022 are not a given. 

As it turns out, the two most likely seats to flip may be Maryland and Massachusetts, where popular Republican governors are leaving office, and the GOP could end up nominating candidates who struggle to appeal in those deep-blue states. Meanwhile, primary battles in Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could also hurt GOP efforts to capture Democratic-held governorships. After all, while gubernatorial races have become more nationalized, voters still show a greater tendency to break from their baseline partisan preferences in these races than in contests for Congress, meaning a poor nominee can still cause the seemingly favored party to stumble.

That said, even though Republicans have two of the toughest seats to defend this cycle, they also have their own juicy target in Kansas, the reddest state Democrats control. Moreover, Democrats hold more highly competitive seats, which could easily flip. Based on early race ratings data from Inside Elections, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report, we’ve identified 10 states that are especially competitive, six of which Democrats currently control. This list could certainly change, but at this point, the GOP is playing on friendlier turf, as the table below shows.

The 10 governorships most likely to flip parties in 2022

The incumbent, incumbent party, whether the incumbent is seeking reelection, the median race rating and the state’s partisan lean in each of these 10 key races

State Incumbent Inc. party Inc. running again Median rating Partisan Lean
MA Charlie Baker R Likely D D+32.6
MD Larry Hogan R Lean D D+25.9
ME Janet Mills D Lean D D+4.0
MI Gretchen Whitmer D Lean D R+1.6
NV Steve Sisolak D ?Toss-up R+2.5
PA Tom Wolf D ?Toss-up R+2.9
WI Tony Evers D ?Toss-up R+4.1
GA Brian Kemp R ?Toss-up R+7.4
AZ Doug Ducey R ?Toss-up R+7.6
KS Laura Kelly D ?Toss-up R+20.7

Let’s start with the four battleground states Democrats must defend. Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are both the GOP’s greatest pick-up opportunities and perhaps their greatest risks, since in each race only Republicans have seriously contested primaries. 

Of these states, Pennsylvania has the most wide-open race, with nine Republicans battling to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. And while former President Donald Trump hasn’t yet1 endorsed anyone for this race, the two leading GOP contenders are both strongly associated with him: former Rep. Lou Barletta, an anti-immigration stalwart and early endorser of Trump’s 2016 campaign, and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, an ardent defender of Trump’s bogus election-fraud claims who was also on the scene at the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Two April polls from the Trafalgar Group and The Hill/Emerson College found Barletta and Mastriano running neck and neck for first, at around 20 percent. The only other candidates who hit double-digits in either poll were Bill McSwain, a former Trump-appointed U.S. attorney, and Dave White, a businessman and former Delaware County councilman. McSwain ran close to Barletta and Mastriano in the Trafalgar poll, but his campaign took a hit in mid-April, when Trump publicly opposed McSwain because he felt McSwain, as a U.S. attorney, hadn’t satisfactorily addressed the fraudulent claims about the 2020 election. Meanwhile, White was around 10 percent in both surveys and has self-funded his campaign a great deal, but his close ties to organized labor might prove problematic for conservative primary voters.

A Mastriano or Barletta win could be music to the ears of presumptive Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro, though. Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, will probably face a tough race regardless of whom the GOP chooses, given the national environment. But he might find it easier to win over voters who overwhelmingly rejected Barletta in the state’s 2018 Senate race (in a strongly Democratic year); alternatively, Shapiro may have little trouble portraying Mastriano as an extremist because of Mastriano’s connections to Jan. 6. Moreover, neither Republican has proven to be a strong fundraiser: As of late March, Barletta and Mastriano had each brought in less than $450,000 in campaign contributions, whereas Shapiro had raised 10 times as much. Pennsylvania is shaping up to be a governor’s race where candidate quality could make the difference.

In Nevada, things are less up in the air for Republicans. Trump has endorsed Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo to take on Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. To be sure, Lombardo isn’t the only Republican running in the June 14 primary. Former Sen. Dean Heller, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee and attorney and former boxer Joey Gilbert, who recently won the state party’s backing, have all thrown their hats in the ring, but Trump’s backing of Lombardo may help cement him as the front-runner. Gilbert, who also attended the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, did just receive an official party endorsement at the Nevada GOP’s state convention, though, which could boost his standing.

Still, even prior to Trump’s endorsement, Lombardo already held at least a small lead in two surveys conducted in March, and surveys conducted by Trafalgar and The Hill/Emerson College following Trump’s endorsement confirm Lombardo still has an edge, although his support hasn’t dramatically grown. But Lombardo also has a roughly $3 million campaign war chest, which far outpaces that of the other major contenders. Provided Lombardo wins his party’s nod, he could be well-positioned to defeat Sisolak in the general election, despite the incumbent’s nearly $10 million in the bank. An early-April Reno Gazette-Journal/Suffolk University poll of likely voters found Lombardo and Sisolak both running just shy of 40 percent. A Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll from around the same time did find Sisolak leading Lombardo by 9 percentage points, but neither held a majority and Lombardo still performed the best of any Republican candidate tested in the poll.

The Republican primaries in Michigan and Wisconsin aren’t as crowded as the one in Pennsylvania, but a lot could still change in both races since Trump hasn’t weighed in2 and each primary takes place in August. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer looks likeliest to face former Detroit police Chief James Craig, and early general election polling suggests he could be competitive against her.

However, Craig’s campaign has encountered some challenges, including a merry-go-round of campaign managers and a lost endorsement from GOP Rep. Jack Bergman. It’s possible, too, that Craig will face competition in the primary. A late-March survey from the Trafalgar Group found businessman Perry Johnson and chiropractor Garrett Soldano both polling around 15 percent, while Craig pulled in 34 percent. Johnson has cast himself as a conservative “quality guru” and has self-funded much of his campaign. Soldano, meanwhile, has made headlines for opposing the right to an abortion even in the case of rape. They’re not the only ones trying to thwart Craig, either. Conservative radio host Tudor Dixon, self-funding businessman Kevin Rinke and Ryan Kelley, a real estate agent who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, are all in the mix as well. However, one wild card here is whether some of these candidates fail to qualify for the primary ballot: Michigan Democrats have launched challenges to the petition signatures of Craig, Johnson and Dixon, and an outside group allied with Dixon has questioned Craig’s signatures.

In Wisconsin, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch looks most likely to win the GOP primary and advance to take on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. A late-April poll from Marquette University Law School found her at 32 percent, with businessman Kevin Nicholson as the only other Republican to crack double-digits, at 10 percent. Even a recent poll from a pro-Nicholson super PAC found Kleefisch leading Nicholson, 42 percent to 29 percent, among likely voters. Businessman Tim Michels, who entered the race only last week and announced plans to largely self-fund his campaign, is a relative unknown at this point.

Kleefisch may just have the right combination of grassroots and institutional support to win. She served as lieutenant governor for eight years under then-Gov. Scott Walker, who earned praise from conservatives while in office and has endorsed Kleefisch. She’s also worked to shore up her support among conservatives — and win over Trump — by changing her stance on the 2020 election, having gone from accepting Biden’s victory in the state to now saying that the election was “rigged.”

Those four states make up the battleground governorships Democrats must defend, but Republicans have their own to defend in Georgia and Arizona. It’s a heated GOP primary in Georgia, too, with incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp facing former Sen. David Perdue. 

This is a race where Trump’s endorsement might fall flat, though. Trump endorsed Perdue in February, as he was upset that Kemp had not overturned Georgia’s 2020 election results. But recent polls suggest Perdue is significantly behind Kemp and might not even be able to force a runoff in the May 24 primary. (Georgia is one of seven states that require a primary winner to garner majority support.)

An Fox 5 Atlanta/InsiderAdvantage poll released this week found Kemp at 54 percent and Perdue at 38 percent, a finding echoed by five other surveys conducted from mid-April through early May. Kemp may have angered Trump, but he has pursued a conservative policy agenda in cooperation with the GOP-controlled legislature and has remained relatively popular at home. A Kemp victory would be good news for the GOP, too, as general election polling suggests that Kemp is a safer bet than Perdue to defeat Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s 2018 foe and the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2022.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Trump’s candidate, former television anchor and Big Lie proponent Kari Lake, is doing just fine. She is her party’s front-runner, having led all publicly released polls in the race to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. The most recent survey from Trafalgar put Lake at 38 percent, ahead of former state Board of Regents Secretary Karrin Taylor Robson (27 percent) and former Rep. Matt Salmon (11 percent). That’s not too different from two early-April polls from Data Orbital and OH Predictive Insights that also gave Lake a lead and put Robson in second.

Things are more competitive in the campaign-finance department, however, as Lake has spent just $1.7 million, compared with Robson’s $6.1 million, including nearly $4 million she has loaned her campaign. This money edge could potentially help Robson, too, as she has been able to spend far more resources to push her message (Salmon has spent around $940,000). Although there isn’t that much of a difference between the candidates’ messages at this point — all three, for instance, want to finish the U.S.-Mexico border fence. That said, Lake, as Trump’s pick, has played up his false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent, so Robson’s money might not be enough to overcome Lake in the Aug. 2 primary.

For their part, Democrats look likely to choose Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. Having raised twice as much as her opponents, former state Rep. Aaron Lieberman and former Nogales Mayor Marco López, Hobbs is in a strong position in the Democratic primary. However, Hobbs has still had to deal with her share of controversy; specifically, the 2015 firing of a Black woman staffer who worked under Hobbs has generated some negative publicity since a federal jury decided last year that the staffer had been a victim of racial and sex discrimination. Still, Democrats are hoping that a controversial GOP nominee like Lake might give them an opening in Arizona despite a GOP-leaning environment, and limited general election polling has shown Hobbs running either slightly ahead or behind Lake, Robson and Salmon.

Aside from Georgia and Arizona, Republicans have two other, even more vulnerable seats they must defend, as outgoing GOP governors in deep-blue Maryland and Massachusetts could very easily be replaced by Democrats.

In Maryland, a huge Democratic field has developed in the race to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. To the extent there’s a favorite, it might be Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, a four-term officeholder who also had the most money in the bank as of mid-January. But Franchot is a fiscal conservative who might rub some liberals in the state the wrong way, so it’s still entirely possible that former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, former Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez or former Secretary of Education John King make a splash. Other wild cards are author Wes Moore and former nonprofit executive Jon Baron — Moore has raised a ton of money and has polled decently, while Baron has self-funded a great deal. 

As for the GOP field, it’s largely a race between Kelly Schulz, a former Hogan cabinet member who has her old boss’s support, and Trump-endorsed state Del. Daniel Cox. Schulz has the fundraising edge and would probably be a stronger general election candidate, but Cox might best her in the July 19 primary because he’s better aligned with the current ideological direction of the GOP. Maryland is one of the bluest states in the country, however, so even though Hogan managed to win the state in 2014 and hold it in 2018, the state’s lean will make it a good pickup opportunity for Democrats.

In even-bluer Massachusetts, both parties have clear front-runners in the open-seat race to succeed Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, so there’s less uncertainty as to what the general election matchup will look like. But this seat could prove more challenging than Maryland’s for Republicans to hold onto.

Democrats have a strong candidate in state Attorney General Maura Healey, who has a clear lead in primary polls over state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz. Healey also handily won her office in 2014 and 2018, and was widely expected to run if Baker decided to retire rather than seek a third term. Former state Rep. Geoff Diehl, the Republican front-runner who has Trump’s endorsement, is a bit more of a mixed bag, however. He has increasingly embraced false claims that the 2020 election result was fraudulent, and that isn’t likely to play well given the state’s deep-blue hue, even if the state has shown a penchant for electing Republican governors.

After all, Baker was critical of Trump and had a better approval rating among Democrats than Republicans not long before he announced his retirement. It’s possible businessman Chris Doughty, who compares himself to the moderate Baker, can put up a competitive showing against Diehl in the Sept. 6 primary, but at this point, Doughty hasn’t gained as much traction among Republicans in the state. And either way, Republicans in Massachusetts might be in trouble as a Boston Globe/Suffolk University survey fielded in late April found Healey up 27 points on Diehl and 30 points on the less well-known Doughty.

Republicans aren’t the only ones with hard seats to defend, however. Democrats also control two seats that Republicans could easily pick up. In fact, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is the most vulnerable incumbent governor seeking reelection in the country. She narrowly won in a pro-Democratic environment in 2018, with 48 percent of the vote, mostly because she was running against a weak, divisive Republican opponent. Now, though, she will face three-term Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who might do a better job uniting the GOP in this deep-red state.

Things aren’t quite as dire for Democrats in Maine, but Democratic Gov. Janet Mills could still find herself in trouble in this purplish state. She will face former Gov. Paul LePage, who served as governor from 2011 to 2019. Working in Mills’s favor, though, is that LePage is a polarizing figure in the state, which could give her enough of a boost to win reelection. At the very least, this state doesn’t lean toward either party so much that a Democratic win in a Republican-leaning environment would be unheard of.

And there are, of course, plenty of other interesting intraparty contests in states where one party has a clear advantage — like an exciting three-way Republican primary in deep-red Nebraska — or wide-open GOP primaries in Democratic-leaning states that could come into play because of the national environment, like in Minnesota. But the 10 states we’ve examined here will likely have the most influence on how much state-level clout Democrats and Republicans have after the dust settles this November.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight. @geoffreyvs

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