A look at Governors’ races that could bring about major shifts in state policies

This midterm cycle there are high stakes in campaigns for governors' mansions and the winners will impact everything from state elections to reproductive rights. Republicans have dominated the gubernatorial landscape but there are 36 races that could change the breakdown. Kyle Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics joined Geoff Bennet to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This midterm election cycle, there are high stakes in campaigns for governor's mansion. Winners will impact everything from state elections to issues like reproductive rights.

    Geoff Bennett has more on the gubernatorial forecast.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    In a midterm election year, the fight for control of Congress gets most of the attention, but control of state governments will be on the ballot too, with the outcome having a major impact on Americans' lives.

    Republicans have long dominated the gubernatorial landscape. Today, they hold 28 governor's mansions, while Democrats hold 22. But there are 36 races this year that could change that partisan breakdown. Democrats are hoping to make gains this November and have a good chance of flipping two states that currently have Republican governors, but are traditionally blue. That's Maryland and Massachusetts.

    Kyle Kondik is following all of this very closely. He's the managing editor of Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. And he joins us now.

    It's good to have you here.

    Kyle Kondik, University of Virginia: Thanks for having me.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So there are 36 states with governor's seats up this year, and 27 of the candidates are incumbents, which is typically an advantage, given name recognition and fund-raising.

    Republicans, it seems, are pretty bullish about their chances out West. Give us a sense of what's happening.

  • Kyle Kondik:

    Yes.

    So what's interesting is that Maryland, Massachusetts, two eastern states with Republican governors that are otherwise very Democratic, the Republicans nominated pretty far right candidates there. It seems like Republicans are probably going to lose those states.

    However, because governorships don't necessarily always correspond to federal partisanship, you have got an open race in Oregon, for instance, which is otherwise a very Democratic state, but it's a weird kind of three-way race. Republicans are really hoping to compete there.

    You have got vulnerable Democratic incumbents in Wisconsin, Nevada, Kansas. New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham is running for a second term there as a Democrat. She is also vulnerable as an incumbent. It is true that, if you go back to the last five midterms, about 80 percent of the governor's races that flipped were ones that were open seats, as opposed to ones being defended by incumbents.

    So incumbency is valuable, but invariably at least one or two incumbents lose every year. Democrats — and Republicans are hoping they could beat a couple of Democratic incumbents in these swing or even red-leading states.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Yes.

    On the Republican side, there are a number of Trump-supporting election deniers who are running for seats in the House and Senate. How present is that sort of far right anti-democratic force in the governor's races?

  • Kyle Kondik:

    I'd say probably one of the most prominent candidates who I think fits that description is a state senator in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, who's the Republican candidate there.

    And a lot of Republicans think that he's basically too far right to be able to win in Pennsylvania, although Pennsylvania is still really a close and competitive state, so I wouldn't necessarily rule it out. That's an open seat too. Democrats have held it for two terms. Tom Wolf's the outgoing Democratic governor there.

    Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, who's a pretty well-regarded candidate, is the Democratic candidate there. He's got a ton of money, some advantages over Mastriano. But if this ends up being kind of a Republican wave year, maybe someone like Mastriano could win.

    I'd say he's the best example. I would also look at Kari Lake, the Republican nominee in the open seat of Arizona, which is a state that Republicans are defending. There's a term-limited Republican governor there. Kari Lake is another person who is definitely talking about the 2020 election a lot, or at least she wasn't the primary, and is a pretty right-wing candidate.

    She, I think, actually has a fairly decent chance to win, although that's like kind of a coin-flip toss up race out in Arizona.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    We talked about Democrats hoping to flip Massachusetts and Maryland.

    What about the battlegrounds? What are some of the battleground races that you're watching? And how are they playing out?

  • Kyle Kondik:

    Well, so most of the gubernatorial races are held in these midterm years.

    And so almost all the big states have governor's races and almost all of the key swing states. So, if you look at, like, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Nevada, Wisconsin, those are all some of the closest states from the 2020 presidential election. They all have governor's races.

    I think that some of these races have developed in ways that have been positive for Democrats. Gretchen Whitmer, I think, in Michigan, a Democrat, is looking a little bit better. I mentioned Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania, who is a Democrat, looking pretty good.

    But Tony Evers, the Democratic incumbent in Wisconsin, that's a really close race. Steve Sisolak in Nevada Democrat, that's a really close race. Laura Kelly, running in Kansas, she benefited from a weak Republican opponent in 2018. She's running for a second term. She's in a real dogfight in her race.

    And so, in some of these swing states — Kansas doesn't really qualify, but a lot of the others do — you have these great tests of where the parties are at in between the two presidential elections, 2020 and then coming up in 2024.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    You know, Kyle, we haven't talked about two of the best known nonincumbent gubernatorial candidates. That's Beto O'Rourke in Texas and Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Both of them are trailing their Republican competitors ever so slightly.

  • Kyle Kondik:

    That's right, yes.

    And I think that for as well-known and as kind of well-loved among Democrats as Stacey Abrams is in Georgia, Beto O'Rourke is in Texas, they're kind of polarizing figures too. And Texas in particular, but Georgia to some degree too, are still kind of center-right states.

    And I think that, for as much as those candidates fire up Democrats, they also fire up their Republican opponents. Polling has indicated steady, solid leads for both Kemp in Georgia and Republican Greg Abbott in Texas. And we talk about the power of incumbency in those races, even though I think particularly Abbott has had some questions and some problems in recent months. He still looks like he's pretty decently positioned position this year.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    What makes governor's races different? I mean, across the country, you have places where there might be a Democratic governor and a Republican state legislature, and vice versa.

  • Kyle Kondik:

    I think there's maybe a little bit more room to maneuver in terms of, if you're from the kind of minority party from the state to maybe make some hay that you couldn't maybe make in a House or a Senate race.

    And so we do have some real outliers in the governorships. So, Democrats have Kentucky. They have Louisiana. Those races aren't on the ballot this year. Kansas, we mentioned. And you have got Republican governors in Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, very blue states otherwise.

    And so you could sometimes, as a member of the maybe party that doesn't control the legislature, you can run as sort of a check on the legislature. Sometimes, you can get swept up in a wave environment and then build your own kind of independent profile if you actually get elected to office.

    So it's a little bit different of a dynamic. Look, everything in American politics is becoming more nationalized and more federalized.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Right.

  • Kyle Kondik:

    But it's just a little bit less so, I think, with the governor's races than it is with House and Senate.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Kyle Kondik, thanks, as always, for your great insights.

  • Kyle Kondik:

    Thank you.

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