HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) –
The governor’s races are often overshadowed by the struggle for control of Congress during midterm elections. But this fall, the nation’s political future depends as much on the governors’ mansions as it does on Capitol Hill.
With abortion rights, immigration policies and democracy itself moving into the final weeks before the November 8 election, both parties are poised to spend unprecedented amounts of money to win high state offices. Those elected will be in power in the 2024 elections when they could influence electoral laws and the certification of the outcome. And their powers over abortion rights increased significantly when the US Supreme Court left the issue to states to decide in June.
“The races of governors matter more than ever,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, the group that works to elect Democrats to run states.
For Democrats, Cooper said, governors are “often the last line of defense” on issues delegated to the states, including gun laws and voting rights and abortion. That’s especially true in places with Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures like Wisconsin and Kansas — states that both parties made top targets for victory in November. Democrats are leading Republican candidates in two key battleground states with GOP-led state houses, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is the only Democratic governor running for re-election in a state borne by former President Donald Trump in 2020. The former lawmaker won office in 2018 against a fiery conservative after running as a moderate candidate who championed bipartisanship.
She now faces three-year Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who has repeatedly tried to tie her to President Joe Biden and criticized her for being too liberal for the red state. However, Schmidt’s campaign was marred by a third-party bid from a conservative state legislature.
During a debate at the Kansas State Fair this month, Schmidt portrayed Kelly’s position on abortion as too extreme and told a crowd she supported abortion unreservedly.
Kansas was the unlikely locus of Democratic abortion rights hopes. In August, Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have allowed the GOP-controlled legislature to severely restrict or ban abortion. Kelly opposed the measure, although she has tried to focus her campaign elsewhere.
Schmidt said he respected the outcome of the vote but said the abortion debate was not over.
“What was not on the ballot was Governor Kelly’s position,” he said.
For nearly two decades in electoral politics, Kelly has spoken out against nearly every abortion restriction in Kansas law. But when asked about Schmidt’s characterization of her position on abortion, she said, “You know, I never said that.”
Kelly hasn’t emphasized abortion as an issue, although many Democrats believe it would help her. Instead, she has touted the state’s fiscal strength and its work to attract businesses and jobs.
“Maybe I’m not flashy, but I’m effective,” she said at the end of the state fair debate.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is warning voters that democracy is up for election this fall, noting that he has vetoed more bills than any other governor in modern state history, including measures Republicans voted against have pushed to change the way elections are conducted.
Evers meets Trump-backed businessman Tim Michels. Michels has claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged — a lie Trump peddled to reverse his loss to Biden — and supports changes to election and election laws in the state, a constant presidential battleground.
Michels is among several Trump-backed candidates to emerge from sometimes brutal GOP primaries. In some cases, more moderate or mainstream Republicans warned that the Trump-backed far-right would struggle to win in general elections.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, acknowledged the turmoil within the party during a discussion at Georgetown University’s Department of Politics and Public Policy last week.
“We’re a divided nation right now, and it’s very tribal. And a lot of that crept into this cycle,” said Ducey, who is timed.
The RGA does not support in area codes. But as governor, Ducey endorsed businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson for Arizona’s GOP nomination for governor. She lost to former television news anchor Kari Lake, who had Trump’s backing.
Ducey and Trump have been at odds over the governor’s refusal to give in to Trump’s wishes and overturn his state’s 2020 election results. Lake said she did not confirm Biden’s victory, although multiple reviews have confirmed it.
Cooper said the DGA will “lean heavily” in both Arizona and close competition in Georgia, where GOP Gov. Brian Kemp meets Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former state Legislative Chair who had a close race against him in 2018 has lost. In the primary, Kemp easily defeated former Trump-backed Senator David Perdue.
Both the Democratic and Republican governor associations entered 2022 after raising record amounts — over $70 million each — in what they say is a sign that voters are increasingly focused on state races. Cooper attributed some of the increased interest to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
The RGA is optimistic about defending Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia and has a strong focus on winning a handful of blue states to the west, including Oregon and New Mexico.
Topping the list is Nevada, where Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is among the Republicans’ most valuable recruits this election cycle, challenging Gov. Steve Sisolak.
In Oregon, GOP hopes rest on an independent candidate who siphons enough support from the Democrats to allow the Republican to eke out a win.
Democrats, meanwhile, are confident they will retake the governorships in Massachusetts and Maryland, two blue states currently led by moderate Republicans after far-right Republicans won their party’s nominations.
Pennsylvania, a top presidential battleground, is another state where the GOP nominee could hurt Republicans’ chances in November. GOP voters chose Doug Mastriano from a crowded field, picking a Trump-backed candidate who is invariably opposed to abortion rights, promoting conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and bus trips to the 2020 election on Jan. 6, the day of the violent riot US Capitol organized. He faces Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Asked about the race during the debate in Georgetown, Ducey was blunt.
“Another axiom that we have at the RGA is that we don’t fund lost cases and we don’t fund landslides,” he said.
In Michigan, a swing state where Trump and his allies also tried unsuccessfully to reverse his 2020 defeat, Trump-backed candidate Tudor Dixon won a chaotic GOP primary. Democrats have repeatedly criticized Dixon for her anti-abortion stance, including in cases of rape or incest. A measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution will also be up for a vote in November, and Democrats are hoping it will help their candidates.
First-term Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has millions more in her campaign fund than Dixon, but said after an appearance at the Detroit Auto Show that she doesn’t take anything for granted.
“This is Michigan, and Michigan is always tight,” she said.
Burnett reported from Chicago. Associated Press reporter Colleen Long contributed from Detroit.
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