Three-quarters of states will elect governors in the next 2 years. Here’s a field guide.December 16, 2020
The year 2020 showed just how important governors are — and the next two years could dramatically reshape who occupies those offices.
Thirty-eight of 50 states — accounting for nearly 85 percent of the U.S. population — will hold gubernatorial elections between 2021 and 2022. A dozen states are likely in play, if not more, raising the potential for one party to expand its influence across the nation. Republicans will have a four-seat advantage in statehouses starting in January, though the majority of Americans will still live under Democratic governors.
The races could serve as referendums on state leadership during times of crisis as the nation begins to move on from a pandemic that has thrust governors, their leadership styles, their philosophies and their values into the spotlight like never before. Will the decisions governors have made this year, some of which shaped the daily lives of their constituents, become anchors or buoys for their careers?
The elections will also mark an important checkpoint in President-elect Joe Biden’s nascent administration and demonstrate the salience of the coronavirus as a political issue after the deployment of vaccines developed to curb the outbreak.
Republicans mounted a resurgence at the state level after Biden and Barack Obama took office 12 years ago. Chris Christie won New Jersey, and Bob McDonnell won Virginia in 2009 — and then the GOP launched a midterm “shellacking” a year later, flipping governorships in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other states.
Democrats will again be defending New Jersey and Virginia in 2021 — the first tests of the post-Donald Trump political landscape — and then those three critical Great Lakes states, which were decisive in the November presidential election, in the 2022 midterms.
Here is a field guide to the 2021-22 gubernatorial election landscape:
The Big Four
The country’s four most populous states will all hold elections for governor in 2022 — but the current occupants are favored to come back for another term.
In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has faced blowback for his coronavirus restrictions — and his attendance earlier this year at a dinner held at a famously swanky Napa Valley restaurant. Opponents are circulating petitions to recall him, but the state is far more Democratic now than it was when then-Gov. Gray Davis was booted in 2003, and the modern-day California GOP is bereft of the moderation and star power that Arnold Schwarzenegger brought to the ballot.
Republicans’ best bet could be former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who says he’s mulling over a possible campaign after hitting his term limit as leader of California’s second-largest city
Democrats failed to make gains in Texas this year, despite the party and outside groups pouring millions of dollars into efforts to flip the state. And even when Beto O’Rourke was giving Sen. Ted Cruz a run for his money in 2018, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott still won reelection easily. Abbott — who had $37.7 million in cash on hand as of the midpoint of this year — plans to seek a third term and is not-so-secretly plotting a presidential campaign in the future, whether in 2024 or later. In what could be a challenging midterm, it’s unclear whether Democrats will make a concerted — and expensive — run at the office.
If Trump’s victory in Florida is any indication, Gov. Ron DeSantis — a Trump ally — is well positioned to win reelection. DeSantis will also be on the ballot with Sen. Marco Rubio — a popular Florida Republican — and other Republican incumbents for statewide positions.
And while Democrats are still reeling from their losses in the state, the party could see a competitive primary given DeSantis’ controversially less restrictive response to the pandemic and close ties to Trump. State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, has long been expected to run against DeSantis — and state Rep. Anna Eskamani and Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Val Demings are often mentioned as potential candidates, too. Former Rep. Gwen Graham, who ran in 2018 but fell short in the primary, is also considering the race.
After his star turn during the early days of the pandemic — which struck the New York area harder than anyplace else in the country — Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants the fourth term his father, Mario Cuomo, never got.
But while Cuomo’s approval ratings shot up this year because of his daily briefings early in the pandemic, expect Republicans to take a shot at him in 2022. One top GOP opponent could be Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican rising star who is on the outside looking in at her party’s leadership in the House and spent much of 2020 aiming her sharpest attacks at Albany and Cuomo’s handling of the virus.
Before 2022, there are two off-year, blue-state races for governor. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy is running for reelection, seeking to become the first Democrat to win a second term in Trenton since Brendan Byrne in 1977.
On the Republican side, state GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt and former state Assemblymember Jack Ciattarelli have launched campaigns. Both have been critical of actions Murphy has taken to contain the virus. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by more than a million registered voters, and both Steinhardt and Ciattarelli will be asked to answer for Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the state.
Virginia is likely to be more competitive. The state’s one-consecutive-term limit means embattled Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam isn’t running again — but his predecessor, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, wants a second term. First, McAuliffe must navigate a tricky and crowded Democratic primary against three Black candidates, including two Black women: state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.
Republicans will pick their nominee next year in a convention, rather than a primary election, in a state where voters don’t register by party. Whether that benefits former state House Speaker Kirk Cox, who is aligned with the party establishment, or controversial state Sen. Amanda Chase, who will seek to galvanize the GOP’s right wing, is unsettled.
The Blue Wall
Biden’s 2020 gains through the Midwest were presaged by Democrats’ 2018 victories in governors’ races in those states — though they will be up again in the Biden midterm.
The governorship is open in Pennsylvania, where two-term Democratic incumbent Tom Wolf is term-limited. The race is part of a massive shakeup in the Keystone State: GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is also retiring, meaning the state will have open races for Senate and governor in 2022.
On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro are all-but-certain candidates for the top two races. Most insiders expect Shapiro will run for governor, while Fetterman seeks the Senate seat, though the situation is fluid. Neither is likely to get a clear shot without competition.
The GOP field also looks crowded and could include two Republicans who injected themselves into Trump’s unsuccessful attempt to nullify the results of the 2020 election: Rep. Mike Kelly, who filed a lawsuit the Supreme Court unceremoniously rejected last week, and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who met with Trump last month at the White House, where he was informed that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Expect a massive fight in hyperpartisan Wisconsin, where Republicans are seeking to oust first-term Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Evers has spent much of his first term at war with the GOP-controlled state legislature, which has sought to quash the governor’s Covid-19 restrictions.
Like Pennsylvania, a possibly open Senate seat looms large in Wisconsin. GOP Sen. Ron Johnson said in 2016 he wouldn’t run for a third term, though he has since equivocated on that pledge. Expect former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and former Rep. Sean Duffy to give the race a look.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also faces a potentially difficult reelection bid in a swing state, where Republicans have worked to curtail her coronavirus measures — and some on the fringe have even indulged the threats against her safety. The GOP primary should be competitive, but some in the party pine for two-time failed Senate candidate John James, who will be just 41 years old on Election Day 2022.
Republicans have crowed about their future prospects in Minnesota, but the party needs to win some races there to make it an actual swing state. Biden’s 7-point victory there suggests the state retains enough Democratic DNA to give first-term Gov. Tim Walz a good shot at reelection.
Despite Illinois’ solid-blue status at the presidential level, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker isn’t expected to face an easy reelection campaign. He already faced a bruising loss this year as Illinois voters rejected an amendment that would have made the state’s tax code more progressive. Republicans touted that as a win given that Pritzker spent $58 million of his own money to push for its approval.
Republicans need the right candidate; rumors about Chicago Cubs owner Todd Ricketts — the brother of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts — would give the GOP a candidate with deep pockets to match the billionaire Pritzker.
Since losing last month’s election, Trump has lashed out at a number of erstwhile allies who have resisted his attempts to overturn the results. His most burning enmity has been directed at Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
Kemp, whom Trump elevated over then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the 2018 GOP primary, has said he is obligated to accept the verdict of his state’s voters and certify the election. For his fidelity to his oath, he has been derided by the president as a “fool” and a “clown” and seen Trump float Rep. Doug Collins, who finished third in the special election for Senate in November, as a primary challenger.
If Kemp wins renomination, he likely faces a rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who spurned other opportunities — including both Senate seats up this year — to focus on another shot at the governor’s mansion.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has also earned the ire of some conservatives for an aggressive approach to the coronavirus, but he is likely safer — both in a primary and in the general election in a state Trump won by 8 points last month.
The New West
Arizona is firmly a battleground state now, and Republicans are expected to spend big to keep one of the few remaining statewide offices they control. Meanwhile, Democrats will look to cement a pattern of the state going blue after securing both U.S. Senate seats and winning the presidential vote for the first time since 1996.
With Republican Gov. Doug Ducey being term-limited, the GOP primary race could be a good temperature check for where the party is headed as Arizona’s GOP has evolved from the party of John McCain to the party of Trump. Some names to watch: state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, former Ducey chief of staff Kirk Adams and state Treasurer Kimberly Yee.
Possible Democratic candidates include Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and Rep. Ruben Gallego.
In Nevada, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak is up for reelection in a race that could look a lot like 2018. His former opponent, Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general who has been involved in Trump’s recent efforts to claim electoral fraud in the state, is expected to be one of several Republican challengers. The list could also include former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison and former Sen. Dean Heller. Sisolak was the first Democrat to win the governorship in two decades.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham won’t be leaving New Mexico for a position in Biden’s administration after much speculation of her potentially being tapped to run the Department of Health and Human Services, meaning it’s possible the nation’s only Latina governor will run for reelection come 2022. The state’s last three governors each served two terms and alternated parties, a pattern that started with former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson in 1994 and bodes well for Lujan Grisham.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis will be a favorite for reelection in a state moving toward Democrats, though Republicans might contest his race or Sen. Michael Bennet’s race.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is term-limited — threatening the GOP’s leadership of an otherwise liberal state. Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, a Black Republican, has the inside track for the GOP nomination after serving alongside the popular Hogan for eight years. But Rutherford has never been on a ballot on his own, and the GOP primary electorate may seek a Trumpier candidate after Hogan’s record of criticizing the outgoing president.
The flood of Democratic candidates started with long-time state Comptroller Peter Franchot but won’t end there. Reps. David Trone, Kweisi Mfume and Anthony Brown — who lost to Hogan in 2014 — are possible candidates.
Both parties in Massachusetts are waiting on popular GOP Gov. Charlie Baker to decide whether he’ll run for a third term. If Baker doesn’t run again, Democrats will be favored to gain full control of Beacon Hill. Most Democrats have their eye on state Attorney General Maura Healey. Harvard professor Danielle Allen, a Black woman, said this week she’s running for the Democratic nomination.
GOP Gov. Chris Sununu has to decide whether to run for a fourth two-year term in New Hampshire — or challenge Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, who herself ascended from the governor’s mansion to the Senate in 2016. Three days after the election, Sununu’s campaign manager was teasing a possible run against Hassan on Twitter.
In Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott also has to decide whether he’ll seek a fourth two-year term. Scott is fresh off a 2020 run for reelection, where he received 67 percent of the vote — the largest margin of victory for a Vermont governor in decades. The state stood out through much of 2020 for managing to keep Covid-19 cases low even as the virus raged across the country, though the pandemic has since taken hold there.
The Solid South
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey took over for disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley in 2017, won a full term in her own right in 2018 and could run again in 2022.
The governorship will be open in Arkansas, where Gov. Asa Hutchinson is term-limited. Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, is considering the race. Other possible GOP candidates include Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
Democrats made a run at Oklahoma in 2018, but Republican Kevin Stitt’s victory in an open-seat race three years ago sets him up well for a second term.
In South Carolina, Republicans remain well positioned to keep the governor’s office — but incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster could face a repeat challenge from John Warren, who nearly beat him in the 2018 GOP primary. A Democrat has not been elected governor of South Carolina in 22 years.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, has already said he plans to run for reelection. Every Tennessee governor since retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander in 1982 has won reelection.
Kansas could be one of Republicans’ top pickup opportunities. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has worked to consolidate support, but Republicans hope to field a stronger candidate than then-Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whom Kelly defeated by 5 points in 2018.
Former Gov. Jeff Colyer, whom Kobach ousted in the 2018 primary, is considering running again, and state Attorney General Derek Schmidt is another possible candidate. The Wall Street Journal floated the name of outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this month.
In Maine, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills could face former GOP Gov. Paul LePage, who was unable to seek a third consecutive term in 2018. The state’s ranked-choice voting scheme could complicate a LePage comeback, however.
Ranked-choice voting is also coming to Alaska following a 2020 ballot initiative. All eyes will be on the Senate race in 2022, but GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy could also face a concerted challenge.
Republicans looking to add to their New England ranks could contest races in Connecticut, where Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont is up for reelection, and Rhode Island, where Gov. Gina Raimondo is term-limited.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds replaced Terry Branstad when he resigned in 2017 to become Trump’s ambassador to China and won a full term in 2018. Democrats took a step back in 2020, raising questions about how competitive the state really is.
Expect a crowded, open-seat race to replace Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. But Republicans haven’t won a governor’s race there since 1982, when then-Gov. Vic Atiyeh won reelection to a second term.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige is also term-limited, which is likely to prompt a Democratic scramble to replace him.
Republicans will be vying to replace Pete Ricketts, the Nebraska governor, who can’t seek a third term.
It seems like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is everywhere these days: On Fox News in taxpayer-funded “tourism” advertisements, stumping for GOP candidates across the country and visiting Trump at the White House. Any national ambitions she has probably hinge on winning a second term back home in 2022.
Two other first-term Republican governors are up for reelection in safe seats: Idaho Gov. Brad Little and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon. Both won by large margins in 2018.