SARAH BURNETT and JOHN HANNAH
HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — Gubernatorial races are often overshadowed by the battle for control of Congress during the midterm elections. But this fall’s choice of a candidate to fill the state’s top executive position could be critical to the nation’s political future.
With abortion rights, immigration policy and democracy at heart, both parties enter the final weeks before the Nov. 8 election ready to spend unprecedented amounts of money to win the governorship. The elected will be in power in the 2024 election, when they can influence the voting laws as well as the approval of the results. And their authority over abortion rights got a big boost when the U.S. Supreme Court left the issue up to the states in June.
“The governor’s race matters more than ever,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, a group that works to elect Democrats to state governorships.
For Democrats, Cooper said, governors are “often the last line of defense” on issues that have been devolved to states, including gun laws and voting rights in addition to abortion. That’s especially true in places with Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures, such as Wisconsin and Kansas — states that both parties have made top goals to win in November. Democrats are the leading GOP candidates in two important GOP states, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is the only Democratic governor running for re-election in a state led by former President Donald Trump in 2020. The former lawmaker won the seat in 2018 against an ardent conservative after running as a moderate who promoted bipartisanship.
She now faces three-term state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who has repeatedly tried to tie her to President Joe Biden and criticized her as too liberal for a red state. Schmidt’s campaign, however, was hit by a third-party bid from a conservative state lawmaker.
During a debate at the Kansas State Fair this month, Schmidt called Kelly’s position on abortion too extreme, telling the crowd that she supports unrestricted abortion.
Kansas was an unlikely place where Democrats are hoping for abortion rights. In August, Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have allowed the GOP-controlled legislature to greatly restrict or ban abortions. Kelly opposed the measure, though she tried to focus her campaign elsewhere.
Schmidt said he respects the results of the vote, but the abortion debate is not over.
“What wasn’t on the ballots was Governor Kelly’s position,” he said.
During nearly two decades of elected politics, Kelly has opposed nearly every abortion restriction in Kansas law. But when asked how Schmidt characterized her stance on abortion, she said, “You know, I never said that.”
Kelly has not made abortion an issue, although many Democrats believe it would help her. Instead, it 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 debate.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is warning voters that democracy is on the ballot this fall, noting that he has vetoed more bills than any governor in modern state history, including measures Republicans have pushed to change the way conducting elections.
Evers faces Trump-endorsed businessman Tim Michels. Michels has argued that the 2020 presidential election was rigged — a lie pushed by Trump to overturn his loss to Biden — and supports changes to voting and election laws in the state, which is a perennial presidential battleground.
Michels is among several Trump-backed candidates who have dropped out during a tight GOP primary. In some cases, more moderate Republicans or establishment Republicans have warned that the far-right choice backed by Trump will be difficult to defeat in the general election.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, acknowledged the turmoil within the party during a panel discussion at Georgetown University’s Institute for Politics and Public Service last week.
“We are a divided nation now and it is very tribal. And a lot of that has crept into this cycle,” Ducey, who is term-limited, said.
RGA does not endorse in primaries. But as governor, Ducey endorsed businesswoman Karin Taylor Robeson for the Arizona Republican nomination for governor. She lost to former TV news anchor Kari Lake, who was endorsed by Trump.
Ducey and Trump have been at loggerheads over the governor’s refusal to accede to Trump’s wishes and overturn his state’s 2020 election results. Lake said she would not endorse Biden’s victory, even though multiple polls have confirmed it.
Cooper said the DGA will be “leaning in” in Arizona, as well as in the tight race in Georgia, where GOP Gov. Brian Kemp faces Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former leader of the state legislature who lost to him in a close race in 2018. In the primary, Kemp easily defeated former Sen. David Perdue, who was endorsed by Trump.
Both the Democratic and Republican governors’ associations entered 2022 with record amounts of money raised — more than $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 results of the 2020 election.
The RGA is optimistic about defending Republican governorships in Arizona and Georgia and is heavily focused on picking up several blue states in the West, including Oregon and New Mexico.
At the top of the list is Nevada, where Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is one of the most highly regarded Republican recruits this election cycle and is challenging Gov. Steve Sisolak.
In Oregon, the GOP is hoping that an independent can get enough support from a Democrat to allow a Republican to win.
Democrats, meanwhile, are confident of winning back governorships in Massachusetts and Maryland, two blue states currently held by moderate Republicans, after far-right Republicans won their party’s nomination.
Pennsylvania, a major presidential battleground, is another state where a GOP candidate could hurt Republicans’ chances in November. GOP voters chose Doug Mastriano from a crowded field, choosing a Trump-backed candidate who opposes abortion rights without exceptions, spreads conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and organizes bus trips to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a day of violent insurrection. He faced off against Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
When asked about race during a debate in Georgetown, Ducey was blunt.
“Another axiom we have at RGA is that we don’t fund losing businesses and we don’t fund landslides,” he said.
In Michigan, a volatile state where Trump and his allies also tried unsuccessfully to reverse his 2020 defeat, Trump candidate Tudor Dixon won a chaotic GOP primary. Democrats have repeatedly criticized Dixon for her stance against abortion, including in cases of rape or incest. A measure enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution will also be on the ballot in November, and Democrats hope it will help their candidates.
First-term Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has millions more in her campaign fund than Dixon, but said after speaking at the Detroit Auto Show that she’s not taking anything for granted.
“This is Michigan, and Michigan is always crowded,” she said.
Burnett reported from Chicago. Associated Press reporter Colleen Long contributed from Detroit.
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This story has been updated to reflect that the Georgetown University Institute is the Institute for Politics and Public Service, not Public Policy.