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.

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