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Abortion, voting and COVID-19: Why we're eyeing these 10 governor's races in 2022 midterms

During a period of inaction of Washington, governor's have taken a prominent role in forming national policy on a number of important fronts.

  • Democrats are defending toss-up contests in Wisconsin, Kansas and Nevada
  • Georgia holding 2018 rematch between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams
  • Open seats in Arizona, Pennsylvania offer major candidate contrasts

The upcoming midterm elections will do more than establish who controls Congress for the remainder of President Joe Biden’s term.

Voters across three dozen states will also be choosing a governor for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic started.

From Maine to California, gubernatorial elections will be held in 36 states this fall with most featuring incumbents running for reelection.

Governors were thrust into the national spotlight over the past two years due largely to the pandemic, but also as a result of Washington's paralysis on a host of issues.

That means the national tug-of-war is bleeding over at the state level, and the importance of the chief executive, especially in those battleground areas, is coming into focus as much as the midterm races for Congress.

Many of the incumbents seeking reelection this year were the first line of defense in fighting the disease in early 2020. How they handled the crisis through continued restrictions, school closures and mask mandates will be a point of contention this year.

Early 2024 scorecard: Could Biden face a challenger? Could Pence beat Trump? What about Cheney?

Beyond COVID-19, however, gubernatorial candidates are facing a series of different challenges that mirror the debates in Washington, including how they plan to handle violent crime, voting rights and abortion access in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling knocking down Roe.

Here are the gubernatorial races to watch this fall (* denotes incumbents):

FILE - Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a campaign event outside the state Capitol Friday, May 27, 2022, in Madison, Wis. Evers, a Democrat, hopes to translate anger over the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade into votes this fall as he vows to fight a 173-year-old state abortion ban in any way he can. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer, File) ORG XMIT: NYPH400

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Georgia: Kemp* (R) vs. Abrams

The rematch between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican incumbent Brian Kemp is arguably the headline gubernatorial contest of 2022.

Abrams lost by half a percentage point in 2018, but now she is a national powerbroker with the campaign cash to prove it. She has $18.5 million in the bank versus Kemp's $7 million, according to state campaign finance records.

Stacey Abrams poses for a portrait in front of the State Seal of Georgia Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Decatur, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

But the summer polls show Kemp’s popularity remains strong after beating Trump-backed challenger David Perdue, a former U.S. senator, in the primary.

FiveThirtyEight shows Kemp holding an average lead of roughly 6 percentage points across roughly a dozen surveys conducted over the summer.

Political forecasters rate the race as one that leans Republican even though Abrams is credited as the voting rights champion who helped flip Georgia blue in the last presidential and Senate contests. 

"A person who's making bets is reluctant to say, 'yeah, it's a Democratic state.' No, it's a very competitive state, which means Republicans have a slight advantage but they can easily be defeated," University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock told USA TODAY.

Elections: Who is running in Georgia's governor race? Kemp and Abrams rematch is set

More: How Stacey Abrams and Georgia have changed since her last run for governor

Wisconsin: Evers* (D) vs. Michels (R)

Democratic incumbent Tony Evers has hung his reelection hopes largely on blocking the GOP-controlled legislature's agenda, including the imposition of stiffer election rules.

Now he faces a Trump-backed challenger in Tim Michels, a construction magnate who among other conservative positions wants to dismantle the bipartisan commission that oversees the state's elections.

Evers has also leaned heavily in protecting reproductive rights, offering clemency to doctors prosecuted for performing abortions under Wisconsin's 1849 anti-abortion law. 

As of late, Michels has focused his campaign on crime, dinging the governor for not doing more to stop the 2020 riots in Kenosha, which erupted from protests in the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man.

A Marquette University Law School Poll this month shows this is a tight race with Michels trailing by just two percentage points

Wisconsin: Evers vetoes string of Republican bills meant to change how elections are run

Watch: GOP candidate Tim Michels criticizes Tony Evers' response to Kenosha unrest

Kansas: Kelly* (D) vs. Schmidt (R)

Kelly stunned the nation when she won the governor’s mansion in 2018. But four years later she is in jeopardy in a deeply red state Trump won by 14 percentage points in 2020. 

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the GOP challenger, won the nomination promising to be a governor who would champion religious liberty, combat crime and oppose abortion. 

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announces that she's imposing a mask mandate for state government workers and visitors to many state buildings, speaking at a news conference July 28 at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas.

Kelly has reason for optimism:Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative in August that would have removed state constitutional protections for abortion rights. 

Nevada: Sisolak* (D) vs. Lombardo (R)

Sisolak is one of the top gubernatorial targets for Republicans this fall, and GOP nominee Joe Lombardo is keeping things close.

FiveThirtyEight, a website that analyzes political data, shows the Trump-backed Lombardo, who is the Clark County sheriff, trailing Sisolak by an average of just 2 percentage points across multiple surveys.

While GOP candidates nationally are casting Democrats as anti-police, Sisolak is running ads against Lombardo's record as sheriff, saying he oversaw a spike in Clark County homicides.

Arizona: Hobbs (D) vs. Lake (R)

From personality to policy, Republican Kari Lake and Democrat Katie Hobbs are polar opposites in almost every way.

For starters, Lake, who received Trump's endorsement, continues to spread false claims about the 2020 election and Biden's stolen victory. Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state who helped oversee that election, continues to be outspoken against those false assertions of voter fraud.

Former President Donald Trump and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake Kari Lake at a Republican campaign rally on July 22, 2022, in Prescott Valley.

Elections: Facing DOJ lawsuit, Arizona could be model for states to require proof of citizenship to vote

 Arizona: Blake Masters, Kari Lake praise Florida governor Ron DeSantis at Phoenix rally

The Arizona race remains a toss-up for political forecasters because so much hasn't been settled, such as how independents will react to Lake's past statement and current controversies, said Jessica Taylor, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

She said Hobbs also hasn't been tested at this level yet, and will face "problematic" issues to reconcile, such as a racial discrimination suit by a former African American female aide, who proved retaliation for raising concerns about making significantly less than her white male peers.

Florida: DeSantis* (R) vs. Crist (D)

Democrats would be delighted if they could put an end to DeSantis's political career, especially as he appears to be gearing up for a 2024 presidential bid.

But it's going to be a tall order for Rep. Charlie Crist – a former governor himself – as the Democratic nominee in a purple state that's been trending red.

DeSantis has about $130 million in the bank And the approval ratings have remained fairly steady for a conservative firebrand who has resisted COVID-19 mandates and frequently jousted with liberal activists and companies on culture war issues.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24, 2022, in Orlando.

Politics: DeSantis might already be running for president. Donald Trump could help – and hurt – his plans

DeSantis and money: DeSantis on pace to bring in more money than any governor candidate. Ever.

Florida hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in about three decades, one reason political forecasters expect DeSantis to prevail. 

Texas: Abbott* (R) vs. O'Rourke (D)

Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke's star power is the chief reason liberals and progressives want to give this long shot race a second look.

Otherwise, Texas is largely viewed as Abbott’s race to lose Both the Cook Political Report and Crystal Ball rank it as a likely GOP win.

More: Is Beto stuck in neutral? New poll shows Abbott leading by 7 points.

But Democrats who want to stretch out the GOP gubernatorial map in 2022 are hoping O’Rourke’s national profile can make the race more competitive. He lost a 2018 Senate race to Republican Ted Cruz by less than 3%, for instance. 

Democratic Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks during a stop on his 49-day Drive for Texas tour Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Midland, Texas. (Eli Hartman/Odessa American via AP) ORG XMIT: TXODE601
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Michigan: Whitmer* (D) vs. Dixon (R)

Whitmer was a top target for Republicans at the beginning of this year, mostly due to a backlash over her enforcement of strict COVID-19 rules.

But a messy primary for the state GOP may have wrecked that opportunity.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer meets with volunteers for canvass kickoffs on Michigan Primary Election Day on August 2, 2022 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Today's Midterm Primary Election will determine which one of five Michigan republican gubernatorial candidates will run against Governor Whitmer, a democrat, in the upcoming November Midterm General Election.

Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, once thought of as the GOP frontrunner, was removed from the ballot for forging signatures on his nominating petition. Another contender, Republican Ryan Kelley, was arrested by the FBI on charges connected to the Jan. 6, 2021 riot. 

Ultimately Republican Tudor Dixon, a former conservative media commentator, prevailed after receiving Trump's backing and financial help from the DeVos family, who are rainmakers in Michigan politics.

Early poll numbers show Whitmer, whose COVID-19 restrictions infuriated Michigan conservatives, at 50% and with an 11-point lead over Dixon.

Republican candidate for Michigan governor Tudor Dixon appears at a debate in Grand Rapids, Mich., Wednesday, July 6, 2022.

New Mexico: Lujan Grisham (D) vs. Ronchetti (R)

Republicans remain bullish about ousting Lujan Grisham, who is facing a challenge from GOP contender Mark Ronchetti, a former Senate candidate and TV meteorologist.

Lujan Grisham has pushed the Democratic-controlled legislature to expand abortion access, create stricter gun rules and end qualified immunity from prosecution for police officers.

Those moves have been the major point of contrasts for Ronchetti's campaign, which has been aggressive about supporting law enforcement amid rising crime in parts of the state as well as defending the U.S-Mexico border and an eight-point economic plan (including oil and gas rebates) while on the campaign trail.

One area that national observers says distinguishes Ronchetti has been on abortion, where he has tried to strike a conciliatory tone, saying the Supreme Court's ruling on Dobbs this summer gives a chance for a "measured dialogue" on the issue.

Pennsylvania: Shapiro (D) vs. Mastriano (R) 

The GOP had hoped to make the Keystone State more competitive this year given Democratic incumbent Tom Wolf couldn't seek reelection due to term limits.

But with Trump-backed state legislator Doug Mastriano being the GOP nominee political forecasters say the race can't be considered a toss-up any longer.

Mastriano has continued to assert false claims that fraud marred the 2020 election. He has also spread misinformation on his social media pages about the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Mastriano is very, very far to the right fringe in that way," Taylor said. "He's not trying to move to the middle for independent voters, so he's not a candidate that I think will play play well in suburbs.

The polls over the summer show Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, with a lead averaging 7 points. But more recent surveys of likely voters, such as an Aug. 22 Emerson College poll had Mastriano within 3 points.

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