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

·11 min read

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.

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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.

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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
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

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.

This week Republicans hammered Abrams on abortion for saying "there is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks."

That infuriated anti-abortion conservatives, who said it showed how out of touch and inhumane Democrats are.

Some also noted how Planned Parenthood had been referring to a "very basic beating heart" during the first 6-weeks of pregnancy until Abrams' comments. The new version of the site now says, it "sounds like a heartbeat on an ultrasound, but it's not a fully-formed heart."

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)
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 progressive commentators defended Abrams, pointing out how health experts at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have said it is "clinically inaccurate" to call the sound a heartbeat because the chambers and valves of the heart don't exist at that stage of pregnancy.

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

Democrats are beginning to worry about Abrams chances, according to the New York Times.

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

The Abrams campaign saw a bit of good news in early September after a Quinnipiac University survey found the race was "too close to call." Kemp saw support from 50% of likely voters compared to 48% for Abrams in a poll with a 2.7% margin of error.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp waves to supporters during an election night watch party, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Atlanta. Kemp easily turned back a GOP primary challenge Tuesday from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who was backed by former President Donald Trump.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp waves to supporters during an election night watch party, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Atlanta. Kemp easily turned back a GOP primary challenge Tuesday from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who was backed by former President Donald Trump.

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.

The two sides are spending so much that it is now the most expensive general election race in the country at $55 million, according to AdImpact Politics, which tracks TV advertising spending by major campaigns. The amount reflects what the two campaigns have spent collectively and does not include money spent by third parties.

Michel has poured in $16 million of his own money alone in the race to be governor.

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

The governor called for a special legislative session to begin Oct. 4 and has asked legislators to give voters the power to overturn the law through a ballot initiative.

Michels has focused his campaign primarily 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.

The two have agreed to a single debate this fall on Oct. 14.

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)

Democratic incumbent Laura 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.
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.

But Schmidt is going on offense in recent weeks, slamming Kelly for the state's struggling child welfare system to the issue of transgender athletes in girls' and women's sports.

Nevada: Sisolak* (D) vs. Lombardo (R)

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

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.

Most recently Democrats tried to seize on Lombardo holding a town hall breakfast with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin at Liberty Baptist Church in Las Vegas, whose pastor in 2018 described being gay as a "demoralizing, degrading, filthy, horrible sin."

But Republicans quickly pointed out how Sisolak honored the church in a 2019 proclamation for its "strong presence among young people."

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.
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

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This month Hobbs used her Twitter account to take a swipe at Lake's association with Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, who had his phone confiscated by the FBI.

Lindell is a Trump ally who has pushed claims and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

When reports about Lindell and the FBI surfaced, Hobbs retweeted a photo of Lindell taking a selfie with Lake with the caption: "You mean this phone?"

Lake responded saying her Democratic opponent "celebrates the Biden administration's continued political persecution of America First Patriots."

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

Democrats would be delighted if they could put an end to Republican Ron 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.

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

It's hard on two fronts:

DeSantis has a lot of money — roughly $130 million in the bank, compared to Crist's $1.6 million.

The other obstacle for Crist is that DeSantis dominates the national headlines as a possible successor to Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. For instance, the GOP governor's decision sending two planes carrying migrants to Democratic-leaning states has elevated DeSantis to a national stage where he is jousting with Biden more than Crist.

DeSantis tops Crist 48%-41% in a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll released this week.

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.

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 chance

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.

The two met for their first — and like only — in-person debate last Friday where the traded serious jabs.

O'Rourke has been aggressive for most of the contest, which has created multiple viral moments that have pressed Abbott and kept him in the national news.

In May, for instance, O'Rourke disrupted the governor's press conference on the Uvalde mass shooting. Most recently, he got attention for cursing out a heckler during a presentation about reducing gun violence.

During Friday's debate the massacre came up with Abbott saying he empathizes with the victims and their families, but that more gun regulation is the wrong step to take.

O'Rourke is taking his lead from the Uvalde families who have pleaded for action to raise the age to purchase to assault-style rifles to 21.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
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.

Poll numbers show Whitmer running away with this contest. She is leading Dixon by 16% in the latest Detroit Free Press survey.

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.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gubernatorial elections matter in 2022 midterms: Top 10 races to watch