The upcoming midterm elections will do more than establish who controls Congress for the remainder of President Joe Biden’s term. .
From Maine to California, 36 states are holding races for governor Tuesday, with most featuring incumbents running for reelection.
The pandemic as well as Washington's paralysis on a host of issues thrust many governors into the national spotlight over the past two years.
That means the national tug-of-war is bleeding over into state capitals. 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 COVID in early 2020. How they handled the crisis through continued restrictions, school closures and mask mandates is a point of contention this year.
Early 2024 scorecard: Could Biden face a challenger? Could Pence beat Trump? What about Cheney?
Beyond COVID, however, gubernatorial candidates are facing challenges that mirror the debates in Washington, including how they plan to handle violent crime and voting rights. Plus, the Supreme Court's summer ruling to leave reproductive rights to the states has placed abortion center stage in many governor's races.
Here are the gubernatorial races to watch this fall (* denotes incumbents):
Georgia: Kemp* (R) v. 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.
Kemp and Abrams faced off in an Oct. 17 televised debate, where the pair answered questions on a wide range of issues including abortion, education, voting rights, law enforcement and marijuana legalization.
The Georgia gubernatorial candidates took shots at each other when asked to name the most pressing issue facing the state.
"The most dangerous thing facing Georgia is four more years of Brian Kemp," Abrams said, citing Georgia's rising gang crime, gun violence and housing prices.
Kemp hit back that Abrams was attacking his record because she "doesn't want to talk about her own," adding he "values life" and would address "sky-high inflation."
Wisconsin: Evers* (D) v. Michels (R)
Democratic incumbent Tony Evers has hung his reelection hopes largely on blocking the GOP-controlled legislature's agenda, including stiffer election rules.
Now he faces a Trump-backed challenger in Tim Michels, a construction magnate who like other conservative positions wants to dismantle the bipartisan commission that oversees the state's elections.
In their first and only debate on Oct. 14, the Wisconsin gubernatorial candidates sparred on education, with Evers believing that teachers should give a full accounting of history while Michels said parents should decide how history is taught.
The pair were also asked whether they would accept the outcome of the race.
Evers said he "absolutely" would, while Michels didn't answer directly, saying "Yes, of course I will certify the next election," implying he expects to win. Michels has supported former President Donald Trump's false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.
Evers has leaned heavily into protecting reproductive rights, offering clemency to doctors prosecuted for performing abortions under Wisconsin's 1849 anti-abortion law.
Wisconsin’s abortion ban makes clear that doctors who perform the procedure can be punished with up to six years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both.
Speaking to the Rotary Club of Milwaukee , Michels indicated he wouldn't enforce the state law if elected.
“I will never arrest a doctor, as they’re saying,” he said. “I’m a reasonable guy.”
But the Michels campaign later clarified how that is up to local prosecutors, adding how a governor is "not a (district attorney) or a beat cop arresting anyone."
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 police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man.
Then and now, when Wisconsin needs leadership, Tony Evers pours gas on the fire. His inaction allowed Kenosha to burn. pic.twitter.com/2kYorCaHep
— Tim Michels (@michelsforgov) August 24, 2022
Kansas: Kelly* (D) v. 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.
Still, Kelly has reason for optimism:Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative in August that would have removed state constitutional protections for abortion rights.
Abortion defined the first two Kansas gubernatorial debates. In the first, Kelly established herself as staunchly in favor of abortion rights, telling a crowd at the Kansas State Fair that she had "no doubt" her views reflect the majority of Kansans'.
"I have been consistent on my position on this issue since I entered the state Senate 18 years ago and I will stay consistent," Kelly said during the September debate.
Schmidt, on the other hand, has walked a fine line on the issue. In both debates, he reiterated his opposition to abortion rights but conceded that Kansans' decision to retain state abortion protections is one that must be respected.
Nevada: Sisolak* (D) v. 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.
In an Oct. 2 debate, Lombardo made efforts to distance himself from former President Donald Trump, saying that he wouldn't call Trump a "great" president and that he "doesn't stand by" the former president on his 2020 election fraud claims, according to NBC News. Trump endorsed Lombardo in April.
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.
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) v. Lake (R)
For starters, Lake, who received Trump's endorsement, continues to spread false claims about the 2020 election. Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state who helped oversee that election, continues to speak out against those false assertions of voter fraud.
What's beginning to come up more and more in the final weeks, however, is Hobbs's refusal to debate Lake, which is being described as "risky" by some political observers.
Hobbs has suggested it would only result in "constant interruptions, pointless distractions, and childish name-calling." Lake has called Hobbs a "coward" for not joining her onstage.
— Katie Hobbs (@katiehobbs) September 14, 2022
Florida: DeSantis* (R) v. Crist (D)
Democrats would be delighted if they could endRepublican 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.
It's hard on two fronts:
DeSantis dominates the national headlines as a possible successor to Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.
For instance, the GOP governor 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 topped Crist 48%-41% in a September USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll.
What does Ron DeSantis do on the start of Hispanic Heritage Month? Funds the deportation of refugees to another state.
These are families who've risked their lives to flee Maduro's socialist regime for the promise of freedom — children and families used for political theater.
— Charlie Crist (@CharlieCrist) September 15, 2022
DeSantis and money: DeSantis on pace to bring in more money than any governor candidate. Ever.
Texas: Abbott* (R) v. 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
The two met for their first — and like only — in-person debate in September where they traded serious jabs.
O'Rourke has been aggressive for most of the contest.
In May, for instance, O'Rourke disrupted the governor's press conference on the Uvalde mass shooting. More recently, he got attention for cursing out a heckler during a presentation about reducing gun violence.
Michigan: Whitmer* (D) v. Dixon (R)
Gretchen 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 leading. FiveThirtyEight puts Whitmer leading Tudor Dixon by nearly 5 percentage points, though it appears her strong lead has shrunk as Election Day nears.
In an Oct. 14 debate, the Michigan gubernatorial candidates each painted the other as radical and dangerous, touching on issues like abortion, school safety and the state's COVID-19 pandemic response.
New Mexico: Lujan Grisham (D) v. Ronchetti (R)
Republicans remain bullish about oustingDemocratic incumbent Michelle 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.
FiveThirtyEight's polling shows Lujan Grisham in a steady lead of six percentage points.
Pennsylvania: Shapiro (D) v. 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 the GOP nominee political forecasters say the race can't be considered a toss-up any longer.
Mastriano has continued to assert false claims about the 2020 election. He has also spread misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano vowed that if he wins election to Pennsylvania's top office, he’ll begin busing illegal immigrants to President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware, taking a page out of DeSantis' political playbook.
Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, holds a lead of 10 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Correction & clarification: A previous version of this story misstated the outcome of a police shooting of Jacob Blake. Blake survived the shooting.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gubernatorial elections matter in 2022 midterms: Top 10 races to watch