Democrats and Republicans will compete over a relatively small number of gubernatorial contests in next year’s national elections, but the significant number of exiting incumbents has unleashed a flood of candidates who want those seats.
That rush to win party nominations creates a complicated and dynamic playing field that won’t be finalized until just weeks before voters head to the polls in November.
In West Virginia, where Gov. Jim Justice (R) is seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate after serving two terms, Attorney General Patrick Morrissey (R) and Secretary of State Mac Warner (R) are just two of seven Republicans running for the top job, in a field that also includes the son of U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (R) and the son of U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R).
A third statewide officeholder, Auditor J.B. McCuskey (R), said Monday he will drop his bid to replace Justice and will instead run to replace Morrissey in the Attorney General’s office.
New Hampshire Democrats already faced a competitive primary in the race to replace Gov. Chris Sununu (D) between Cinde Warmington (D), a member of the state’s Executive Council, and Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig (D).
The race for the Republican nomination kicked off last week when Sununu confirmed he will not seek a record fifth term in office. Former state Senate President Chuck Morse (R) and former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) both launched their own campaigns almost immediately.
“I am running for Governor because I fear that we are one election away from turning into Massachusetts,” Ayotte said Monday on Twitter, as she announced her first campaign since losing re-election in 2016.
That contest will test Democrats’ ability to make inroads on the state level, where Sununu enjoyed strong approval ratings and maintained a moderate stance on abortion rights. Craig and Warmington both mentioned abortion rights as they announced their campaigns.
“The governor’s races across the country next year are already shaping up to be a clear contrast between strong Democratic candidates who are committed to growing the economy for the middle class and protecting our fundamental freedoms, versus GOP extremists who only care about toxic culture wars and ripping away rights,” said Devon Cruz, national press secretary for the Democratic Governors Association.
The free-for-all is bipartisan in Washington State, where the top two vote-getters advance to November’s general election, regardless of party affiliation. Polls show Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) leading the field vying to replace outgoing Gov. Jay Inslee (D). Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz (D) and moderate state Sen. Mark Mullet (D) have been running for weeks, while former U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert (R) — an oft-mentioned potential candidate for statewide office during his seven terms in Congress — represents the GOP’s strongest chance in a state that has elected Democratic governors in every election since 1984.
In North Carolina, where Republicans control a supermajority in the legislature, the party has struggled to win the governorship. Democrats have won all but one race for governor there since 1992, and Gov. Roy Cooper (D) is finishing his second term.
Democrats have rallied around Attorney General Josh Stein (D), while the Republican field is led by Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (R), a bomb-throwing social conservative who has repeatedly courted controversy over his opposition to gay rights, abortion rights and even whether women have a place in public office. State Treasurer Dale Folwell (R), former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker (R) and former state Sen. Andy Wells (R) are also competing for the Republican nomination.
“Republican-led states across the country are booming, and looking to 2024, Republicans have an opportunity to expand the map when it comes to Republican governors,” said Courtney Alexander, national press secretary for the Republican Governors Association. “Thanks to strong, top-quality candidates Republicans have a good story to tell and will continue to deliver real results for Americans all across the country.”
The crowded primary fields will bruise eventual nominees, but some will have more time to repair any internecine damage than others. The winner of North Carolina’s March 5 primary will have eight months to mend fences and rebuild a war chest. The two nominees who emerge in New Hampshire will have barely eight weeks between the Sept. 10 primary and November’s general election.
The pent-up ambition unleashed by departing incumbents is happening in two other states where the governorship is unlikely to change hands.
The race to replace Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) includes U.S. Sen. Mike Braun (R), Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch (R) and former Attorney General Curtis Hill (R), plus venture capitalist Eric Doden (R). In Missouri, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft (R) and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe (R), plus state Sen. Bill Eigel (R), are vying to succeed Gov. Mike Parson (R).
The race to replace Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) is progressing slower. New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer (D) is running, while Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long (D) and Attorney General Kathy Jennings (D) have been mentioned as possible candidates.
Only 11 governor’s races are up for election in 2024, the same year Americans will pick a new president. Republicans are defending only two states — the open seat in New Hampshire, and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) — that President Biden carried in the 2020 elections (Scott, a throw-back to the days of the Northeastern Rockefeller Republican, cruised to re-election so comfortably in 2022 that he did not air a single television advertisement). Democrats are defending only one state, North Carolina, that Trump carried in 2020.
Strategists and candidates plotting the course of their campaigns next year will keep a keen eye on the three states up for election this year: Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) are seeking re-election, while a host of contenders are vying in the all-party primary to replace term-limited Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).
Though all three of those states are deep red, the fact that Democrats hold two of them show voters are willing to look beyond party label when choosing a governor. A recent poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, found Beshear leading Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) by a 52%-42% margin.