In governor’s contests, all politics are no longer local

The hyper-partisanship that has riven national politics is now trickling into the states, where races for governor are now threatening to break along the same types of party lines that define battles for federal office.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), one of the few Republican governors of a blue state, appears at Fore Axes in Cumberland, Md., on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2022. (Photo credit: Joe Andrucyk, Executive Office of the Governor)

The hyper-partisanship that has riven national politics is now trickling into the states, where races for governor are threatening to break along the same types of party lines that define battles for federal office.

For generations, voters have used their gubernatorial ballots to impose a check on legislatures that are firmly in the hands of one party or the other. States from liberal Hawaii or conservative Wyoming elected governors who would act as a brake on the party in power.

But this year, the few crossover governors who remain are on their way out or at risk of defeat. Voters in several of those states appear ready to return to their partisan norms.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) opted not to run for a third term. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is blocked by state law from seeking another four years in office. Both men have approval ratings in the 60s or 70s, but they are likely to be replaced by Democrats who are polling well ahead of Republican opponents who hail from the MAGA wing of the GOP.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D), seeking her second term in office in a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson, faces a tough race against Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R).

Next year, voters in deep red Kentucky will decide whether Gov. Andy Beshear (D) deserves a second term. Louisiana voters will choose a replacement for term-limited Gov. John Bel Edwards (D); no prominent Democrat has even stepped forward to announce a campaign.

“It will still be possible to swim against the partisan tide,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a longtime election analyst. “Possible — but probably more difficult than it has been.”

The tradition of the crossover governor is as old as the nation itself. Republicans who won governorships in Southern states foretold of the region’s broader shift toward the GOP. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure in California marked a seven-year interruption of Democratic control in Sacramento. Hawaii elected Linda Lingle (R) twice; Wyoming chose Dave Freudenthal (D) twice. Four of Baker’s five immediate predecessors in Massachusetts have been Republicans.

Those governors illustrate how differently voters behave when choosing state officeholders versus federal officeholders. 

Rothenberg said the different issue sets and criteria on which voters judge federal and state candidates continues to be “an important distinction,” but “the question is, is it less of a distinction than it used to be?”

Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant and principal at Dewey Square Group in Boston, pointed to former President Donald Trump’s emergence on the political scene as a pivot point. Every race up and down the ballot has become a referendum on the former president, Marsh said.

“They’re inextricably linked,” Marsh said of the convergence of national and state politics. “Since Trump, every race has to tackle the issues that Trump has confronted us with.”

In some states, voters have bucked recent partisan trends. Virginia’s shift to the left over the last two decades came to a temporary halt in 2021, when voters elected Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) just a year after choosing President Biden by a 10-point margin. 

Today, three-quarters of states have both governors and legislative majorities that represent the same party. 

But the era of the crossover governor is not completely over. In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is headed for a fourth two-year term in a state that chose a Democratic presidential nominee in the past five elections. Sununu won a third term in 2020 as Biden carried the state by 7 percentage points.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) is also on pace for a fourth two-year term in a state where his party’s presidential nominee has not cracked 40% since 2000.

A Republican consultant who’s worked on multiple governor campaigns said the national environment can certainly play a role in state races, but the elections often come down to the quality of the candidate.

Voters are looking for someone who can “navigate a natural disaster or bad situation, manage tens of thousands of employees, manage and do a good job with the state economy and budget,” the consultant said.

“You’re judging them to be that CEO — do they have enough understanding of what you’re going through, can they relate to you and the issues that matter to you,” the strategist added. “That’s why I continue to believe you can still elect a Republican in a blue state and a Democrat in a red state.”

With 36 governorships on the ballot next month, there are a few opportunities for minority-party governor candidates to win beyond the usual swing state suspects.

In Maine, where a GOP presidential nominee hasn’t eclipsed 45% since 1988, former Gov. Paul LePage (R) is challenging Gov. Janet Mills (D). In New Mexico, which Democratic presidential contenders have carried easily since 2008, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) is in a competitive re-election contest.

Republicans are increasingly nervous about Oklahoma, where Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) faces a tougher-than-expected challenge from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister (D). And Democrats have fretted about Oregon, where former House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) trails House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R) in a race that includes a former Democratic state senator now running as an independent.

Polls show South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) leading Democratic rivals, but by relatively narrow margins.

“Have our overall politics become so partisan that it’s more difficult for the minority party in state races?” Rothenberg said. “Yes, but not as hard as electing a senator.”