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Three dozen states are voting on who gets the corner office at the statehouse, and every one of those races for governor revolves around a unifying question: how has the Republican nominee embraced—or distanced themselves from—former President Donald Trump?
As The D.C. Brief focuses this week on the 15 races that could explain U.S. politics, the governor races form a convenient spine to explain the GOP’s sometimes complicated relationship with the de facto leader of the party. Some candidates have contorted themselves into disciples of Trump, even when the fit might be an awkward one. Some candidates eventually conceded that Trump is the most powerful force in American politics, shifting from an independent pose into a reluctant—but public—convert to the MAGA movement. Trumpism may in fact be so strong that it could hoist a Republican into unlikely power, such as we are seeing in the Pacific Northwest. Most of those who stood in opposition to Trump found themselves shown the door, but not all; there were, in fact, some survivors of Trump’s efforts to bury their political careers.
Using that paradigm, here are five gubernatorial races, each with the Republican modeling a different posture toward Trumpism. Together, they illustrate the landscape for the next month, and what that broadly says about this political environment.
Arizona: The Trump Disciple
Of course it would be Arizona where the Trump True Believers manifest an election denialist with the poise and polish of a reality TV star. There are few states where the Trumpian version of the modern Republican Party has found a safer toehold, and Kari Lake is perhaps the avatar of the Trump-styled GOP for a new generation, even in a state where Biden prevailed by 0.4% just two years ago.
Lake, a former local television anchor who fully wrapped herself in a red MAGA flag as she left her perch of 25 years, defeated three rivals in her primary. Incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey, who is term limited, had pushed his own candidate—a member of the state board of regents—but found he didn’t have sufficient muscle. (Ducey, no fan of Trump’s influence on his party and rejector of The Big Lie, declined to run for the Senate seat because he knew Trump would play in a primary to thwart him.)
Lake has become one of the cycle’s unexpected stars in the MAGAverse. Trump’s orbit recognizes Lake—win or lose—will have a following in the future and is working to boost her, helping her overcome vast outspending in her primary. In fact, her star power is such that she warmed up the crowd at one Trump-organized campaign rally in Wisconsin and has been hitting the CPAC circuit as one of its most effective messengers.
But the unknown in Arizona is how much the return of a near-total 1864 abortion ban—made possible by the fall of Roe in June—will matter to voters. Lake has praised the Old West-era law and has promised to beef up the state’s anti-abortion policy as governor, while also promising to protect contraception and to hold fathers accountable. Polling shows abortion rights a powerful force, with 91% of Arizonans saying a total ban on abortion is too much.
That’s where the Democratic nominee comes in. Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state and a former social worker, has made abortion rights and defending democracy from Big Lie-style shenanigans central to her campaign, although some Democrats worry she is being too cautious. Others are tepid on her, given her slow recognition of systemic racism, including the clumsy handling of the 2015 firing of a Black woman on her staff in the state senate.
The Republican Governors Association has dumped $4 million in ads against Hobbs, and committed another $6 million to the race. (Hobbs has run $2.5 million in ads so far, and the Democratic Governors Association has committed to the race, supporting $4 million in outside spending so far.)
Arizona is seldom an accurate reflection of America’s psyche, but it may test for the efficacy of a Trump makeover. The ex-president has shown what defying norms can do, and Lake has even adopted his trick of calling Hobbs only by her first name. But can that style of politics win with a different vessel?
Florida: The Trump Heir
It’s one thing to pick up on Trump’s brand of politics, including his fantasy of having prevailed in 2020 and his hostilities toward illegal immigrants. It’s another to hope to grow into the leader of the MAGA movement itself. But that is exactly what is happening in the re-election bid of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—and, to a lesser extent, that of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Trump isn’t shy about suggesting DeSantis is his creation, telling friends that it was his endorsement that saved DeSantis’ upstart campaign in 2018. But since then, Trump has grown more wary of DeSantis—not over policy or even personality, but over the political threat that the governor of a must-win-for-Republicans state in presidential races poses. DeSantis even declined to request another Trump endorsement for this cycle and is building a campaign machine that would be close to turnkey ready for a 2024 bid.
While Trump still has command over what it means to be a Republican in 2022, some inside the party aren’t exactly clamoring for him to remain the face of the party in 2024. Four years of his antics were fun for some in the burn-it-down crowd, but his conduct between Election Day and leaving Washington, and since, became the final straw for some in the party. A segment of the GOP likes what Trump did and continues to suggest, but he may be a damaged vessel. Spending 2024 defending Trump sounds a lot less fun than prosecuting Biden’s first-term record.
Democrats had initially hoped to use this cycle to damage—if not, in their wildest dreams, to derail—the DeSantis machine. But, as TIME’s Molly Ball reported from Florida, those aspirations have proven flimsy. Democratic nominee Charlie Crist—who was elected as the state’s Republican governor in 2006, and then lost the GOP nomination four years later but stayed in the race as an independent—hasn’t inspired much optimism. The perception of Crist—who served in the House as a Democrat until August—as an opportunist is pretty baked in.
Florida remains a hard-fought state; Biden and his allies spent 60% of the whopping $257.5 million in Florida television ads in 2020 because they thought they stood a chance with the state’s 29 electoral votes. Trump would win by three points. These days, the airwaves are a lopsided mess, with DeSantis burying Crist in ads, and not a ton of help waiting in the wings.
The unresolved piece of the race remains DeSantis’ luster in a state that is likely to still be rebuilding from Hurricane Ian come Election Day. Will voters affirm DeSantis for flying migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to “own the libs,” or will they see it for the stunt that it was? Concurrently, are they ready to send DeSantis’ brand of leadership during a crisis from Tallahassee to the White House? The answers may tell us a lot about who helms the Republican Party heading onward.
Ohio: The Trump Convert
When the Covid-19 crisis was still in its infancy, one governor looked around and saw the hellscape that was on the horizon. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine canceled plans for the public to attend a popular weightlifting expo even before his state had seen a single confirmed case of coronavirus.
Over time, his approach also became a liability for the veteran pol in a state where Trump’s mockery of public health found a receptive audience.
DeWine is as sharp a politician Ohio has seen for some time. He’s also a man of unfailing decency. Back in 2012, when Mitt Romney proposed self-deportation as a serious immigration policy, the former U.S. senator and state attorney general pulled his backing of Romney and threw it behind Sen. Rick Santorum.
But he’s also an ambitious man and, now at age 75, he isn’t ready to retire to his farm. During the pandemic, he softened his science fandom and apologized for mask mandates. At the statehouse, DeWine quietly moved into more restrictive abortion limits and dodged questions about exemptions in special cases for abortion rights in a post-Roe world. He gave the hard-right conservatives in the legislature the wins they wanted, including being noncommittal when Ohio lawmakers proposed their own version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law for educators.
That record was enough to keep Trump from making an endorsement this year when DeWine faced a very Trumpy challenger, former Rep. Jim Renacci, who hired some of the Trump consultants. DeWine won re-nomination.
DeWine read the Ohio GOP accurately; after all, its members went with Trump’s endorsed Senate candidate, J.D. Vance, over more establishment-minded figures who were surely closer to DeWine’s tastes for a job he once had. But it’s not entirely clear he needed to make the move. Ohioans know him plenty well—he won his first race in 1976. It may, however, have saved him a real headache in his primary.
DeWine now faces former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a first-time statewide candidate who has struggled to break DeWine’s persistent double-digit advantage. She and the Democratic Senate nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan, have been working in overdrive to remind Ohio voters of the stakes, especially on reproductive rights and manufacturing policy. Ohio’s economy is always on a knife’s edge in the best of times, and the pandemic cost the state 15% of its jobs. They still have not recovered; employers would need to add close to 125,000 jobs to close the gap.
One can wonder if DeWine’s advantage is the result of his conversion to, at best, Trump Neutral footing, or if he would have been the same regardless. With Trump’s endorsement in 2018, DeWine won his race for the open corner office in Columbus by almost 4 points. A lot of strategists for 2024 will be watching to see if DeWine expands on that with the advantage of incumbency—and a slightly Trumpier stride.
Oregon: The Trump Interloper
Oregon last elected a Republican governor in 1978. But, with time running out and ballots being sent to every voter in two weeks’ time, the polls have both parties skittish about a state long seen as a progressive soulmate to California.
Incumbent Gov. Kate Brown is term-limited, opening the door for her ally Tina Kotek to follow her into the job. Kotek, the longest-serving speaker of the state House and first lesbian to lead the chamber, was expected to have an easy coast in a state that Brown won by 6 points four years earlier and gave Biden a 16-point victory two years later.
But Brown is a little-liked figure. Polls show her as the most-unpopular governor in the country, fueled in part by the perception that she isn’t taking crime or public safety seriously. The pandemic, its legacy of a recession, protests demanding racial justice, anarchist demonstrations, and wildfires haven’t helped, either. Her second full term has been anything but easy, and Oregonians seem ready for her to move on. The conservative National Review has been ahead of the curve on watching this race and notes that, by objective measures, Oregon is struggling: the cost of living is the third highest of any state, the homeless challenge is the fourth-worst in the country, the business climate is sixth from the bottom and the schools are eighth. And while every race is its own ecosystem, Democrats’ anemic national polling isn’t bringing many tailwinds.
That has opened the door for Christine Drazan, a former minority leader in the state House. She is polling within the margin of error, right around 30%. Meanwhile, Democrat-turned-independent Betsy Johnson is drawing in the low 20s, meaning it’s entirely possible Oregon’s next governor will be running the state with far from a guaranteed mandate from the electorate.
The state has some of the highest voter participation rates in the country, thanks in large part to the decision to allow voting exclusively by mail since 1998. That makes it far easier for voters to submit their ballots without much effort. (Even the cost of postage is free in Oregon.) If voters frustrated with the direction of the state over the last two years simply are looking at party affiliation, that gives Drazan a real chance. Although Democrats outnumber Republicans by 270,000 registrations, independent voters outnumber both, giving the center a huge say over who wields power in Salem.
Since June, analysts have been moving this race from safe Democratic terrain to competitive. Republicans crowed while Democrats assured donors and reporters alike that it was under control. It’s now widely seen as a true toss-up, a byproduct of a sour mood in the state, dour numbers for Democrats generically, and an unusually viable Republican nominee.
Drazan is a serious candidate, one who navigated a 19-way primary and has been lurking in conservatives’ imaginations for months now. She refuses to engage in The Big Lie and has consistently praised Oregon’s novel vote-by-mail system. But she is still someone who succeeded this cycle with complete indifference from Trump. And, in a deep blue state with deeper problems, that could yield the first Republican governor since the Reagan administration—especially if voters only see Kotek as four more years of Brown. If Oregon is in play, what other states are we missing as competitive?
Georgia: The Trump Survivor
As Trump raged at the White House, watched the presidency slip further from his grip, and phoned anyone he perceived as a friend, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp did what too few Republicans were willing to do: he told the leader of the Republican Party that the game was over. Kemp saw little choice but to certify Biden’s victory in Georgia, and did so with an efficiency that belied the drama of The Big Lie.
Eighteen months later, Kemp stood on a warehouse stage in exurban Atlanta with few regrets about the primary he was about to survive or the ex-president’s vengeance he weathered.
Trump has wielded his endorsements as weapons, targeting those he sees as disloyal and rewarding those he perceives as helpful. Ousting traitors to the MAGA movement has become Trump’s hobby in exile, boosting challengers who pledge fealty to his brand of politics and punishing those who flinch. He’s been remarkably efficient, and at all levels, as TIME’s Brian Bennett reports. For the most part, when Trump decides it’s time for someone to retire, that person generally starts to order packing boxes.
So it’s remarkable that Georgia became the place where Trump’s power faced a major test. The ground zero of the New South, Kemp understood his state intensely, having dodged a 2018 defeat by millimeters in the face of a massive machine built under his nose by former lawmaker Stacey Abrams. Kemp made a bet that Trump’s dominance wasn’t as absolute as Trump liked to think.
So, in May, Kemp took the stage and chased victory. He would survive Trump’s efforts to deny him re-nomination and defeat former Sen. David Perdue the following day. Trump’s own understudy, former Vice President Mike Pence, was there as an added grit.
Now, Kemp is again running against Abrams in a grudge match for the ages. Kemp has the advantages that many of his fellow governors covet: a hostile environment for Democrats and an admiration from independents who like his steady rejection of Trump’s electoral fantasies. Still, it’s Georgia, a state that is changing.
Kemp survived his first major challenge in 2022 by holding true to his fact-based beliefs and surviving a challenge from his rightward flank that adopted The Big Lie. His fall campaign is against an opponent who can raise cash by the barge and may be the future of the Democratic Party. Trump tried, unsuccessfully, to tank him once out of spite. Can Trump eventually find a way to look past his own ego to fortify a state that the GOP cannot afford to lose?
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