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38 states to hold gubernatorial elections over next two years: Here are races to watch

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Nearly 85% of Americans will have the opportunity to vote for governor in 2021 and 2022

It’s always been an important position – but the strains of the coronavirus pandemic and the severe recession it sparked this year shined a spotlight on the role of governors like never before.

“I didn’t expect that governors would have such an increased and more visible role and that we would be on the front lines,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told Fox News this month.

Hogan, who served as chair of the National Governors Association as the pandemic swept the nation, said the crisis “was an opportunity to try to bring (the governors) together.”

And the responsibilities will only continue in the new year, as the states are currently responsible for the distribution of the coronavirus vaccines among their populations.

The focus of heightened scrutiny amid the coronavirus pandemic, 38 of the 50 states will hold gubernatorial elections over the next two years. Put another way – nearly 85% of Americans will have the opportunity to vote for governor in 2021 and 2022.

Come next month, the GOP will control 27 of the 50 governorships. But more Americans will live in states with a Democrat as governor. At least a dozen of the gubernatorial showdowns in the next two years are currently considered by political pundits to be competitive.

Here’s a look at major races ahead.

First up

Only two states hold gubernatorial election in the year after a presidential election: New Jersey and Virginia.

Since they’re the only gubernatorial contests around, they often receive outsized attention and are sometimes considered bellwethers of the nation’s mood coming out of a presidential election.

Virginia’s constitution doesn’t allow for incumbent governors to run for a second straight four-year term. That means Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam won’t be running for reelection. But former governors are allowed to seek their old office, and Northam’s predecessor and fellow Democrat – former Gov. Terry McAuliffe – this month announced his bid to become the first Virginia governor in nearly a half-century to serve a second term. But before he reaches the general election, McAuliffe – who is White – must defeat a crowded field of primary rivals, including three Black candidates: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announces he is running for the Democratic nomination for governor during a press conference in Richmond, Va. Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announces he is running for the Democratic nomination for governor during a press conference in Richmond, Va. Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Republicans will choose their nominee through a state party convention rather than by a primary. Two Republicans have already declared their intentions to run for governor. They are state delegate and former House Speaker Kirk Cox and state Sen. Amanda Chase, who said she’d run as an independent after the GOP voted down a primary.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy is seeking to become the first Democrat in nearly 45 years to win reelection to a second term.

On the Republican side, state GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt is hoping to challenge Murphy. So is former assembly member Jack Ciattarelli, who has launched his second straight bid for governor. Murphy’s actions combating the coronavirus in the hard-hit state will be a major issue in the election.

The big four

The top four most populous states all hold gubernatorial elections in 2022, and the incumbents in all four are up for reelection.

But before Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California reaches next year’s contest, he needs to survive a recall push over the coronavirus restrictions he’s implemented and for taking part in a pricey dinner at a fancy Napa Valley restaurant earlier this year despite those restrictions.

FILE - In this Oct. 30, 2020, file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a COVID-19 testing facility in Valencia, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool, File)
FILE – In this Oct. 30, 2020, file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a COVID-19 testing facility in Valencia, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool, File)

It’s been 17 years since Democratic Gov. Gray Davis of California was recalled and replaced in a separate election by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

First-term Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a major ally of President Trump, is up for reelection in 2022 in the nation’s largest swing state. His efforts dealing with the coronavirus and the economic recession will be top issues. Trump’s victory in Florida over President-elect Joe Biden by a comfortable 3.3 points in last month’s presidential election could bode well for DeSantis.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo will bid for a fourth four-year term in a reliably blue state. Cuomo grabbed plenty of national attention this year – both positive and some negative – for his handling of the pandemic, and his performance will likely be front and center as he runs for reelection.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to members of New York state's Electoral College before voting for president and vice president in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, Pool)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to members of New York state’s Electoral College before voting for president and vice president in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, Pool)

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas plans on seeking a third four-year term in office. After then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke narrowly lost to conservative Sen. Ted Cruz in the state’s 2018 Senate showdown, Democrats had hopes of turning Texas blue in 2020. But those hopes were deflated as Trump easily won the Lone Star State in last month’s presidential election.

Battleground state showdowns

Some of the biggest presidential battleground states could have very competitive gubernatorial contests in 2022.

In Pennsylvania, two-term Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is term-limited. The battle for the open office, as well as an open Senate seat up for grabs in 2022 – Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is retiring – will put the Keystone State smack in the middle of the political spotlight.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan could face a difficult reelection, as Republicans are sure to target her actions to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., speaks before Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama speak at a rally at Belle Isle Casino in Detroit, Mich., Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., speaks before Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama speak at a rally at Belle Isle Casino in Detroit, Mich., Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In Wisconsin, expect the GOP to target Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. The state could also have an open Senate seat if Republican Sen. Ron Johnson decides not to seek reelection.

In neighboring Minnesota, first-term Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is up for reelection in 2022 in what could turn into a competitive race.

Democrats have their eyes on Arizona, where Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is term-limited. Democrats won statewide Senate elections in 2018, and last month, Biden narrowly edged Trump to become the first Democrat to carry Arizona in a White House race in nearly a quarter-century.

In Nevada, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak is up for reelection in another presidential battleground.

The Trump factor

The president has repeatedly lashed out at Republican Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia over the past month, after Kemp resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn Biden’s narrow victory in the state.

Soon-to-be former President Trump could back a primary challenger to Kemp in 2022.

FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2018, file photo, then-Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, left, walks with President Donald Trump as Trump arrives for a rally in Macon , Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
FILE – In this Nov. 4, 2018, file photo, then-Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, left, walks with President Donald Trump as Trump arrives for a rally in Macon , Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

Democratic 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost to Kemp, may run again.

In Ohio, GOP Gov. Mike DeWine is also up for reelection in 2022. He’s also been slammed by Trump for recognizing Biden’s victory.

Will they run for reelection?

That’s the question facing popular Republican Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Phil Scott of Vermont, and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire. If any of them decide against bidding for reelection, Democrats’ hopes of flipping a governorship will instantly improve in blue Massachusetts and Vermont and purple New Hampshire.

SUNUNU TAKES AIM AT CONGRESS FOR ‘CUTTING THE LINE’ TO GET COVID VACCINE

In Maine, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is likely to run for a second term. Former two-term Republican Gov. Paul LePage has said he’ll make a bid in 2022 for his old job.

Possible flips?

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas defeated Republican Kris Kobach by five points in 2018. The GOP’s hoping a stronger candidate in 2022 will help them recapture the governor’s office.

Illinois is solidly blue, but Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker could face a challenging reelection depending on whom the GOP lands as their nominee.

Republicans will also likely make a serious push to defeat Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut. And in neighboring Rhode Island, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is term-limited.

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