With foreign policy crises, rising crime, a steady stream of illegal immigration at the southern border, and inflation not seen since the Carter administration, many political strategists are predicting a “red wave” in the 2022 mid-term elections. While pundits are keeping a close eye on this year’s races for the U.S. House and Senate, the elections with the biggest impact are often closer to home, as thirty-six states cast their vote for governor in November. 

Democrats are currently defending sixteen governors’ seats and Republicans are defending twenty. In contrast to 2018, where Republicans were defending eight seats in states won by Donald Trump in 2016, they currently hold six seats in states won by Joe Biden in 2020. Not all these races will be competitive, but many state Democrats are in difficult positions heading into campaign season as even statewide elections become more nationalized and President Biden’s sinking approval ratings become a drag on their tickets.

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While the media focus in midterm election years tends to be on the congressional races and control of Congress, state-level races have far greater implications for Americans in their day-to-day lives. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this fact has been magnified as governors have been responsible for enacting controversial policies, including business-killing shutdowns and mask mandates. With even greater impact to the last presidential election, state chief executives exercised powers to approve election law changes, which have included those later declared unlawful by courts.

Of the governors’ races this year, some of the most important are being held in “battleground” states that are key to winning back the White House in 2024 — including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Georgia, and Nevada. This has resulted in a virtual “clown car” of Republican candidates in some states, which may have a negative impact on Republican attempts to flip state governor’s mansions. Pennsylvania, for example, has over a dozen candidates in the race for governor and senator — among them two state legislators, a former U.S. Attorney, and a former mayor and congressman. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate and sitting Attorney General Josh Shapiro sits alone on the left, amassing a significant war chest without a messy primary.

Likewise, Michigan’s pool of Republican candidates grows by the day, while incumbent Governor Gretchen Whitmer has her party’s support, despite her numerous scandals to include undercounting Covid fatalities, accepting private flights from wealthy donors, to campaign finance issues.

In examining the importance of these gubernatorial elections in contrast to those on Capitol Hill, look at the migration to states like Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas from places like California, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Illinois. In a recent Cato Institute report, Florida was listed as the second most accessible state in America. Meanwhile, New York earned the state’s ranking with the least freedom in the country. While many attributed this mass migration as a response to draconian Covid-19 lockdowns, a closer analysis shows that the biggest growth were in the Austin, Nashville, and Miami/Fort Lauderdale regions; which are located in states with no personal income tax and lower crime rates.

As no person relocates their family to a place they can’t get a job, one has to examine the way states are actually managed when understanding the importance of this year’s Governor races. Last November, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin defeated McAuliffe by almost 80,000 votes, as well as winning the lieutenant governor’s and state attorney general’s offices for the GOP in a political shot heard around the world. The results of Virginia’s elections came as a surprise to many on the left, as the state has been trending blue for the better part of two decades. Virginia’s past two governors have been Democrats, and in the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by ten percentage points in the state.

However, it wasn’t national rhetoric that won the election. Debate over state oversight of local school boards became a focal point of the election, and many think Youngkin won because of his strong stance on parental rights regarding masking, critical race theory, and gender identity ideology in Virginia’s schools. “Youngkin’s victory shows the lasting power of kitchen-table issues,” Jessica Anderson, Heritage Action for American executive director, said in a statement. “When parents see how woke policies hurt their children and their communities, they spring into action, and we saw this first hand in Virginia,” continued Anderson. 

Issues like crime and education have become critical issues in states across the country, and the Youngkin victory suggests that candidates for governor in places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Michigan who “keep it local” can defeat challengers who pursue national partisan talking points.

Many see this wide swath of well-funded candidates jumping into these key governors races as an extension of the “Trump effect”, where some candidates have the bravado to garner support but little in the way of a résumé for the state’s top job. This presents an issue for Republicans, as the more money that is burned before the primary, the less is available to defeat the Democratic nominee in the general election.

The Youngkin victory suggests that candidates for governor in places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Michigan who ‘keep it local’ can defeat challengers who pursue national partisan talking points.

There are splits in both political parties, between “Trump” Republicans and traditional “establishment” conservatives on the right and “machine democrats” vs. progressives on the left. State parties have not been successful in building and endorsing candidates to effectively thin the herd. This makes it difficult to counter the effect of outside money groups pouring resources into state and even local elections.

Another sign of the importance of these races came this month as President Biden publicly turned his focus to helping elect Democratic governors, pledging to be “deeply involved” in this year’s midterm elections. The Democratic National Committee will provide funds to defend governor’s seats in Connecticut, Kansas and New Mexico, and play offense in Maryland, where popular Republican Larry Hogan is stepping down after two terms. 

The President also pledged to fundraise for the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) and to have his signature appear on quarterly email and text messages to supporters: “This investment will help the DGA hold our seven-year record of defending incumbents, protect our three open seats and expand our map in November to build on this progress, DGA Executive Director Noam Lee told CNN. “Democratic governors are integral to the success of our party and the future of our country.”

Voters will have their chance to decide on that in November. 

These efforts come as both the White House and Democratic leadership increase efforts to protect a narrow majority in the Senate and House of Representatives, in an attempt to continue to dictate how much of Biden’s agenda can get enacted. The DNC says it is spending $20 million in battleground states, “voter protection efforts”, data infrastructure, and state party building.

All eyes will be on battleground states. Will Republicans in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania take a cue from Governor Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia and elect a moderate candidate with a great résumé, or will they entrust these vital elections to candidates with the most fiery rhetoric? That decision will be made by primary voters as we approach spring and summer primaries across the nation.

A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME

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