Politico

Voters in 36 states will elect a governor next year. Here’s a cheat sheet.


The country found out just how important governors are over the past 20 months. Next year, the vast majority of Americans will decide whether those leaders should keep their jobs after the once-in-a-generation pandemic.

While the midterms have often been cast as a referendum on which party should control Washington, voters in 36 states will also elect governors in 2022, ranging from the nation’s largest state — California, fresh off a gubernatorial recall election — to the least populated state of Wyoming. And if the last year-and-a-half has shown anything, these governors’ races shouldn’t be playing second fiddle to Congress, either for voters’ attention or donors’ dollars.

“I think the pandemic, over the last year and a half, has been a really good time for people to realize how important their governors are,” said Marshall Cohen, the political director of the Democratic Governors Association. “These governors races are not national the way that federal races are, and each state is its own unique set of circumstances.”

POLITICO spoke with two dozen operatives deeply involved in the nation’s gubernatorial landscape — ranging from party leaders in Washington, D.C., to state party chairs and top aides to candidates in some of the most competitive states on the map — to define the 2022 map with a year to go.

The broad national environment still plays a role: Republicans are confident that, with the wind at their backs, they can flip governors’ mansions in battleground states. But gubernatorial races are also fought with more state-specific motivations in mind — on everything from the pandemic to education to local taxes — that allow for scenarios like Democrats defending a seat in the traditionally deep red Kansas, and for Republicans holding and fighting for several seats in the blue Northeast.

Both parties have pickup opportunities next year, though there are only a handful of open seats, with just three right now — Arizona, Maryland and Pennsylvania — expected to be battlegrounds. Incumbents on both sides of the aisle have spent the last few years building sizable political operations and deep war chests, allowing the parties to spend on a more core battleground of states.

“I think the good thing for us is — if you look at our map — I don’t expect the vast majority of our incumbents are going to need our engagement next year,” said Dave Rexrode, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, which is confident about defending sitting governors in large, pricey states like Texas and Ohio.

That means dumping tens of millions of dollars into just a handful of states instead of the 28 states Republicans were worried about in 2018. Democrats find themselves in the same situation.

“I think one of the things that puts us in a stronger position going into an incumbent cycle is that we’ve had such a long runway,” DGA executive director Noam Lee said. “These are teams we’re familiar with. These are operations we’ve helped build.”

The two parties largely agree on the scope of the core battlefield. Democrats’ top defensive targets will likely be the usual presidential battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania, along with Kansas, where Gov. Laura Kelly is the only Democrat seeking reelection in a state then-President Donald Trump carried last year.

Republicans, meanwhile, are on defense in Arizona and Georgia, with big question marks in a quartet of traditionally blue states that have nevertheless elected and reelected Republican governors recently.

“What are the top three states for them? Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan,” Rexrode said. “What are our big three states? Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan.”

An early test of the landscape is just a month away in Virginia. The state has long been considered a political bellwether ahead of midterm elections, where the off-year race has almost always historically swung against the party in power across the Potomac River.

But with more than a year to go until the midterms, these races aren’t completely set. More candidates are expected to jump into marquee races during the last quarter of this year and in early 2022, and some incumbent governors still need to decide if they will seek reelection.

The open seats

Arizona will likely be the most competitive open seat race in the nation next November, with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey term-limited. Trump recently endorsed Kari Lake, a former local TV anchor. But thus far, that endorsement has not been a field clearer for Republicans. Former Rep. Matt Salmon remains in the race with the backing of Club for Growth, the anti-tax group that has typically aligned itself with Trump in primaries.

Other GOP candidates include state Board of Regents member Karrin Taylor Robson, who is expected to be able to bring significant resources to bear for the race; state Treasurer Kimberly Yee; Steve Gaynor, the party’s 2018 nominee for secretary of state; and Daniel McCarthy, who now-former Sen. Martha McSally handily beat in a 2020 primary.


Looming over the race: the enduring, Trump-driven effort to reverse Republicans’ 2020 election losses in the state. That’s reinforced by the leading Democratic candidate, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, whose opposition to a flawed GOP-led review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County has boosted her national profile.

Democrats’ best pick-up opportunity is likely in Maryland, where Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is barred from running again. Before the general election, the GOP will signal the direction it is going in the blue state: Kelly Schulz, who serves as Hogan’s commerce secretary, and state Del. Daniel Cox, who has recently modeled himself as a Trump-style Republican and said he attended the rally that preceded the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, are both running. Other Republicans may soon get in — including Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor and Republican National Committee chair who has ardently opposed Trump.

The Democratic primary is expected to be a crowded one, with many candidates already in the race. The field includes two former Obama cabinet secretaries: Tom Perez, who was labor secretary and a former Democratic National Committee chair, and former Education Secretary John King. Other candidates include longtime state Comptroller Peter Franchot, former Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker, former state attorney general Doug Gansler and well-known author Wes Moore.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats are waiting for the all-but-certain announcement from state Attorney General Josh Shapiro that he’s running to replace term-limited Gov. Tom Wolf. Shapiro’s entrance is expected imminently, and he will be backed by a wave of institutional support.

A messy and uncertain primary awaits the GOP, one that could leave any potential nominee bruised up against an unscathed Shapiro. The already-crowded field includes former Rep. Lou Barletta, Montgomery County commissioner Joe Gale, former U.S. Attorney William McSwain, former Chester County Chamber official Guy Ciarrocchi, activist Charlie Gerow and others. Some have formed exploratory committees, including state Sens. Scott Martin and Dan Laughlin, who is looking to run as a post-Trump moderate in a field that has largely embraced the former president.

And Republicans — including state Sen. Doug Mastriano, state Senate President Jake Corman and members of Congress like Rep. Mike Kelly — have all publicly toyed with the idea of running, meaning the field could get more crowded still.

The major battlegrounds

One party in Georgia is trying to keep itself together. The other is waiting for one woman’s decision.

Gov. Brian Kemp is besieged on both sides. Trump’s enmity for the first-term GOP governor is so strong that he told rallygoers in Georgia last month he’d rather have Kemp’s 2018 Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, in charge in Atlanta. But Trump has not gone so far as to back the campaign of Democrat-turned-Republican Vernon Jones, a former state representative, despite some members of his orbit backing Jones. Instead, Trump’s operation has tried to nudge former Sen. David Perdue into the race, and Kemp has been working to get the rank-and-file back into his corner even as the former president continues to attack him for not assisting him in overturning the 2020 election.


Abrams has been widely expected to run after her narrow loss to Kemp in 2018. She has yet to announce a decision, while she has kicked off a nationwide tour that does not visit her home state. No other Democrat in the state has dared to float a run while everyone awaits Abrams’ decision.

Republicans see Kansas as their best pick-up opportunity anywhere on the map. Nevertheless, Democrats are expected to fight hard for Gov. Laura Kelly, and outside groups like EMILY’s List have already signaled that they will be in her corner for the election, circulating early internal polling that has her above water in the state.

Republicans are largely united around state Attorney General Derek Schmidt. The party will likely avoid a competitive, drawn out primary after former Gov. Jeff Colyer abruptly announced he was ending his campaign to seek treatment for a cancer diagnosis.

One issue to watch in Kansas is abortion. During the August 2022 primary, Kansans will vote for an amendment to the state constitution that would add that it “does not create or secure a right to abortion,” after the state Supreme Court found as much in 2019. This could supercharge the issue during a summer where the Supreme Court in Washington is already expected to revisit Roe v. Wade.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is among Republicans’ top targets in 2022, but the first-term governor has built a national profile since her election and has a formidable fundraising operation.

The Republican field to challenge her is already crowded. James Craig, who retired as head of the Detroit Police Department to challenge Whitmer, is seen as an early leader for the nomination, but not a field clearer. Other candidates include Tudor Dixon, a conservative media personality; Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who led early protests opposing coronavirus measures from Whitmer; and Kevin Rinke, a businessman who launched an “exploratory committee” and has the capacity to self-fund. Some Republicans would like to see John James, who lost Senate races in 2018 and 2020, take a shot at Whitmer, too.


Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s battle for reelection in Nevada will likely fall into the top tier of competitive races in November, but first Republicans will need to pick their nominee. Former Sen. Dean Heller recently launched his campaign, which could resurface his sometimes contentious relationship with Trump. He is joining a field that includes Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo; the party-switching North Vegas Mayor John Lee; Joey Gilbert, a former boxer and an attorney who was at the Jan. 6 insurrection, and others. A recent poll from the Nevada Independent found Heller and Lombardo in the top two spots, but neither has the nomination locked down. And the field might yet grow: GOP Rep. Mark Amodei recently said he was “torn” about running for governor or sticking around for the potential of serving in the House majority in 2022.

It is also worth watching for any intraparty squabbles among Democrats in the state. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) won control of the state party, widening a fissure between progressives and the remnants of the Reid Machine, which former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid corralled to make one of the most effective operations in the country. A splinter coordinated campaign is now being run out of Washoe County with the blessing of both Sisolak and Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto —who also has a hyper-competitive election next year — while the state party has sprouted its own.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers will have one of the most contested reelection fights in the nation, but the Democrat has already posted strong fundraising numbers in the off year and does not have any primary challengers standing in his way.

On the Republican side, the field remains unsettled: Former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is considered a strong candidate, but GOP Sen. Ron Johnson’s public indecision on whether he’ll seek reelection has left the field murky. Johnson at one point flirted with a gubernatorial run before ruling it out, but his indecision has frozen other could-be candidates including Kevin Nicholson, a businessman who finished second in the 2018 Senate primary. Should Johnson run for reelection, Nicholson would likely jump into the gubernatorial race.

The big four

The nation’s four largest states are less competitive — and possibly prohibitively expensive for the challenging party to try to compete.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom could face many of the same names he just vanquished in the state’s recall election last month. Some of the Republican candidates, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and right-wing radio host Larry Elder, are either already running or are considering bids — but the GOP has admitted that its potential statewide in the Golden State is basically non-existent for the foreseeable future.


Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has built a campaign machine that functionally never turns off, with tens-of-millions in the bank and Trump’s endorsement locked up. Even still, he has drawn primary challengers from former state party chair Allen West (who was a member of Congress representing Florida) and former state Sen. Don Huffines, among others. His allies expect him to easily blow by the primary field, but Democrats hope that the primary’s existence — and Trump needling the governor about the 2020 election — could expose Abbott.

On the Democratic side, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke is widely expected to get into the race. Democrats view him as their best chance to take on Abbott during the cycle, citing his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and a fundraising apparatus that could rival Abbott’s. But Republicans welcome his challenge, arguing that O’Rourke’s failed presidential bid damaged his brand, and that Abbott is not nearly as vulnerable as Cruz was in a Democratic wave year. Actor Matthew McConaughey has also said he’s weighing a run. He’s made calls to influential people in Texas politics, including some moderate Republicans.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is widely believed to be positioning himself for a potential 2024 presidential run. But first, he’ll need to win reelection. Republicans argue that he is well positioned, despite drawing widespread attention for his handling of the pandemic — which includes withering criticism from many public health experts and Democrats. He has not formally announced his bid, but already has more than $50 million in the bank, with aspirations to raise scores of millions more for his campaign.

The Democratic race is a faceoff between state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Rep. Charlie Crist, who last won the governorship over a decade-and-a-half ago as a Republican before leaving the party for a failed Senate bid and a losing 2014 gubernatorial bid as a Democrat. Republicans hope that the late-August primary will leave the eventual nominee damaged and cash-poor — making it an even tougher proposition to go against DeSantis without outside help, which could pull resources from elsewhere on the map.


Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul took over the reins in New York after now-former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned amid a myriad of allegations of inappropriate behavior — but some very prominent Democrats are considering challenging her for the nomination, in what could be an immensely expensive primary contest in the Empire State. That list is long, but it includes potential candidates like state Attorney General Tish James, outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Rep. Tom Suozzi, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and many more.

Republicans, too, will have a crowded field: Rep. Lee Zeldin has worked to coalesce support among Republicans in the state. Andrew Giuliani — the son of the now-controversial former mayor — and former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino are also in the mix. But with a Cuomo-less election on the horizon in 2022, the state is favored to remain in Democratic hands.

Don’t sleep on these

There is considerable uncertainty in Alaska, where Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy is seeking a second term, because of the state’s new elections system. All candidates will run in the same primary, and the top four will advance to a ranked-choice November election. Already in the race is former Republican-turned-independent Gov. Bill Walker, whom Dunleavy ousted in 2018. Former Democratic state Rep. Les Gara is also running, and other would-be candidates are considering bids, including Al Gross, an independent who unsuccessfully challenged GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan in 2020 with the blessing of Democrats.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has not yet declared he’ll seek another term, but the Democrat is expected to do so. Republicans haven’t totally written off the state, despite its general blue lean, after Lamont only won by 3 points in 2018. The GOP does not have a candidate yet, but Bob Stefanowski, whom Lamont defeated last time, and former state House Minority Leader Themis Klarides are both considering runs. Complicating any bid to oust Lamont is that most of Connecticut’s voters live in the incredibly expensive New York media market.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is a favorite to win reelection in the state and has already started deploying his considerable fortune on early internet ads to kickstart his reelection bid. Even still, Republicans could turn this into an expensive and competitive race. Businessperson Jesse Sullivan recently entered the race with $10 million in the bank, and a new congressional map from Democrats that’s expected to try to gerrymander some of the Republicans in the delegation out of office could nudge someone like Reps. Rodney Davis or Adam Kinzinger into the gubernatorial race. And Chicago billionaire Ken Griffin’s potential support of a Republican candidate — Pritzker’s self-funding has nullified the state’s contribution limits for other candidates — could also make it difficult for Pritzker to coast to victory.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is likely in a stronger position to win reelection than in 2018 — when she squeaked out a narrow victory — as the often swingy Iowa has moved further to Republicans over the last several years. The Democratic primary could still be competitive, and the state isn’t a lock depending on the nominee: State Rep. Ras Smith and Deidre DeJear — who was the party’s 2018 secretary of state nominee — are already in the race, and prominent Iowans including state Auditor Rob Sand, Rep. Cindy Axne and state Sen. Pam Jochum have publicly floated bids.

It will likely be a battle of known commodities in Maine: Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is primed to square up against former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who has a clear shot to his party’s nomination. Mills won her first term in 2018 — when LePage was term-limited — by a fairly comfortable margin, but the role of a third-party candidate will be a big question. Even in Mills’ 2018 win, an independent candidate drew 6 percent of the vote — and LePage first won the office in 2010 with just 38 percent of the vote. The state’s recent shift to ranked choice voting does not apply to the gubernatorial general election.


In Massachusetts, everything rides on whether Gov. Charlie Baker will run for a third term. Baker won reelection in a landslide in 2018 after a close 2014 victory (and a narrow 2010 loss). If he were to be the nominee again, Republicans would be in strong position to hold the state, even as some Democrats are hopeful his support has softened over the last four years. But he is also facing a primary challenge from former state Rep. Geoff Diehl, whom Trump endorsed this week. Should Baker not run, state Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito could be a leading candidate.

Democrats already have three candidates in the race — state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, former state Sen. Benjamin Downing and Harvard professor Danielle Allen — and others could be waiting for a clearer sign for what Baker will do. State Attorney General Maura Healey has been publicly mulling a run for governor herself, also freezing the field.

Minnesota has voted for Democrats reliably over the last decade, but it is one that Democrats argue they can’t sleep on, given the sometimes sneaky competitiveness of the state in some recent races. Republicans have attracted several candidates thus far to face Democratic Gov. Tim Walz — including state Sens. Michelle Benson and Paul Gazelka and former state Sen. Scott Jensen. Jennifer Carnahan, who recently resigned as GOP state party chair over her ties to a top donor charged with sex crimes (she denies any knowledge) and allegations of a hostile work environment, has floated a run.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has not yet announced if he will seek another term or run against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, freezing much of the field on both sides for now in the perennial swing state. Should Sununu not run for his current job, Republicans consider former Sen. Kelly Ayotte a strong potential candidate.

Republicans are bullish about their chances in New Mexico against Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Mark Ronchetti, a TV weatherman who unsuccessfully ran for the state’s open Senate seat last year, is considering another statewide run for governor. If he runs, he’d join a GOP field that includes some local Republican candidates, including state Rep. Rebecca Dow and Jay Block, a Sandoval County commissioner.


Ohio has become decidedly less competitive since former President Barack Obama left office, with Republicans dominating most recent statewide elections. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine is running for reelection. Trump has shown he is no fan of the Ohio incumbent, and former Rep. Jim Renacci — the only Republican to lose a statewide race since 2016 — is already primarying him. But DeWine has amassed a significant war chest that his backers believe will leave him in a strong position, in both the primary and general election.

Democrats will have a tall task in front of them to recapture their past success in this Rust Belt state. Battling to try to do so is a pair of mayors: Nan Whaley from Dayton and John Cranley from Cincinnati.

Now-former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo was already term-limited, so her departure for Washington, D.C., to be Biden’s commerce secretary only sped up what is going to be a competitive Democratic primary in the state. Gov. Dan McKee is running for a full term after taking over the office from Raimondo, but he is not a field-clearer. Already in the race is state Treasurer Seth Magaziner, current state Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and former state Secretary of State Matt Brown, with others waiting in the wings. (Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza recently ruled out a run.)

Republicans are not totally writing the state off, but it’s not among their top targets. Former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung — who narrowly lost in 2014 to Raimondo when a third party candidate got 20 percent of the vote and was blown out of the water by her in 2018 — recently took a job with the McKee administration, likely closing the door on another bid for the governor’s mansion.

No prominent candidate has gotten in the race on either side of the ticket in Vermont. Republicans are hopeful that Gov. Phil Scott will run again, as he has won comfortably every two years since 2016 and would likely take this otherwise blue state almost entirely off the map.

Primary problems

In safer states, the real action is in the primaries. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey could face a stiff intraparty challenge in her bid for a second full term. Lynda Blanchard, who was the American ambassador to Slovenia during the Trump administration, is currently running for the state’s open Senate seat — but has been spinning her wheels since Trump endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks in that primary. And state Auditor Jim Zeigler has been critical of Ivey and has said he is exploring a run.


Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s former press secretary and the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, is thought to be the favorite in Arkansas to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Trump endorsed his former spokesperson, which drove some potential candidates away from the race — though not state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

Once-purple Colorado has turned an increasingly darker shade of blue, with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis in a very strong position to win reelection next year. Even so, Heidi Ganahl, a member of the state board of regents and the only elected Republican serving statewide, recently launched a bid to challenge Polis in a crowded field.

Democrats are expected to retain the governorship in Hawaii, even with current Gov. David Ige term-limited. A busy primary could pop up on the islands, with candidates including Lt. Gov. Josh Green, former first lady Vicky Cayetano and former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell in the race.


Idaho Gov. Brad Little has not declared his reelection bid in the dark red state, but has been fundraising and is expected to do so. But he may have to navigate through a tricky primary from the right that would include his own lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, and a regional GOP chair, Ed Humphreys.

The primary to replace term-limited Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts could turn into a dragdown fight between two megadoners: Charles Herbster, who allied himself with the former president and has drawn attacks from Ricketts’ team, and board of regents member Jim Pillen.

Republicans believe that Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is on a glide path to another term, even as he faces what could be nominal primary challengers in a state with a low barrier to get on the ballot.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is term-limited, and already, several high-profile Democrats have gotten in the race, including state House Speaker Tina Kotek and state Treasurer Tobias Read. Other big candidates could still be around the corner, including state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is favored to win another term in office, and the Republican faces no serious primary challengers. But Democrats could have a competitive primary nevertheless, with former Rep. Joe Cunningham and state Sen. Mia McLeod both running for what will be an uphill general election.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has a clear path to reelection, as she eyes a potential launching pad to even higher office.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is the odds-on favorite to win another term in a state Democrats have struggled mightily in since former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen last held the governor’s mansion a decade ago.

Wyoming is the nation’s most Republican state — and if GOP Gov. Mark Gordon seeks a second term, it’s his for the taking.

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