WASHINGTON – Democrats held onto a string of competitive governors’ seats in the midterm elections after making the case to voters that Republican challengers posed a threat to abortion rights and democracy in their states.
The wins by Democrats in more than half a dozen states came despite Republican efforts to blame the party in power for problems like inflation and rising crime and national headwinds that were expected to favor the GOP.
Of the 36 governors’ races being decided in Tuesday's elections, Democrats flipped Massachusetts and Maryland, and it was too early to say Wednesday whether they could win control of the Arizona governor’s office for the first time since 2006.
Elsewhere in the West, Republicans were hoping to win back control of the Nevada governor’s mansion, which they lost in 2018 after a two-decade hold, and were vying for an upset in deep-blue Oregon, where a surprisingly close race could put a Republican in the top job for the first time in 40 years.
Going into the elections, the GOP held a 28-22 edge in governors' seats.
The winners of this year's election will be in power during the 2024 presidential election and could shape their state’s voting laws or play a role in certifying the election results. And with the U.S. Supreme Court ending the national right to an abortion this summer, governors have even more power regarding whether and how that right exists in their state.
Democrats who held onto their seats in competitive contests made a point of highlighting both issues in their victory speeches and framing their wins as a sign those concerns galvanized voters.
“Tonight New Mexico said ‘no’ to a political crusade that wants to turn women into second-class citizens,” the state's Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, told supporters in Albuquerque late Tuesday night.
“You showed up because you saw our democracy was on the brink of existence and you decided to do a damn thing about it,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers declared.
In battleground Arizona, it was too early to call a race pitting Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who defended the state’s 2020 election results, against Republican former television news anchor Kari Lake, who said she would not have certified the results.
Hobbs, who gained prominence for defending Arizona’s 2020 election results showing President Joe Biden’s victory in the state, was leading. Lake gained national attention as a breakout GOP star known for her combative style on the campaign trail and ease in front of the cameras.
In Nevada, where Republican Joe Lombardo was seeking to oust one-term Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, the winner was not expected to be known for several days. The battleground state was a rare spot where Democrats, rather than Republicans, tried to put the spotlight on crime rates, blaming staffing decisions by Lombardo, the Las Vegas-area sheriff. Lombardo countered by pointing to legislation passed by Democrats in the state legislature that he deemed “soft-on-crime.”
Sisolak sought to make abortion access part of his campaign, while Lombardo said he would govern from a “pro-life lens.”
In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly had been expected to have a tough race as the only Democratic governor running for reelection this year in a state that Trump won two years ago.
But Kelly won a second term by defeating Republican Derek Schmidt, who tried to link her to Biden and high inflation. Though Kelly did not emphasize her support for abortion rights in her campaign, she was likely buoyed by a statewide vote in August affirming abortion rights.
The U.S. will now have the largest number of female governors serving at one time, with 12 women set to lead states in 2023. Ten women were declared winners of gubernatorial races on Tuesday, and Oregon will elect a woman in either Democrat Tina Kotek or Republican Christine Drazan. Massachusetts, New York and Arkansas will be led by women for the first time.
Massachusetts voters elected Democrat Maura Healey, who put the governor’s office back in Democratic hands for the first time in eight years and will become the country's first openly lesbian candidate to be elected governor.
Sarah Sanders was elected Arkansas governor, becoming the first woman to lead that state. The former White House press secretary will assume the office once held by her father, Mike Huckabee.
Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul won election in New York, becoming the first woman elected to the post she took over in 2021 after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned after facing sexual harassment allegations, which he denied.
Voters also made history in Maryland, electing Wes Moore, seen as a Democratic rising star, as that state’s first Black governor. Moore is only the third Black politician elected governor in the United States after Virginia’s Douglas Wilder in 1989 and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts in 2006.
Republican incumbents in Texas and Georgia fended off Democratic stars who attracted national attention but fell short with voters in their states. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke lost to Gov. Greg Abbott in red-state Texas, while Stacey Abrams lost again to Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, a rematch from 2018.
Several governors seen as potential 2024 presidential candidates cemented expected wins.
Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota won reelection, as did California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, both Democrats.
DeSantis, one of the GOP's biggest stars, had a commanding win in Florida as his party deepened its hold on the former swing state.
The governor, who is widely seen as former President Donald Trump's most formidable challenger if he runs in 2024, said in a victory speech that his win was a triumph in a culture war against a liberal “woke agenda.”
“We fight the woke in the Legislature. We fight the woke in the schools. We fight the woke in the corporations. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die,” DeSantis said. He wrapped up his speech by declaring: “I have only begun to fight.”