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US midterm elections: Gubernatorial races down to the wire

Republicans are gaining ground in traditionally Democratic states by focusing on crime and the economy

US Vice President Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton flank New York gubernatorial candidate Kathy Hochul at a rally in Manhattan on Thursday.
US Vice President Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton flank New York gubernatorial candidate Kathy Hochul at a rally in Manhattan on Thursday.TIMOTHY A. CLARY (AFP)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

Thirty-six out of 50 US states will be electing governors on Tuesday, November 8. While House and Senate races have drawn the most media attention, the gubernatorial elections may be an opportunity for the Republican Party to consolidate power at the state level.

In the last 48 hours before the midterm elections, judging by the polls, it looks like the Democrats may experience a setback across the board. President Joe Biden has even flown to the Democratic stronghold of New York State to campaign for incumbent Governor Kathy Hochul, who is only a few points ahead of Congressman Lee Zeldin, her Republican challenger. Zeldin has hammered Hochul on pocketbook issues and rising crime rates.

In recent days, powerful members of the Democratic Party – from Vice President Kamala Harris to former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – have had to turn their attention away from key Senate races in order to shore up support for fledgling gubernatorial candidates. Republican messaging on inflation, crime and a stagnant post-pandemic economy has begun to peel away moderate voters. With left-wingers not enthused about going to the polls to support the slate of Democrats, this may end up being a turnout election, which could imply a Republican landslide.

Following the conservative-majority Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade back in June, governors are now decisive in determining abortion rights in each state. Other crucial issues – such as gay marriage, or which books children are allowed to read in school – may also fall under their jurisdiction. Governors may even be able to determine the results of the 2024 presidential elections: many Republican candidates – endorsed by Donald Trump – refuse to admit that Biden won in 2020. Should they take power on Tuesday, it’s fair to assume that these election deniers would spend the next two years preparing to contest any future results in their states that do not benefit the next Republican presidential candidate.

Twelve states are currently being bitterly contested, with polls showing candidates neck-and-neck. In Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania, nobody knows who will win. And, in recent days, even states that were considered to be “safe” for the Democrats no longer seem like sure shots.

True Blue New York – Democratic dominance in question

In recent months, Democratic Governor Hochul has implemented measures to protect abortion rights – even offering New York as a sanctuary for women who can’t have an abortion in their anti-choice home states – while passing stricter gun control initiatives and increasing funding for public transit.

A couple of months ago, Hochul led her opponent, Representative Zeldin, by about 15 points in polls. Now, Zeldin is only trailing by a couple – well within the margin of error. He has recently made a pitch to liberal voters in New York City after a spate of violent rapes, while also reaching out to leaders in the powerful Hasidic community (made up of ultra-Orthodox Jews), who tend to vote as a unified bloc.

Arizona – a clear draw

Arizona is the most-contested of all the swing states when it comes to the governor’s race.

Democrat Katie Hobbs – Secretary of State since 2019 – is facing Kari Lake, a former TV anchor turned far-right Trump Republican.

In 2020, Hobbs certified Biden’s election in the state of Arizona, despite intense pressure from then-president Trump. Meanwhile, Lake – who has campaigned with Trump on multiple occasions – is promising to ban mail-in ballots should she be elected. She, like 300 other Republican candidates across the country, constantly spouts unfounded claims that electoral fraud took place two years ago.

A Siena College poll for The New York Times published this week shows a dead heat: each woman garners 48% of support among those surveyed. Latinos – who make up 25% of the electorate – will be decisive in breaking this tie.

According to a recently-released study titled Analysis of the Hispanic Vote, Latinos rank inflation, cost-of-living, crime and healthcare as their four top priorities.

The report highlights a trend across all states, including Arizona: almost three out of four Hispanics are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, with more than 50% disapproving of Biden’s tenure.

The president’s vague discourse on democracy has made a limited impression on voters with more pressing daily concerns, such as the rising cost of food and gasoline, or the increase in armed violence in their neighborhoods. Republicans like Lake have capitalized on these issues, despite being associated with some of the strongest anti-minority voices in the country.

Democrats losing hope in Georgia and Nevada

Things look bad for the Democrats in Georgia and Nevada, where Republican candidates lead them in polls by an average of four to six points.

Georgia is of particular importance, due to the still-open investigation into Trump’s maneuvers to reverse the results of the 2020 elections in that state. The candidates are two experienced politicians: incumbent governor and Republican candidate Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost their 2018 face-off.

If, against the odds, Abrams were to be elected, she would be the country’s first Black female governor. Kemp, for his part, has managed to hold on to his conservative base despite having refused to help Trump manipulate the 2020 results in Georgia. Trump lost the state to Biden by a tiny margin.

Abrams – a former state representative who runs a voter-registration project – was decisive to Biden’s victory in Georgia two years ago. However, despite her high name-recognition, it doesn’t seem that she will prevail in her rematch against Kemp. Many centrists were impressed with how he stood up to Trump. In a state that is already heavily Republican, their support will be critical.

Meanwhile, in Nevada, Democrat Steve Sisolak is hoping to be re-elected to the governorship. Despite his promise to guarantee abortion rights, voters are more concerned with issues related to the economy and law and order. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, of the Republican Party, has taken the lead, thanks to his credentials as a law enforcement professional and veteran. He is promising to cut crime, public spending and taxes. Latinos – who represent 21% of registered voters in Nevada – will prove decisive in this race.

Pennsylvania – a lifeline for Democrats

Pennsylvania is the only relief, from a polling standpoint, for Democrats. Their candidate, Josh Shapiro – who currently serves as attorney general for the state – leads Republican Doug Mastriano, a far-right state senator who supports all of Trump’s conspiracy theories. According to the latest Siena College poll, Shapiro is ahead by 13 points.

Mastriano’s extremist leanings have turned off moderate Pennsylvanians. He was even present at the January 6 Capitol Riots. If he were to be elected to the governorship, he would have the power to supervise the 2024 presidential elections in the Commonwealth, while also being able to restrict abortion access with the help of the Republican majority in the state legislature.

Florida and Texas stay deep red

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is almost guaranteed to win re-election. He has built a reputation as a champion of culture wars against “wokeness,” while still managing to appear statesmanlike when Florida was rocked by Hurricane Ian. Many predict that a victory on Tuesday would solidify his candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Trump – likely sensing competition – has refused to campaign for DeSantis. Meanwhile, Biden and other Democratic leaders have hardly bothered to support the Democratic challenger, former governor Charlie Crist, as they feel any chance of victory is scarce. DeSantis leads all polls by at least 10 points.

In Texas, despite the May massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Republican Governor Greg Abbot has vowed to never impose any form of gun control. His Democratic challenger, former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, even after raising tens of millions of dollars from across the country, likely has no chance to defeat the incumbent.

In recent months, DeSantis and Abbott have been entrapping undocumented migrants – most of them fleeing Venezuela – and sending them to Democratic-governed cities in the Northeast by bus or plane. Despite legal challenges, they have continued this inhumane practice, which has been well-received by the Republican base.

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