Abortion, voting and COVID-19: Why we're eyeing these 10 governor's races in 2022 midterms

During a period of inaction of Washington, governors have taken a prominent role in forming national policy on a number of important fronts.

  • Democrats are defending toss-up contests in Wisconsin, Kansas and Nevada.
  • Georgia is holding a 2018 rematch between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams.
  • Open seats in Arizona and Pennsylvania offer major candidate contrasts.

The upcoming midterm elections will do more than establish who controls Congress for the remainder of President Joe Biden’s term. .

From Maine to California, 36 states are holding races for governor Tuesday, with most featuring incumbents running for reelection.

The race between GOP Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, right, is one of the most watched gubernatorial contests that will be decided Nov. 8.

The pandemic as well as Washington's paralysis on a host of issues thrust many governors into the national spotlight over the past two years.

Stay updated on these races by signing up for the OnPolitics newsletter.

That means the national tug-of-war is bleeding over into state capitals. And the importance of the chief executive, especially in those battleground areas, is coming into focus as much as the midterm races for Congress.

Many of the incumbents seeking reelection this year were the first line of defense in fighting COVID in early 2020. How they handled the crisis through continued restrictions, school closures and mask mandates  is a point of contention this year.

Early 2024 scorecard: Could Biden face a challenger? Could Pence beat Trump? What about Cheney?

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a campaign event outside the state Capitol Friday, May 27, 2022, in Madison, Wis. Evers, a Democrat, hopes to translate anger over the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade into votes this fall as he vows to fight a 173-year-old state abortion ban in any way he can.

Beyond COVID, however, gubernatorial candidates are facing challenges that mirror the debates in Washington, including how they plan to handle violent crime and voting rights. Plus, the Supreme Court's summer ruling to leave reproductive rights to the states has placed abortion center stage in many governor's races. 

Here are the gubernatorial races to watch this fall (* denotes incumbents):

Georgia: Kemp* (R) v. Abrams

The rematch between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican incumbent Brian Kemp is arguably the headline gubernatorial contest of 2022.

Abrams lost by half a percentage point in 2018, but now she is a national powerbroker with the campaign cash to prove it.

Kemp and Abrams faced off in an Oct. 17 televised debate, where the pair answered questions on a wide range of issues including abortion, education, voting rights, law enforcement and marijuana legalization.

The Georgia gubernatorial candidates took shots at each other when asked to name the most pressing issue facing the state. 

"The most dangerous thing facing Georgia is four more years of Brian Kemp," Abrams said, citing Georgia's rising gang crime, gun violence and housing prices.

Kemp hit back that Abrams was attacking his record because she "doesn't want to talk about her own," adding he "values life" and would address "sky-high inflation."

Stacey Abrams poses for a portrait in front of the State Seal of Georgia Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Decatur, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp waves to supporters during an election night watch party, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Atlanta. Kemp easily turned back a GOP primary challenge Tuesday from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who was backed by former President Donald Trump.

Debate takeaways:Kemp, Abrams renew their rivalry and push divergent visions in Georgia governor's debate

Elections: Who is running in Georgia's governor race? Kemp and Abrams rematch is set

Wisconsin: Evers* (D) v. Michels (R)

Democratic incumbent Tony Evers has hung his reelection hopes largely on blocking the GOP-controlled legislature's agenda, including stiffer election rules.

Now he faces a Trump-backed challenger in Tim Michels, a construction magnate who  like other conservative positions wants to dismantle the bipartisan commission that oversees the state's elections.

In their first and only debate on Oct. 14, the Wisconsin gubernatorial candidates sparred on education, with Evers believing that teachers should give a full accounting of history while Michels said parents should decide how history is taught. 

The pair were also asked whether they would accept the outcome of the race.

Evers said he "absolutely" would, while Michels didn't answer directly, saying "Yes, of course I will certify the next election," implying he expects to win. Michels has supported former President Donald Trump's false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. 

Evers has leaned heavily into protecting reproductive rights, offering clemency to doctors prosecuted for performing abortions under Wisconsin's 1849 anti-abortion law.

Wisconsin’s abortion ban makes clear that doctors who perform the procedure can be punished with up to six years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both.

Speaking to the Rotary Club of Milwaukee , Michels indicated he wouldn't enforce the state law if elected. 

“I will never arrest a doctor, as they’re saying,” he said. “I’m a reasonable guy.”

But the Michels campaign later clarified how that is up to local prosecutors, adding how a governor is "not a (district attorney) or a beat cop arresting anyone."

Michels has focused his campaign primarily on crime, dinging the governor for not doing more to stop the 2020 riots in Kenosha, which erupted from protests in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man.

Wisconsin: Evers vetoes string of Republican bills meant to change how elections are run

Watch: GOP candidate Tim Michels criticizes Tony Evers' response to Kenosha unrest

Kansas: Kelly* (D) v. Schmidt (R)

Democratic incumbent Laura Kelly stunned the nation when she won the governor’s mansion in 2018. But four years later she is in jeopardy in a deeply red state Trump won by 14 percentage points in 2020. 

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the GOP challenger, won the nomination promising to be a governor who would champion religious liberty, combat crime and oppose abortion. 

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announces that she's imposing a mask mandate for state government workers and visitors to many state buildings, speaking at a news conference July 28 at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas.

Still, Kelly has reason for optimism:Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative in August that would have removed state constitutional protections for abortion rights. 

Abortion defined the first two Kansas gubernatorial debates. In the first, Kelly established herself as staunchly in favor of abortion rights, telling a crowd at the Kansas State Fair that she had "no doubt" her views reflect the majority of Kansans'.

"I have been consistent on my position on this issue since I entered the state Senate 18 years ago and I will stay consistent," Kelly said during the September debate. 

Schmidt, on the other hand, has walked a fine line on the issue. In both debates, he reiterated his opposition to abortion rights but conceded that Kansans' decision to retain state abortion protections is one that must be respected. 

Nevada: Sisolak* (D) v. Lombardo (R)

Democrat Steve Sisolak is one of the top gubernatorial targets for Republicans this fall, and GOP nominee Joe Lombardo is keeping things close.

In an Oct. 2 debate, Lombardo made efforts to distance himself from former President Donald Trump, saying that he wouldn't call Trump a "great" president and that he "doesn't stand by" the former president on his 2020 election fraud claims, according to NBC News. Trump endorsed Lombardo in April.

While GOP candidates nationally are casting Democrats as anti-police, Sisolak is running ads against Lombardo's record as sheriff, saying he oversaw a spike in Clark County homicides.

Democrats tried to seize on Lombardo holding a town hall breakfast with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin at Liberty Baptist Church in Las Vegas, whose pastor in 2018 described being gay as a "demoralizing, degrading, filthy, horrible sin." But Republicans quickly pointed out how Sisolak honored the church in a 2019 proclamation for its "strong presence among young people."

Arizona: Hobbs (D) v. Lake (R)

From personality to policy, Republican Kari Lake and Democrat Katie Hobbs are polar opposites in almost every way.

For starters, Lake, who received Trump's endorsement, continues to spread false claims about the 2020 election. Hobbs, the Arizona secretary of state who helped oversee that election, continues to speak out against those false assertions of voter fraud.

Former President Donald Trump and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake at a Republican campaign rally on July 22, 2022, in Prescott Valley.

Elections: Facing DOJ lawsuit, Arizona could be model for states to require proof of citizenship to vote

 Arizona: Blake Masters, Kari Lake praise Florida governor Ron DeSantis at Phoenix rally

What's beginning to come up more and more in the final weeks, however, is Hobbs's refusal to debate Lake, which is being described as "risky" by some political observers.

Hobbs has suggested it would only result in "constant interruptions, pointless distractions, and childish name-calling." Lake has called Hobbs a "coward" for not joining her onstage.

Florida: DeSantis* (R) v. Crist (D)

Democrats would be delighted if they could endRepublican Ron DeSantis's political career, especially as he appears to be gearing up for a 2024 presidential bid.

But it's going to be a tall order for Rep. Charlie Crist – a former governor himself – as the Democratic nominee in a purple state that's been trending red.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24, 2022, in Orlando.

It's hard on two fronts:

DeSantis dominates the national headlines as a possible successor to Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.

For instance, the GOP governor sending two planes carrying migrants to Democratic-leaning states has elevated DeSantis to a national stage where he is jousting with Biden more than Crist.

DeSantis topped Crist 48%-41% in a September USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll.

Politics: DeSantis might already be running for president. Donald Trump could help – and hurt – his plans

DeSantis and money: DeSantis on pace to bring in more money than any governor candidate. Ever.

Texas: Abbott* (R) v. O'Rourke (D)

Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke's star power is the chief reason liberals and progressives want to give this long shot race a chance

Otherwise, Texas is largely viewed as Republican incumbent Greg Abbott’s race to lose. Both the Cook Political Report and Crystal Ball rank it as a likely GOP win.

More: Is Beto stuck in neutral? New poll shows Abbott leading by 7 points.

Democratic Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks during a stop on his 49-day Drive for Texas tour Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Midland, Texas. (Eli Hartman/Odessa American via AP) ORG XMIT: TXODE601

The two met for their first — and like only — in-person debate in September where they traded serious jabs.

O'Rourke has been aggressive for most of the contest.

In May, for instance, O'Rourke disrupted the governor's press conference on the Uvalde mass shooting. More recently, he got attention for cursing out a heckler during a presentation about reducing gun violence.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Michigan: Whitmer* (D) v. Dixon (R)

Gretchen Whitmer was a top target for Republicans at the beginning of this year, mostly due to a backlash over her enforcement of strict COVID-19 rules.

But a messy primary for the state GOP may have wrecked that opportunity.

Poll numbers show Whitmer leading. FiveThirtyEight puts Whitmer leading Tudor Dixon by nearly 5 percentage points, though it appears her strong lead has shrunk as Election Day nears. 

In an Oct. 14 debate, the Michigan gubernatorial candidates each painted the other as radical and dangerous, touching on issues like abortion, school safety and the state's COVID-19 pandemic response.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer meets with volunteers for canvass kickoffs on Michigan Primary Election Day on August 2, 2022 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Republican candidate for Michigan governor Tudor Dixon appears at a debate in Grand Rapids, Mich., Wednesday, July 6, 2022.

New Mexico: Lujan Grisham (D) v. Ronchetti (R)

Republicans remain bullish about oustingDemocratic incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is facing a challenge from GOP contender Mark Ronchetti, a former Senate candidate and TV meteorologist.

Lujan Grisham has pushed the Democratic-controlled legislature to expand abortion access, create stricter gun rules and end qualified immunity from prosecution for police officers.

Those moves have been the major point of contrasts for Ronchetti's campaign, which has been aggressive about supporting law enforcement amid rising crime in parts of the state as well as defending the U.S-Mexico border and an eight-point economic plan (including oil and gas rebates) while on the campaign trail.

One area that national observers says distinguishes Ronchetti has been on abortion, where he has tried to strike a conciliatory tone, saying the Supreme Court's ruling on Dobbs this summer gives a chance for a "measured dialogue" on the issue.

FiveThirtyEight's polling shows Lujan Grisham in a steady lead of six percentage points. 

Pennsylvania: Shapiro (D) v. Mastriano (R) 

The GOP had hoped to make the Keystone State more competitive this year given Democratic incumbent Tom Wolf couldn't seek reelection due to term limits.

But with Trump-backed state legislator Doug Mastriano the GOP nominee political forecasters say the race can't be considered a toss-up any longer.

Mastriano has continued to assert false claims about the 2020 election. He has also spread misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Immigration:Mastriano to Hannity at York town hall: I’d bus migrants to Biden's home state of Delaware

Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano vowed that if he wins election to Pennsylvania's top office, he’ll begin busing illegal immigrants to President Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware, taking a page out of DeSantis' political playbook.

Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, holds a lead of 10 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight

Correction & clarification: A previous version of this story misstated the outcome of a police shooting of Jacob Blake. Blake survived the shooting.