Five Gubernatorial Races Worth Watching

It’s common during midterm elections that gubernatorial races don’t receive the attention they’re due. Driven by a D.C. centric press corps most focused on races affecting both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, this year’s election is no exception with House and Senate races garnering significantly more attention.

Having managed communications on a gubernatorial campaign in 2014, I can vouch for how hard it was to attract national attention. That’s a shame, because the races happening at the state level have far more potential to impact the average American’s life.

There’s much at stake beyond Washington. Tomorrow, the leaders setting the next four years of state policy will be determined, alongside, in many cases, the redrawing of congressional boundaries coming out of the 2020 Census.

So what should you watch out for? Here are five gubernatorial races worth watching on Election Day.

Florida — Andrew Gillum (D) vs. Ron DeSantis (R)
RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Gillum +2.7
2014 Result: Rick Scott (R) 48.1% def. Charlie Crist (D) 47.1%

Florida’s incumbent governor, Rick Scott, is termed-out and running for U.S. Senate, leaving an open seat contested by Andrew Gillum, the Democratic Mayor of Tallahassee and the first African-American candidate for governor in Florida history, and Ron DeSantis, a Republican Congressmember representing the Atlantic shore between Jacksonville and Orlando.

This race has become particularly heated, even by Florida standards, with supporters of Gillum accusing the DeSantis campaign of repeatedly making racist or racially-tinged appeals to voters. Meanwhile, the DeSantis campaign has tightly hitched itself to President Trump, even running a campaign ad featuring DeSantis and his young children learning from the “Book of Trump.

Wisconsin — Tony Evers (D) vs. Scott Walker (R)
RealClearPolitics Polling Average: N/A; Latest Marquette University poll: 47–47
2014 Result: Scott Walker (R) 52.3% def. Mary Burke (D) 46.6%

Following a successful re-election effort in 2014 and recall defense in 2012, Republican Scott Walker is nearing the end of his fourth statewide campaign in just eight years. This year, Walker is facing Tony Evers, the Democratic State Superintendent of Public Instruction, in a cycle with fundamentals significantly less favorable than those he faced in previous elections.

Significant issues in the race include, enshrining Obamacare protections for pre-existing conditions in state law, education budget cuts and a controversial hefty tax incentive package for Foxconn Technology Group.

Georgia — Stacey Abrams (D) vs. Brian Kemp (R)
RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Kemp +2.8
2014 Result: Nathan Deal (R) 52.8% def. Jason Carter (D) 44.8%

Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, is facing Stacey Abrams, the Minority Leader of Georgia’s House of Representatives and the first African-American female major party gubernatorial nominee in American history, to take Nathan Deal’s place in Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion.

This race has hinged on claims of voter fraud and counter-claims of voter suppression. The weekend before the election, Kemp, as acting Secretary of State, accused the Georgia Democratic Party of hacking the state’s voter database. And just a few days prior, Kemp lost a lawsuit over 50,000 voter registration applications that were put on hold due to Georgia’s “exact-match” law, which requires citizens’ names on their government-issued ID exactly match their names listed on the voter rolls.

Kansas — Laura Kelly (D) vs. Kris Kobach (R)
RealClearPolitics Polling Average: N/A; Latest Emerson poll: Kobach +1
2014 Result: Sam Brownback (R) 49.8% def. Paul Davis (D) 46.1%

Following the narrowest of narrow victories in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, is facing Democratic State Senator, Laura Kelly, for the chance to succeed Republican Jeff Coyler, who himself only recently took over for former Kansas Governor and current U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback.

Kobach is most well known for his outspoken views on immigration and his tenure as the vice chairman of President Trump’s election integrity commission. Yet, two previous Republican governors of Kansas have endorsed his opponent, citing the need for a new direction for the state. Kelly, meanwhile, has taken a more moderate approach, highlighting her proposals to expand Kansas’ Medicaid program and increase funding for education after years of dramatic tax cuts.

South Dakota — Billie Sutton (D) vs. Kristi Noem (R)
RealClearPolitics Polling Average: N/A; Latest KELO/Mason Dixon poll: Noem +3
2014 Result: Dennis Daugaard (R) 70.5% def. Susan Wismer (D) 25.4%

This year’s most surprisingly competitive race comes from the Mount Rushmore state, where Republican Congresswoman Kristi Noem is engaged in a tight race with the Democratic Minority Leader of the South Dakota State Senate, Billie Sutton, to replace outgoing governor Dennis Daugaard. If elected, Noem would be South Dakota’s first female governor, while Sutton aspires to be the first Democrat elected to the position since 1974.

By Comparison, this race has been tame — likely due to the fact that a significant majority of South Dakotans believe the state is on the right track — with Noem focusing on her experience in elected office and Sutton highlighting his moderate credentials and history of working across the aisle.