When Republican-controlled Legislatures in Wisconsin and Michigan passed bills barring private donations for election funding, imposing strict voter ID laws and more, there was one barrier to enactment — a Democratic governor and their veto power.
The governorship is undoubtedly an influential office for all policy areas, including democracy. Governors wield veto power against voter suppression legislation, make executive orders for rights restoration and take part in election certification. In nine states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas, the governor appoints the secretary of state (the chief elections official).
Together, the secretary of state and governor are the key players in the process most vulnerable to election subversion — generally, these officials must sign the certificate of election and certificate of ascertainment to confirm the U.S. House or Senate and presidential results, respectively.
This November, there are 36 gubernatorial seats on the ballot. Just like the races for secretary of state, Republican candidates, many endorsed by former President Donald Trump, are running for governor on platforms that very clearly indicate a willingness to subvert election results in future contests.
- Incumbent candidate: None
- Who we need to elect: Democratic candidate, TBD
- Trump’s “Big Lie” candidate of choice: Kari Lake (R)
- Primary election: Aug. 2
A recent New York Times investigation found that 81% of Arizona state legislators took steps to discredit or overturn the 2020 presidential election results — the highest percentage of any state. Incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who is term-limited and unable to run for reelection, has struggled to navigate within his own conspiracy-driven state party. He has danced between defending President Joe Biden’s 2020 win in the Grand Canyon State while embracing some restrictive voting laws cut from the same “Big Lie” cloth.
Ducey’s departure has led to an open Republican primary. Trump’s candidate of choice is local news anchor Kari Lake, who continually repeats false claims about the 2020 election and has filed a lawsuit to ban the use of electronic voting machines in Arizona. “I am the ONLY candidate for AZ Governor calling for and demanding decertification,” Lake wrote on Twitter. (There is no constitutional or legal method for “decertification.”) Lake has gone further, calling for the imprisonment of current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), the leading Democratic candidate for governor. First, Lake will face four other Republican candidates in the Aug. 2 primary.
“As Arizona’s secretary of state, I’ve had the unfortunate distinction of directly witnessing the lengths that the election deniers will go to jeopardize our free and fair elections,” Hobbs wrote in a guest essay for Democracy Docket. This included armed protestors gathering outside her house after Hobbs repeatedly defending the results of the 2020 election. Hobbs, who went from “a wallflower bureaucrat to a liberal icon” over the past two years, leads the Democratic field in fundraising, polling and endorsements but will face two blue rivals: former state Rep. Aaron Lieberman and Marco Lopez, who previously served as a mayor, Director of the Arizona Department of Commerce and in former President Barack Obama’s Customs and Border Protection department.
- Incumbent candidate: None
- Who we need to elect: Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D)
- Trump’s “Big Lie” candidate of choice: State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R)
This November, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) and state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) will face one another in a hugely consequential election. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) is term-limited and Shapiro ran unopposed in the Democratic primary on May 17. Shapiro, who went to court as Pennsylvania’s top legal officer, repeatedly defended the results of the 2020 election. On his campaign website, Shapiro outlines a plan to defend democracy, ensure access to the ballot box and improve elections.
Mastriano decisively won the Republican primary and the alarm bells are ringing: Mastriano, with the gubernatorial power to appoint the secretary of state, could rig the 2024 presidential election. On a radio show in March, Mastriano made it explicitly clear that he understands the full power of this office:
I’m Doug Mastriano, and I get to appoint the Secretary of State who’s delegated from me the power to make the corrections to elections, the voting logs and everything. I could decertify every machine in the state with the stroke of a pen via my Secretary of State. I already had the Secretary of State picked out. It’s a world class person that knows voting integrity better than anyone else in the nation, I think, and I already have a team that’s gonna be built around that individual.
Mastriano spent campaign funds to bus protesters down to the rally preceding the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol; Mastriano himself reportedly crossed police lines that day. In the Legislature, he has introduced a bill to establish a special force to investigate election crimes, increase penalties for ballot collection and assert legislative control over court-imposed election changes. Even the Republican Governors Association appears hesitant to embrace Mastriano after his win.
- Incumbent candidate: Tony Evers (D)
- Who we need to elect: Tony Evers (D)
- “Big Lie” candidates: State Rep. Timothy Ramthun (R) and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R)
- Primary election: Aug. 9
At the state GOP convention, the party declined to endorse any one candidate. Trump has also not endorsed in this race, but the four main Republican candidates have all embraced the “Big Lie” to differing extents. Most alarming, state Rep. Timothy Ramthun (R) is running on a platform of “decertifying” Wisconsin’s 2020 election results and reinstalling Trump as president. Frontrunner Rebecca Kleefisch, who served as lieutenant governor of Wisconsin under former Gov. Scott Walker (R), has also expressed doubt about Biden’s 2020 win and filed a lawsuit last November to ban drop boxes in the state.
Ramthun and Kleefisch, as well as the two other candidates Tim Michels and Kevin Nicholson, have all called for the disbandment of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC). The Wisconsin secretary of state does not serve as the chief elections official, with authority instead vested within the WEC, a bipartisan six member body. After the WEC made pandemic-related voting changes in 2020 and certified Biden’s win in the state, the commission has become the target of Republican ire.
In contrast, incumbent Gov. Tony Evers (D) has vetoed dozens of bills that would have restricted voting or handed partisan actors more election control. Evers is seeking re-election after a narrow win in 2018 and withstanding the full force of the GOP after another narrow, but crucial, win for Biden in 2020. “When democracy is on the line, I’m going to speak up,” said Evers, contrasting this fortitude with his mild-mannered image. “You have to.”
Keep a close eye on several other states.
In other states, Republican candidates haven’t campaigned on the explicit platform of overturning election results in the same way as Lake or Mastriano. But, Trump’s stamp of approval and a fervent push for voter fraud-driven laws still leaves much to worry about for the fate of future elections.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) narrowly won his election in 2018. This year, the path for Democrats is less clear with no frontrunner in the field. DeSantis, who has been working hard to make his name known on a national stage, refused to say whether the 2020 election was “stolen” but enthusiastically championed other pillars of the “Big Lie.” DeSantis signed Florida’s 2021 voter suppression law, requested a special police force to monitor elections and brazenly targeted the voting power of Black Floridians in a redistricting power grab. Similar to Pennsylvania, the governor in Florida has the authority to appoint the secretary of state.
In a test of Trump’s endorsing power, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue (R) was readily defeated in his primary election for governor last Tuesday (two other Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidates have also lost in Idaho and Nebraska). Instead, incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp (R) won with 73% of the vote to Perdue’s 22%. Kemp defended the 2020 election results, while Perdue’s entire revenge campaign was based on the belief that “the election in 2020 was rigged and stolen.”
It was a win against election deniers, but not a win against vote suppressors. Let’s not forget, Kemp signed Georgia’s massive 2021 voter suppression law and in his former role as secretary of state, improperly purged thousands of voters from the rolls in advance of his 2018 contest against Stacey Abrams (D), a voting rights champion and founder of Fair Fight, an organization dedicated to fighting voter suppression. He now faces a rematch with Abrams this November.
Gov. Laura Kelly (D) is a unique incumbent candidate — a Democratic governor in a deep red state. Kelly has tried her best to be the bulwark against bad voting laws and gerrymandered maps, though she is often overtaken by the veto-proof Republican majority in the Legislature. Kelly is unopposed in her Aug. 2 primary and will likely face Trump-endorsed candidate, Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R). As the state’s lead lawyer, Schmidt signaled Kansas’ support for a Texas-led challenge asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn 2020 election results in four swing states.
Five of the 10 Republican candidates vying for governor will be removed from the ballot because of invalid signatures, including two leading candidates. A report released by the Michigan Bureau of Elections on May 23 reveals how they identified 36 petition circulators who likely submitted fraudulent petitions. The Detroit News reported that this left the Michigan Republican Party “without their most well-known candidate, [James] Craig, and without their wealthiest hopeful, [Perry] Johnson.”
Trump has not yet endorsed, but a fractured Republican field may give an opening to incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). Whitmer has described herself as “the last line of defense,” vetoing restrictive voting laws and defending fair and free elections in the state.
Incumbent Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) is running for re-election. As governor, he built upon the temporary 2020 reforms by signing legislation making mail-in voting permanent. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is the frontrunner in a crowded Republican primary with upwards of 15 candidates (Clark County includes Las Vegas). Lombardo has Trump’s endorsement and more than double the funds than any other Republican challenger, but not the backing of the Nevada Republican Party. Lombardo has stated that the 2020 election was not stolen and that President Joe Biden is the duly elected president, but a matchup between Sisolak and Lombardo is projected to be extremely close.
In Texas, the Trump-endorsed incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott (R) will face former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) in November. The stakes are high on all issues, including democracy. Abbott pushed for an audit immediately after Trump requested one and championed Texas’ voter suppression law. “In a cynical ploy to maintain power and shield himself from the will of the people, Greg Abbott has made Texas the hardest state in which to register to vote and cast a ballot,” writes O’Rourke on his campaign website, offering a different vision.