Home runs? Executive power may lure some from House

Based on history, at least a half-dozen members will run for governor

South Dakota Republican Kristi Noem was one of nine House members who ran for governor in 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
South Dakota Republican Kristi Noem was one of nine House members who ran for governor in 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 23, 2021 at 10:30am

While Washington is navigating a narrowly divided Congress and looking ahead to inevitable midterm battles for the House and Senate majorities, the vast majority of states are bracing to elect a governor as well in 2022. And, according to recent history, at least a few House members will try to make the jump to the top statewide office.

Last year was a “down” cycle, when just 11 states hosted a gubernatorial election, compared to the 38 states that will elect a governor over the next two years, including New Jersey and Virginia this year. 

The 2021 races, along with an attempted recall of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, could offer some early clues about the first set of midterm elections in the post-Trump era. But the large number of statewide opportunities is likely to draw interest from members of Congress who are looking for a promotion, are tired of the division on Capitol Hill or have become casualties of the redistricting process.

Six to seven House Members, on average, have run for governor each time this large cycle has come up over the last 30 years. In 2002, the last time the large gubernatorial class aligned with a redistricting cycle, eight House members ran for governor, including Illinois Democrat Rod R. Blagojevich, Maryland Republican Robert L. Ehrlich, Tennessee Republican Van Hilleary, and Oklahoma Republican and legendary Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Steve Largent.

It’s still very early in this cycle, but at least a dozen House members are being mentioned as potential gubernatorial candidates. Florida Democrats Val B. Demings and Charlie Crist could run. Crist was previously elected governor of the Sunshine State as a Republican. Democrats David Trone and Anthony G. Brown are possibilities in Maryland, now that popular GOP Gov. Larry Hogan is term-limited. 

Republicans Lee Zeldin, Elise Stefanik or Tom Reed could run in New York, particularly if their seats are dramatically changed through redistricting. Arizona is likely to gain a district, but the governorship became more attractive to Democrats after Joe Biden carried the state in 2020 and with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey being term-limited and infighting within the state GOP. Democratic Reps. Greg Stanton and Ruben Gallego are mentioned as potential candidates.

All open House seats are not created equal or guaranteed to be competitive, but the primaries could be increasingly important and interesting as both parties wrestle with their future identities.

Overall, there are currently 27 Republican governors compared to 23 Democratic governors. Of the 38 governorships on the ballot over the next two years, 20 are held by Republicans and 18 by Democrats. Right now, nine of the 38 are races without an incumbent, but that number could shift a bit. 

In Rhode Island, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is term-limited, but Biden has also nominated her for Commerce secretary. Upon her confirmation and resignation, Lt. Gov. Dan McKee would ascend to the top slot. But that doesn’t mean he’ll have a clear path to the nomination and a full term.

The Ocean State is likely to lose a congressional district during reapportionment, which will make life complicated for its two Democratic congressmen: Jim Langevin and David Cicilline. Instead of facing each other in a primary, one of them could seek another office. 

While Raimondo was the first Democrat to be elected governor in Rhode Island since 1990, the state is not at particular risk of falling into the Republican column next year. There are seven vulnerable Democratic states on the initial 2022 battleground (Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin) and five vulnerable Republican ones (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and New Hampshire). 

Winning a majority of governorships doesn’t offer any extra power to the political parties, but if Washington continues to stall or punt on major policy decisions, having control of state government will become increasingly important.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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