Democrats eye key gubernatorial races as bulwark against GOP

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers was in a familiar place earlier this month when Republican lawmakers sent him a bill that would have banned anti-racism teachings in schools. For the 66th time since taking office in 2019, he took out his veto pen.

The rejection was the latest reminder of the crucial role Evers and a select group of fellow Democratic governors play in some of the most politically divided states. They are the only bulwark against a wave of GOP-backed legislation targeting everything from abortion rights and school curricula to voting access.

“I have to prevent really bad things from happening,” Evers said in an interview. “It’s a little lonely, but I know I represent the people of Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin is one of four states emerging as top priorities for Democrats in an election year where the party faces strong political headwinds. In those states — Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Republicans control state legislatures, and Democratic-held governors are on the ballot in the fall.

If the governorships switch parties, a stream of GOP legislation that has so far stalled would likely become law. This is of particular concern for Democrats when it comes to voting rights. The four incumbents — Evers, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf — have vetoed more than a dozen vote-restricting bills.

These moves were particularly prominent in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, all tightly divided states that could decide the 2024 presidential election. If Republicans win the gubernatorial race in any of these states, they will will almost certainly approve of the voting restrictions that have so far been voted down.

In Wisconsin, for example, the legislature is fast-tracking a host of bills changing election administration and voting rules, which Evers is expected to veto but which other Republican gubernatorial candidates support.

Governors also have an important role in the mechanics of presidential elections — under federal law, voters who they believe reflect their state’s winners get extra clout in any fight in Congress to certify the choice of the next president. . This means that in more extreme scenarios, GOP governors could seek to throw out Democratic voters in a presidential race, a step as President Donald Trump has pressed some Republicans to take in 2020.

Many GOP candidates vying for governor this year have voiced support for Trump’s lie that the last election was stolen. In Wisconsin last week, state Rep. Timothy Ramthun, a conspiracy theorist who was disciplined by Republican leaders for false election claims, filed papers to run for governor.

Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general said there was no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president’s fraud allegations have also been flatly dismissed by the courts, including by Trump-appointed judges.

Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, head of the Democratic Governors Association, said the four governors are “standing against Republican legislatures’ attacks on the franchise.”

Cooper, who is also fighting a Republican legislature, said governors “protect the foundations of our democracy.”

Republicans argue that Democrats are stonewalling and simply refuse to work with the party that controls their state legislatures.

“An inability to work effectively with their legislature, regardless of party control, will ultimately be viewed by voters as a leadership failure,” said Phil Cox, Republican strategist and former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Democrats are not limiting their work this year to protecting their position in the four states in question. They also hope to clinch Republican-held seats in states like Georgia, Massachusetts and Maryland.

But the DGA is stepping up its opposition research efforts on Republican candidates in Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And the Democratic candidates themselves are sitting on big campaign accounts.

At the end of 2021, Evers had about $10 million while Josh Schapiro, the likely Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania governor, had $16 million, according to state campaign records. In Kansas, Kelly is expected to have a tougher re-election bid than in 2018, when she won in a three-way race. She had $2 million at the end of last year.

And in Michigan, Whitmer was sitting on $10 million. An independent spending group affiliated with the DGA also ran a pro-Whitmer ad in Michigan worth about $200,000 in December and January.

Whitmer has vetoed several bills that would make it harder to vote, defeating nine such measures in October alone.

“Governor. Whitmer is the safety net in a world where if Republicans controlled the legislative chambers and the governor’s office in any of these states, disenfranchisement would automatically become law,” said Patrick Schuh , Michigan director of advocacy for Democratic-leaning voter access group America Votes.

One measure would have added additional identification requirements for mail-in ballot requests and prevented the state’s top election official from widely sending ballot requests by mail. Republicans have been forced to try to end Whitmer by attempting a ballot initiative, an initiative Schuh’s group hopes to counter with its own.

In Pennsylvania, Wolf has blocked similar efforts, vetoing a massive bill that would also have reduced the days mail-in ballot drop boxes would be open. Wolf, who is completing his second four-year term, is not seeking re-election, but Shapiro backs his vetoes.

These Democrats have some advantages that could help them politically this year, including solid budget surpluses, state revenues that have exceeded dire pandemic forecasts, and billions in federal COVID-19 aid and emergency funding. incoming infrastructure.

In Wisconsin, Evers has plans for the state’s largest budget surplus, $3 billion, including childcare tax credits for working families and similar credits for volunteer caregivers. full-time for the elderly and at home, measures he sees as a smart use of extra cash at a difficult time. With the flatness of low expectations, the mild-mannered former public school superintendent said he hopes Republicans “take a look at it.”

“I think Republicans will have a hard time saying no to that. But they’ve done it before,” Evers said. “Whatever number I vetoed pales in comparison to the number I’m going to put.”


Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.

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