“All politics is local,” declared former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and rarely was that more true than in Tuesday’s midterm elections. Despite all the focus on high-profile Senate races in Pennsylvania and Georgia and the still-decided race for the House, races for governor and local state officials provided perhaps the most compelling insight into the mood of the American people – a preference for prowess over intense partisanship.
While all the votes have yet to be tallied, it appears that only one incumbent governor has lost his seat: Nevada Democrat Steve Sisolak. In Massachusetts and Maryland, two seats flipped as voters moved from moderate, limited-term Republicans to Democratic candidates. As the vote continues to be counted in Arizona, Democrat Katie Hobbs, the Secretary of State, looks like she will narrowly hold off former TV host and 2020 election denier Kari Lake (another potential red-to-blue flip for Democrats) .
But overall it was a great night for incumbents – of all political persuasions. In Vermont, one of the country’s bluest states, Republican Governor Phil Scott won another term by 47 points, while at the same time Democrat Peter Welch won an open U.S. Senate seat by 40 points. A similar dynamic played out in neighboring New Hampshire, where Republican Governor Chris Sununu was running for reelection even as Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan easily won reelection.
In ruby Kansas, Democratic Governor Laura Kelly won another four years, and incumbent Republican Senator Jerry Moran defeated his outmatched Democratic opponent by 23 points. In Georgia, Herschel Walker narrowly trailed incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock, but notably fared five points worse than his GOP ticket mate, incumbent Governor Brian Kemp. Elsewhere, major state governors such as Ron DeSantis in Florida, Mike DeWine in Ohio, Greg Abbott in Texas, JB Pritzker in Illinois, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, and Gavin Newsom in California each scored double-digit reelection victories.
For the vast majority of voters, it seems, partisanship was no match for experience and know-how — even if it meant splitting their ticket between Democrats and Republicans.
Elsewhere, far-right gubernatorial candidates fared particularly poorly. In Pennsylvania, a race to replace term-limited governor Tom Wolf was easily won by Democrat Josh Shapiro over MAGA-embracing, election-denying, and possibly abortion-criminalizing Doug Mastriano. In Maryland, after eight years of GOP control of the governor’s mansion, Trump-backed Republican nominee, Dan Cox, lost to Democrat Wes Moore by a whopping 27 points. In Wisconsin, Democratic Governor Tony Evers won another four-year term by beating Tim Michels, yet another Trump-backed election denier.
Perhaps the most extreme candidate for state office, Kari Lake, is on the brink of defeat (as the votes are still being counted in Arizona). While Lake was more flashy, telegenetic, and effective with a soundbite compared to her buttoned-up opponent, it seems her abrasive public personae, extreme stances, and brazen election denial were too much of a letdown for Arizona voters. Or maybe voters simply preferred the workhorse to the showhorse.
Governor candidates are not like senate or house aspirants. If they’re not up to the task, voters will not only catch on quickly, they’ll likely feel it. A senator is one in a hundred. A governor has to do things like run an entire state government.
It hardly seems coincidental that after the COVID pandemic, which tested the country’s governors like few other public officials, voters were more interested in competence and experience at the helm of state government than in ideology and intense partisanship.
In the months following the onset of COVID, governors saw an almost universal spike in approval ratings (ironically, the only one to see their numbers drop initially was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis). Two years later, it turns out that voters at the polling booth later thanked them, or at least realized the dangers of handing the keys of state government to less-than-qualified candidates.
Notably, one of the few governors of a major state to underperform was New York’s Kathy Hochul, who took a narrow five-point victory. However, she took office in 2021, after the worst part of the pandemic had passed — and after much of the credit for the state’s response went to her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo.
And it wasn’t just at the top of the state government. It was a rough night for the GOP election deniers who ran for secretarial posts on Tuesday. They all lost in the six crucial battlefield states where Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election results.
In Michigan and Pennsylvania, voters appear to have flipped the state’s major legislative chambers from red to blue (in Michigan, both the House and Senate swapped, and in Pennsylvania only the state assembly, though the outcome is still pending). In both states, the state GOP has been taken over by the extremist wing of the party. In Arizona — a once solid red state, but one in which the GOP has increasingly adopted the conspiratorial thinking of the far right — Democrats appear poised to win four major statewide elections: senator, governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. In fact, Democrats across the country did not lose a single state legislature in this election. That has not happened to an incumbent party in 88 years.
This is perhaps the most positive outcome of the 2022 election. After years of seemingly unmanageable political polarization, just enough voters took a deep breath on this Election Day and rejected the candidates who not only undermine American Democratic institutions, but also do the most to divide Americans. That’s good news for Democrats… but also good news for democracy.