Among the 36 governor’s seats up for grabs this midterm election, nearly two dozen are election deniers—those who refuse to admit Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election.
Their campaigns could impact this year’s election if they lose—and will almost certainly impact future elections if they win.
Voters Choose Governors Differently Than Senators
When it comes to gubernatorial versus congressional candidates, voters are more likely to split their ballot, Jessica Taylor, U.S. Senate & Governors Editor at The Cook Political Report, tells Political IQ. “With the Governor you can vote for the person. The party doesn’t matter as much because neither side gets anything special if they oppose governors in the country.”
On the other hand, she says, “Increasingly we do see voters wanting to control the Senate, especially when it’s in play like it is this year.”
To that extent, she points out that there are 11 governors whose party affiliation differs from its state’s most recent Presidential election result.
Further, while voters’ top concerns remain the economy and inflation, there are other issues that weigh just as heavily or nearly so when ballots are cast for governor. However, those issues vary from state to state.
Abortion, for example, “has been a big issue in the Michigan governor’s race,” notes Taylor, “although there is an abortion referendum question on the ballot in that state, too. But it hasn’t been as big of an issue in a state like Nevada where abortion rights have been codified into the state Constitution.”
Meanwhile, she adds, “in the Oregon governor’s race, one of the things driving that really unique three-way race is a ballooning homelessness crisis in Portland. And that leads into crime and many different things.
“So it’s really hard. You can’t paint all of these races with a broad brush because there are all of these individual state issues versus Senate races being more about national issues.”
Election Deniers Running in 20 States
And with all of this going on, there are 22 election deniers running for governor in 20 states. All are Republicans, and among them six are incumbent governors, eleven are challenging incumbents—including three Republicans who are challenging incumbent Republicans—and five are in open seats.
Cook Political Report’s gubernatorial analysis finds six deniers in states that are solidly or likely to go to a Republican (including the three who are challenging incumbent Republicans). Another four states are solidly or likely to go to a Democrat—including two deniers challenging Michigan’s incumbent Democrat—with one other state leaning Democratic.
Four more states are toss-ups, according to Cook. Of those, one has an open seat (Arizona) where the current governor is Republican. The other three—Kansas, Oregon and Wisconsin—are all currently held by Democrats.
“Democrats haven’t lost an incumbent since 2014, and I would not be surprised if that streak stops this year,” says Taylor. “And I think it’s quite probable that Republicans are not going to lose any incumbents.”
Will Election Deniers Raise a Stink if They Lose?
But what if incumbent governors who are election deniers do actually lose in November? Or, more likely, if Republican challengers to Republican incumbents don’t win? Are they likely to concede when they’re still in denial over 2020?
Robert Y. Shapiro, Professor of Political Science and International & Public Affairs at Columbia University and award-winning member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), says this is a key question.
“It’s the Republican incumbent governor whose bureaucracy is basically overseeing the election,” he notes. “And so how that candidate would make the case that there is voter fraud or miscounting the vote for an election apparatus that he or she is in charge of would be completely ridiculous.”
He also sees potential for a lot of “sour grapes,” mentioning, for example, election-denying gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. “If Lake loses in Arizona, she’s probably going to scream bloody murder there. But you’re talking, again, about a state that has a Republican governor to begin with.”
Deniers’ Challenges Not Likely to Hold Up
The election deniers’ arguments, says Shapiro, will be advanced against one of the most heavily monitored elections ever. And that’s coming off the heels of 2020, which the Department of Homeland Security has deemed the most secure in our nation’s history.
“You have to keep in mind that the operations of counting the vote are basically boring, clerical tasks. People are just following standard procedures,” says Shapiro. “And there could be the possibility of the occasional clerical errors or computer glitches or stuff like that, but there’s no evidence anywhere of anything systematic going on. And this go ’round it’s going to be very difficult to make claims about that because the scrutiny that these election administration operations will be getting is going to be extraordinary.”
Implications for 2024 Presidential Elections and Beyond
Shapiro sees complications stretching beyond this year’s elections. For instance, the bill to reform the Electoral Count Act that’s currently making its way through the Senate—meant to prevent another January 6-type challenge to our Presidential elections—would put the certification of a state’s electors solely in the hands of the Governor.
He finds this problematic because it’s the governor who makes the judgment call about whether something has gone wrong in the election administration process.
“The question is, what happens with the electors?” he asks. “The Constitution says it’s the state legislatures that determine the way selecting electors may be selected.” And if, after the people have voted, a governor “were to make some kind of dramatic change at the last minute and come up with a new set of electors,” that’s sure to end up in the courts.
And on top of vote-counting issues, Shapiro sees governors making decisions—many of which are “based on racial profiling and things like that”—that lead to voter suppression.
“The governor decides to designate people to challenge voters on whatever grounds the governor wants to make up, or allow outside groups to come in to make challenges,” he notes. “You’ve already seen cases where voters were challenged for trying to vote early but they had to vote provisional ballots. There’s been a lot of scrutiny on what grounds those challenges were being made. And the governor could decide how much or how little to encourage challenges.”
But the bottom line for this year, he says, “I think it’s going to be a lot clearer that the election is free and fair. And if the losers want to be sore losers again, well, we’ll have to see what they want to do. But probably if they go to court nothing’s going to happen.”