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Notes on the State of Politics: Sept. 28, 2022

Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features short updates on elections and politics.

The Editors

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating changes

Governor Old Rating New Rating
Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) Leans Democratic Likely Democratic
PA Open (Wolf, D) Leans Democratic Likely Democratic

Michigan and Pennsylvania to Likely Democratic

With just under 6 weeks to go until Election Day 2022, Democrats’ prospects of holding 2 Great Lakes region governorships are improving. We are moving the contests in Michigan and Pennsylvania from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic — both races feature proven Democratic candidates running against controversial and underfunded Republicans.

We’ll start in Pennsylvania, where the gap in candidate quality between the major-party nominees is one of the biggest of any statewide contest this cycle.

With Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) term-limited, Democrats fielded, perhaps, their strongest possible nominee in state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. In 2016, Shapiro got enough crossover support from Donald Trump’s voters to hold the state’s open Attorney General contest for Democrats. In 2020, as Republicans flipped the state Auditor and Treasurer offices, Shapiro outperformed Joe Biden by a few points (Pennsylvania elects most of its statewide row officers in presidential years).

In their May primary, Republicans nominated far-right state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who was already a divisive figure: He was at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, and called for the 2020 election to be overturned. More recently, a picture of Mastriano wearing a Confederate uniform surfaced — the Shapiro campaign is using that to further portray their opponent as an enemy of democracy. The fact that Mastriano currently represents Gettysburg in the state Senate made his Confederate garb all the more ironic.

As with many states, the Supreme Court’s late-June Dobbs decision has made abortion access a more salient campaign issue. Though Pennsylvania was known for electing the late Gov. Bob Casey Sr., a vocally anti-abortion Democrat, the Keystone State seems to be on the more pro-abortion rights side of the spectrum today — and the Shapiro campaign has tried to capitalize on that in its messaging. Earlier this week, Democrats were given yet another gift: when he was discussing a piece of legislation in a 2019 interview, Mastriano maintained that murder charges would be an appropriate consequence for women who opt to have abortions.

Not surprisingly, Shapiro has cast his opponent as a dangerous extremist in his ads. It is hard to find any Mastriano ads to mention, mostly because his campaign hasn’t run any on TV so far. Pennsylvania is not a cheap state, and Shapiro has outraised Mastriano by a factor of about 8-to-1 since June. According to AdImpact, which tracks campaign spending, while the pro-GOP Commonwealth Leaders Fund has spent nearly $8 million — but the Shapiro campaign has spent over 4 times that so far. In the meantime, Shapiro has been rolling out cross-party endorsements from Republicans.

Earlier this summer, in what was a somewhat surprising dynamic, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee in the state’s closely-watched Senate contest, often polled better than Shapiro (although both were ahead in their respective races). In more recent polling, Shapiro generally seems to be the better-performing Democrat: in a Marist poll released yesterday, Shapiro leads Mastriano 53%-40%, while Fetterman leads his opponent, television doctor Mehmet Oz (R), by a slightly lesser 51%-41% margin. On Monday, a poll from Insider Advantage showed a wider gap: that firm had Fetterman up by just 3, but Shapiro was up by 15.

The higher-stakes nature of the Senate race may be contributing to that movement: with the chamber split 50-50, Senate control could well hinge on the Pennsylvania result, and the parties are spending accordingly. When asked about potential plans to spend in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who co-chairs the Republican Governors Association, replied “We don’t fund lost causes and we don’t fund landslides.” Reading between the lines, we’d guess that Mastriano’s contest, from the GOP perspective, falls into the former category.

If Shapiro wins in November, he would make some history: the last time Democrats strung together 3 consecutive gubernatorial wins in Pennsylvania was in the 1840s — at the time, their main competition was from Whig Party candidates (the GOP was established in 1854). A stronger nominee would have likely enabled Republicans to mount a better effort in this key, open seat race. But Mastriano appears to be sputtering.

Moving to the center of the Great Lakes region, Michigan’s gubernatorial contest has developed a lot like Pennsylvania’s.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) got some national exposure during the summer of 2020. While she received some buzz as a potential Democratic choice for vice president, at home, Republicans were critical of her COVID lockdown measures — and they criticized her for, at times, not following those guidelines herself. But as this 2022 race shaped up, Republicans failed to come up with a top-tier challenger. Tudor Dixon, a conservative radio personality, won the GOP nomination in August, due in part to her support from the wealthy DeVos family. This came after several other candidates were disqualified from the ballot over signature-gathering problems — although none of those other contenders seemed obviously strong.

Since Dixon emerged as the GOP nominee, we have seen few indications that she has made headway against Whitmer. According to FiveThirtyEight’s poll database, the only recent survey that showed the race within single-digits was from the GOP-leaning Trafalgar Group. As with Shapiro, ad spending has been heavily slanted in Whitmer’s favor: according to AdImpact, the Whitmer campaign and pro-Democratic groups have outspent conservative forces by more than 8-to-1.

On the campaign trail, Dixon recently came under fire for joking about a 2020 conspiracy where militants aimed to kidnap Whitmer (as we said, opposition to her social distancing measures was fierce in some quarters). Meanwhile, Whitmer seems to be making shrewd use of her incumbency. She is emphasizing the benefits that the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act will bring to Michigan — earlier this month, Whitmer signed executive directives aimed at, among other things, lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

With these 2 changes in mind, Map 1 shows the national gubernatorial picture.

Map 1: Crystal Ball 2022 gubernatorial ratings

Our Leans Democratic category is now down to 3 states: Maine, Minnesota, and New Mexico. All 3 feature Democratic incumbents running for reelection in Biden-won states. None of those states will have Senate races on the ballot in the fall, so the Democratic governors will be responsible for leading the ticket in each. Of this trio, Republicans have seemed most excited about New Mexico, although Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) has consistently led 2020 Senate nominee Mark Ronchetti (R) in polling. Govs. Tim Walz (D-MN) and Janet Mills (D-ME) have led their rivals, too.

Since May, the sole state occupying our Leans Republican category has been Georgia. Compared to his 2018 bout with former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D), Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) has incumbency and a redder national environment on his side, although Georgia may be a fundamentally bluer state today than it was 4 years ago. Kemp, unlike the GOP’s nominee for Senate, Herschel Walker, may be seen as a bit more “independent” of Trump, which also seems to be working in his favor: While Walker and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) very well may end up in a runoff, the last several surveys put Kemp at or over the 50% mark needed for an outright win.

Yesterday, Kemp hosted an event with Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) in Alpharetta, a suburban community just north of Atlanta. Youngkin’s formula for winning in the Crystal Ball’s home state last year was pairing heavy rural turnout with suburban numbers that were better than Trump’s — it seems like Kemp, at minimum, can count on the latter.

The bottom line is that none of our current leaners seem close to being legitimate Toss-ups — but the states that are Toss-ups in Map 1 all appear to remain very close and competitive.