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Incumbent Governors Coast to Victory Across the Country

Sarah Huckabee Sanders celebrates during her election night party
Arkansas Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders celebrates with family during her election night party Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Little Rock, Ark.
(AP Photo/Will Newton)

Not a single incumbent had been defeated as of Wednesday morning. Both parties believe they've found new stars among the freshmen, including Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Democrat Wes Moore.

After barely winning the Florida governor’s office four years ago, Republican Ron DeSantis won a crushing re-election victory on Tuesday, outpacing Democrat Charlie Crist by a 20 percentage point margin. His supporters celebrated his big win at his victory party by chanting “two more years,” in reference to his likely 2024 presidential bid. “We not only won an election, we have rewritten the political map,” DeSantis boasted.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waves to supporters while holding his daughter
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waves to supporters while holding his daughter, Mamie, during his election night victory party at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday.
(Luis Santana/TNS)
DeSantis’ success was emblematic of the performance of incumbent governors across the country. No incumbent governor had lost as of Wednesday morning. In Nevada, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak trails Republican Joe Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff, but many mail ballots are outstanding and the result may not be known until the end of the week.

Democrats were thrilled with the performance of governors who started the year looking embattled. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer not only won but led the party to its first legislative majorities in 40 years, thanks also to more favorable maps drawn by an independent commission. "Holy mackerel, folks!" Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers tweeted after narrowly winning re-election.

If Arizona's Democratic secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, holds onto her lead over Republican Kari Lake, a former broadcaster, that will represent another flip for the Democrats, since Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is term-limited.

Many governors, like DeSantis, ran ahead of the Senate nominees from their own party. Their number included GOP Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, who once again defeated Democratic former legislator Stacey Abrams.

Incumbent defeats are rare. In 2018, only two sitting governors were unseated. Four years earlier, only three lost. Republicans went into this Election Day with a 28-22 lead among governors, but as of Wednesday their lead had been trimmed to 26-24, pending Arizona, Nevada and other uncalled races out West.

Governors who looked like they might have been in trouble this year, including Oklahoma Republican Kevin Stitt and New York Democrat Kathy Hochul, ultimately came out ahead, thanks to the partisan leans of their states. But governors from states where their parties can’t hope to compete in federal races, such as Republican Phil Scott in Vermont, also won. “You do see, in some cases, voters willing to vote in a different way for governor than for Senate,” says James Nash of ROKK Solutions, a nonpartisan public policy consulting firm.

With nearly all the vote counted in Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly led Republican state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, 49.2 to 47.4 percent. “Kelly has maintained her personal connection with voters well enough to make a difficult race competitive,” Neal Allen, a political scientist at Wichita State University, said Tuesday night.

The only certain flips in partisan control as of Wednesday morning were Maryland and Massachusetts. Democrats were always expected to win seats in those blue states, which were left open by Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker, both popular moderate Republicans. The two states now become Democratic trifectas, with the party controlling both the governorship and both legislative chambers.

In Maryland, former nonprofit executive Wes Moore became the state’s first African American governor and just the third elected to lead any state (following Douglas Wilder in Virginia in 1989 and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts in 2006). State Attorney General Maura Healey became the first woman governor in Massachusetts — and the first openly gay woman elected anywhere. “The Legislature wants to work with her,” says Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant. “They have not had the opportunity to work with a Democratic governor [for the last eight years].”

In addition to DeSantis, other Republicans with apparent presidential ambitions won fresh terms.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott waves to supporters gathered to hear his victory speech on Nov. 8, 2022
Joined by his daughter, Audrey Abbott, and wife, Cecilia Abbott, Texas Governor Greg Abbott waves to supporters gathered to hear his victory speech at a watch party held outside Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, Texas, November 8, 2022.
(Tom Fox/TNS)
In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott outlasted an expensive challenge brought by former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, taking a third term. South Dakota's Kristi Noem, another narrow 2018 winner, easily won her re-election race.

Democratic governors with obvious national ambitions — Gavin Newsom of California and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois — both won their races. In Pennsylvania, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro will succeed term-limited Democrat Tom Wolf.

Some Historic Firsts

There was never any suspense in Arkansas. Sarah Huckabee Sanders — the daughter of former GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee and the first White House press secretary under President Donald Trump — was the heavy favorite from the time she entered the race last year.

“She’s a household name in the state on the Huckabee side,” says political scientist Hal Bass, who taught Sanders at Ouachita Baptist University. “When you add to that the fact that she had Trump’s endorsement and was identified with him in such a clear and formidable way, she was just head and shoulders above the field. Beyond that, she’s actually quite capable.”

Sanders’ victory represents a series of firsts. The Huckabees are the first father-daughter duo in U.S. history to govern a state. (Kathleen Sebelius served as governor of Kansas a decade ago, while her father John Gilligan served in Ohio during the 1970s.) Sanders is also the first Republican to succeed another Republican — term-limited Asa Hutchinson — in Arkansas since Reconstruction.

Arkansas and Massachusetts become the first states to have women serving together as governor and lieutenant governor. Massachusetts will now have women holding five of the six constitutional offices.

If their current leads hold, a dozen women will end up serving as governor — shattering the previous record of nine women governors at any time. The major-party candidates in Arizona and Oregon, which have not been called, are all women. Democrats are ahead in both races.

Denying Election Deniers

In Pennsylvania, Shapiro was able to defeat state Sen. Doug Mastriano, running on two favorite Democratic themes this year — abortion and voting rights. Mastriano recently sued the House Jan. 6 committee over its investigation of his role in the assault on the Capitol. In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of the commonwealth, who is the top election official.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, defeated her Republican rival Kristina Karamo, a 2020 election denier. Minnesota's secretary of state, Democrat Steve Simon, defeated Kim Crockett, another denier. Democrat Adrian Fontes was leading GOP election denier Mark Finchem in Arizona’s secretary of state race, with 62 percent of the votes reported.

In Indiana, Republican Diego Morales, a one-time aide to former Vice President Mike Pence, won election as secretary of state. He unseated Holli Sullivan at the state GOP convention in June and had been pummeled in the state press for having called the 2020 election a “scam.”

Texas GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton has been dogged by legal and political troubles throughout most of his tenure, but he won a third term with 54 percent of the vote. Kris Kobach — the controversial former Kansas secretary of state who lost to Laura Kelly four years ago — held a 3 percentage point lead over Democrat Chris Mann in the Sunflower State’s attorney general race. In Kansas, mail ballots will be accepted through Monday, if they were postmarked by Election Day.

Democrat Tom Miller is the longest-serving state attorney general in U.S. history, having held the post in Iowa for 40 of the last 44 years. He trails Brenna Bird, a Republican county prosecutor, by 1.6 percent with most of the vote counted.

This story has been updated. Governing's election coverage will continue this week as remaining races are called. For more analysis, subscribe to our politics newsletter, Inside Politics: State & Local with Alan Greenblatt.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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