Pro-Trump candidates running for governor in critical battleground states are confronting a familiar problem shared by their House and Senate counterparts, as they risk alienating voters with some of their hard-line views.
In states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Michigan, Republican gubernatorial candidates have tacked to the right on issues ranging from abortion to the 2020 election, while making no secret about embracing former President Trump.
But those hard-right stances threaten to cost them in November, when they might need more moderate swing voters to pull them over the finish line.
“When you have candidates who essentially aren’t helping themselves by staking out either extreme positions or extreme positions on weird issues that only speak to a real core Trump part of the base, it’s not a surprise that there are going to be struggles,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
Arizona’s Kari Lake and Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano are among the high-profile Republican gubernatorial candidates who have drawn scrutiny for their backing of Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election. Their abortion stances have also raised concerns, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade — a decision that has galvanized pro-abortion rights voters.
Another Republican who has drawn fresh scrutiny over her abortion views is Tudor Dixon, who’s running against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in November. In an interview with Fox 2 Detroit last month, Dixon said she only backed abortion exceptions if the life of the mother is jeopardized. She has also suggested that rape victims could experience “healing” through having a forced birth. When contacted, a spokesperson for Dixon’s campaign referred The Hill to the candidate’s past remarks on the 2020 election and abortion, adding, “If you ever want to talk about critical issues facing Michiganders we’d be happy to have a conversation.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon appears at a primary election party in Grand Rapids, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Meanwhile, in the Maryland gubernatorial race, GOP candidate Dan Cox criticized the Mar-a-Lago search conducted by the FBI and said in a fundraising email that if he were elected governor, he would “use the 9th and 10th Amendments, the Maryland Constitution and Declaration of Rights, the [Maryland State Police] and Maryland Guard to stand against all rogue actions of this out of control tyrannical Biden administration with fierce tenacity,” according to The Washington Post. Cox, speaking to The Hill, said he wasn’t concerned that the fundraising email’s messaging could turn off voters.
Still, some in the party are questioning the candidates’ viability come November, when they’ll go before a broader swath of the public.
“People are looking for good judgment and good sense and good decisionmaking out of governors,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said, adding later, “Anything that casts doubt on the judgment or the common sense of a gubernatorial candidate undermines that candidate’s potential to get elected governor.”
Ayres suggested that far-right stances on abortion in particular could be a liability for candidates in the general election.
“Any candidate who is adopting an abortion ban that does not include exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother is standing well outside the mainstream of virtually every state,” he said. “A position on abortion that is well outside the mainstream of most voters’ thinking is going to be a liability in a general election campaign.”
Mastriano is among the candidates who has taken a hard-line position on abortion in the past, proposing a ban on the procedure after six weeks.
One Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said that positions on issues like the 2020 election had the potential to factor more heavily in gubernatorial races than in other races.
“I do think in a gubernatorial race, there’s a little greater vulnerability on those issues, just because you’re almost looking for somebody that’s more of a local partner with you rather than a representative … that you’re sending abroad,” the strategist said, noting the difference between how voters view Senate and gubernatorial races.
Another Republican operative cast doubt on the idea that these hard-line stances would matter in the gubernatorial contests, arguing the bigger factor was a lack of ad spending on behalf of some of these candidates.
The stakes for gubernatorial races are high. As chief executives, governors determine the political priorities in their state, have veto power in considering legislation and, in some states like Pennsylvania, appoint the secretary of state to oversee elections.
A number of the races appear tight heading into November. An Emerson College Polling survey out of Arizona released earlier this month showed both Lake and her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, receiving 46 percent support from very likely general election voters in the state, falling within the poll’s margin of error.
Billy Grant, chief strategist for Lake’s campaign, said the campaign wasn’t concerned that her views of the 2020 election could impact her chances of getting elected, adding it wasn’t an issue that came up among reporters and in Democratic messaging.
Grant said that “since the primary she’s been very disciplined, she still gives her opinion but she also is talking about her opponent who’s not willing to debate her, and people have kind of moved on to the general election and kind of that dynamic.”
In other races, Republican candidates appear to be struggling to make headway against their Democratic opponents. In Maryland, where Cox defeated primary rival Kelly Schultz, who was backed by current Gov. Larry Hogan (R), polls show Democratic candidate Wes Moore with a substantial lead. A survey from Goucher College, The Baltimore Banner and WYPR released this week showed Cox receiving 31 percent support compared to 53 percent support for Moore.
Dan Cox, a candidate for the Maryland Republican gubernatorial nomination, speaks during the gubernatorial forum, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022, in Ocean City, Md. (AP Photo/Todd Dudek)
“If it was Kelly Schultz, who isn’t running on some of these more kind of bizarre Trump-like issues, it’s a very real race. And instead, this is a slam dunk for Wes Moore,” Heye, the GOP strategist, said.
The Democratic Governors Association, which has aired ads targeting candidates in states like Illinois and Maryland, are betting that some of those controversial stances will turn off voters. Their political director, Marshall Cohen, said “it’s a kind of widespread issue among Republicans running for governor who take these extreme positions that are out of touch with mainstream voters.”
But Joanna Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association, argued that voters care more about kitchen table issues.
“The moderate and independent voters needed to build winning coalitions in competitive gubernatorial races are worried about the economy, crime, border crisis, and education,” Rodriguez said.
“And those are exactly the issues Republican candidates are traveling their states talking to voters about,” she added. “Any insinuation otherwise is just a desperate attempt to distract voters from Democrats’ complete record of failure and lack of solutions to these top concerns.”