By Julia Harte and Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - Thirty-six of the 50 states will elect governors in November's U.S. midterm elections. Though the races typically get less attention than the battle for control of Congress, they carry high stakes for issues such as abortion access, transgender rights, education and future elections in those states.
Here are 12 of the most consequential gubernatorial races to watch.
Widely seen as one of the closest gubernatorial races in the country, the contest for Arizona's open governorship pits Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, against former news anchor Kari Lake, a Republican.
Hobbs rose to national prominence in 2020 when she defended Arizona's election results against former President Donald Trump's false claims of fraud. Lake, who received Trump's endorsement, has embraced those claims and vowed to ban mail-in voting if she wins.
Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is seeking re-election for a second term in what is widely seen as a precursor to a presidential run in 2024. He has been at the forefront of a number of the country's partisan fights, bucking COVID-19 restrictions while backing a law limiting discussion of LGBTQ issues in the state's schools.
His opponent is Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who switched parties and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat. Crist has tried to appeal to moderate Republicans in a onetime political swing state that has tilted further to the right in recent years.
Republican Governor Brian Kemp faces Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams in a rematch of the state's close 2018 gubernatorial election. If elected, Abrams would be the first Black woman to serve as governor in the United States.
Her voter registration efforts are credited with helping President Joe Biden win Georgia in 2020 and two Democrats capture the state's U.S. Senate seats in 2021. Polls show the incumbent Kemp ahead in the current race, even after he upset Trump and his supporters by refusing the former president's entreaties to falsely declare Trump the winner in 2020.
Democratic Governor Laura Kelly is being challenged by Republican Derek Schmidt for the only governorship Democrats are defending in a state won by Trump in 2020.
Kelly has run on funding education and transportation infrastructure. Schmidt, the attorney general, has tried to link Kelly to Biden on issues such as inflation and transgender rights. Kelly could be helped by independent candidate Dennis Pyle, who is expected to take some of the conservative vote in the toss-up race.
Recent opinion polls show Maine Governor Janet Mills, a Democrat, leading her Republican opponent, Paul LePage, who served as governor of the state from 2011 to 2019.
LePage faced criticism during his time in office for making racially inflammatory and profane comments that led some state lawmakers to question his fitness to serve. In 2017, he sued Mills, then the state's attorney general, for joining a legal brief opposing Trump’s executive order to ban immigration from a half-dozen majority Muslim countries.
Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has made protecting abortion access in Michigan a central theme of her re-election campaign. Her Republican opponent, Trump-backed conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, supports a near-total ban on abortion, including for child victims of rape and incest.
A win by Dixon would mean total control of the state government by Republicans, who already have the majority of both legislative chambers. Whitmer, however, has maintained a sometimes double-digit lead over Dixon since she won the Republican nomination in August.
Incumbent Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, has emphasized the protection of legal abortion in his campaign for a second term.
He faces Republican Joe Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff and a former U.S. Army soldier who has run on supporting law enforcement and cutting public spending. Election analysts view the race as a toss-up.
Democratic incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham is running against Republican Mark Ronchetti, a former television weatherman.
Grisham has emphasized abortion rights, directing $10 million in state money to build an abortion clinic near the Texas border, while Ronchetti supports banning abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy. He has also attacked the governor over the economy and her response to wildfires.
With Democratic Governor Kate Brown legally barred from seeking a third consecutive term, the Oregon race pits Democrat Tina Kotek against Republican Christine Drazan and a strong independent candidate, Betsy Johnson, a former Democrat who is financially backed by Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
Kotek has run hard on gun violence prevention, while Johnson has emphasized supporting police. Drazan has campaigned on public safety and order in a state that experienced sometimes-violent protests over racial equality and police brutality in 2020 and 2021, saying either of her opponents would represent a third term for Brown.
Pennsylvania's Democratic attorney general, Josh Shapiro, is facing off against Republican state Senator Doug Mastriano, who has echoed Trump's false claims of voter fraud and was present at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to protest the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Shapiro has a clear lead in recent opinion polls and fundraising. The winner of the open governor's race will choose the state's top elections official, who will oversee its 2024 presidential election, and will have the power to block or advance efforts by the Republican-led state legislature to severely restrict abortions.
Polls suggest Republican incumbent Greg Abbott has a solid hold on the Texas governorship, but the next two months promise a lively challenge from his Democratic opponent, former U.S. congressman Beto O’Rourke.
Known for his online fundraising prowess and fiery rhetoric, O’Rourke publicly heckled Abbott about not doing more to tighten gun regulations in the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting in May.
Polls show a neck-and-neck governor’s race in Wisconsin. Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, is defending his seat from Republican construction magnate Tim Michels. Michels has falsely claimed that Trump won the 2020 election and has promised, if elected, to enforce a 19th-century abortion ban that Evers is challenging in court.
Michels’ personal wealth and endorsement from Trump helped him prevail over more establishment Republican candidates in the state's August primary.
(Reporting by Julia Harte and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)