Mask wars preview the 2022 governors’ battles in Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arizona
In Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arizona, multiplying confrontations over masks, vaccine mandates and other responses to the escalating outbreak have pit local Democrats — gaining strength in virtually all of those states’ largest cities — against Republican governors and legislatures that still control statewide power largely through their dominance of exurban, small-town and rural places, with suburban communities as the hotly contested fulcrum in between.
Democrats still face many headwinds in these Sun Belt states, especially in contests for state offices, and historically the president’s party has suffered losses in his first midterm election. But across each of these states, Republicans officials have made a consistent choice that could provide Democrats an opening to build on Biden’s advances.
For voters in big urban/suburban counties like Dallas and Harris (Houston), “it’s top of mind that they want to be able to rely on the safety of their children,” says Crystal Zermeno, strategy director for the Texas Organizing Project, a progressive grassroots group. “It’s ludicrous to people to think they don’t have the right to make decisions to protect their children.”
Are Democrats serious contenders?
“I think there is an assumption among active Democrats in the field that Beto is their preference,” says longtime Texas liberal operative Glenn Smith. “I think any other possible candidates will wait and see what he is going to say.”
If O’Rourke doesn’t run, many Democrats would look to another former presidential contender, Julian Castro, the former San Antonio mayor; but most doubt he’d enter the race, which could leave the party searching for a local official, like Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner or Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins (in Texas the county judge is the equivalent of a county executive). The party’s brightest rising star, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, is only 30 and more likely to run in four or eight years.
“I do not believe the governor’s race in Texas will be competitive,” Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based GOP consultant, says flatly. “Democrats have no bench whatsoever. Abbott has $55 million in the bank. Covid presents political risks for everyone in office making difficult decisions, but Abbott will be just fine.”
Fights over mask mandates
The geography of the ongoing confrontations over masking traces the path that Democrats would likely need to follow to prove such predictions wrong and end their long years in exile from the governors’ mansions in these states.
The all-important suburbs
In the 2022 Sun Belt governors’ races, as elsewhere in the country, Democrats express hopes that without Trump on the ballot they can at least cut their losses in rural and small-town areas where he spurred enormous Republican turnout and margins.
But strategists across these states recognize that the central test for Democrats is whether they can post continued gains in the largest metropolitan areas, by energizing turnout among non-White and younger voters, but also by making further inroads among the racially diverse, well-educated suburban voters who trended toward them in the Trump years.
“I think much of the outrage among parents is coming from those very areas,” where Democrats will need further gains to compete in Texas, says Smith.
“He’s gone from a principled conservative traditional Republican to somebody that’s trying to out-DeSantis DeSantis, while DeSantis seems to be going out of his way to out-Trump Trump,” Dowd says.
Challenges for both parties
But in the competition for those suburban voters, Republicans have potentially effective arguments of their own: With Biden pursuing a generally liberal agenda in the White House, Republicans believe Democrats will be vulnerable to traditional charges that they are big spenders, soft on crime and weak on defending the border against undocumented immigration.
Republicans “are all ginned up for what the campaign agenda is going to be, and they are hoping they can just wait out events and by then the pandemic will be subsided,” says James Henson, executive director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
Many events inside the four corners of these states will shape next year’s key Sun Belt governors’ races. But a failure by national Democrats to counter the moves by state-level Republicans to rewrite the voting rules could give the GOP a critical thumb on the scale in these closely contested struggles for control of some of the nation’s fastest-growing states.