Many observers have assumed that the most important elections of 2022 will be national—that is, the races to determine who will control the U.S. House and Senate. True, those races will help determine not just the chances of legislative progress and even governability in 2023 and 2024 but also whether Republican control of Congress will enable the party to install its candidate in the presidency despite any electoral defeats in critical swing states. The natural midterm electoral swing promises to give a now closely divided House to Republicans in 2022. Republicans will also likely gain a net advantage from extreme gerrymandering, since Republican-controlled states are less likely to have nonpartisan commissions drawing the lines of their House districts.
But Democrats stand a decent chance of holding on to the Senate. True, they have three incumbents in toss-up races: Mark Kelly in Arizona, Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. But Republicans also have three toss-up seats: Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and the soon-to-be open seats in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Two currently Democratic seats, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire and Michael Bennet in Colorado, now “lean” Democratic; for Republicans, Marco Rubio’s seat in Florida and the open seat Rob Portman is vacating in Ohio could be competitive.
Historically, where Democrats have won swing states they have done so by nominating center-leaning, pragmatic Democratic candidates who crafted electoral appeals reaching beyond the party’s base. If they nominate such candidates in 2022—say, Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, Pennsylvania Representative Conor Lamb, or the bridge-building civic activist Steven Olikara in Wisconsin—they could win in November and help their party retain control of the Senate or even increase its margin over Senate Republicans.
But Democrats face another formidable challenge in 2022: Republicans have unified control of state government (that is, the governorship and both houses of the state legislature) in twenty-three states, compared with the Democrats’ fifteen, and they hold control over both houses of the legislature in another nine states. With Glenn Youngkin’s stunning victory in the Virginia gubernatorial election, Republicans control governorships in twenty-eight of the country’s fifty states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and New Hampshire. Governors in all four of these states will face re-election in 2022. The first three of these races could have significant effects on the 2024 presidential race and will probably be close.
Republicans will also make strong bids to capture governorships from Democrats in three heartland states that provided the margin of victory for Donald Trump in 2016 and for Joe Biden in 2020: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These three 2022 gubernatorial races will be the country’s most important contests for determining the Democrats’ prospects of holding on to the presidency in 2024.
Here is why.
The (Deviant) Path to the Presidency
As with Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and New Hampshire, Republicans control both houses of the state legislatures in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But in contrast to the first four states, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all have Democratic governors. A Democratic governor can veto laws that would allow a Republican legislature to take control of vote counting and certification, for purposes including the nullification of a legitimate popular election result.
This is not mere fantasy. In several states with unified Republican control of government, Republicans have passed laws that politicize electoral administration and enable state legislatures to override the popular will if election results favor the “wrong” party. These new and proposed laws have been extensively documented in reports by a civic coalition of the States United Democracy Center, Protect Democracy, and Law Forward; by the Brennan Center for Justice; and by the election law expert Rick Hasen.
Republican state legislators have introduced and in some cases enacted bills to remove professional election administrators in favor of partisan officials; to bypass the authority of secretaries of state like those in Arizona and Georgia who would not cooperate in Trump’s campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election; and to threaten professional election officials with civil and criminal penalties if they go too far to make it easy to vote or—incredibly, as in Iowa—fail to undertake an aggressive purge of voter rolls.
Georgia’s Republican state legislature, in its “Election Integrity Act,” removed Georgia’s secretary of state—who had refused to “find” Trump the 11,000-plus votes Trump needed to win the state in 2020—from the chairmanship of the State Election Board. The same act authorized large-scale partisan challenges to voter eligibility. More, it authorized the legislature to name the chair of the Board and gave the Board—in effect, the legislature—the power to intervene in and even suspend up to four county election boards in a given election.
Thus, as the Brennan Center describes the changes, the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature can “replace professional election officials with partisan operatives who could manipulate the election administration process or even sabotage the vote counting.” If this power is unleashed on large, heavily Democratic and African-American counties like Fulton and DeKalb, the Republican presidential candidate in 2024 could incur an even bigger popular-vote deficit than Trump suffered in 2020 and still win the state.
Of course, the Republican candidate, most likely Trump, might well carry Arizona and Georgia—and a clear majority of the Electoral College—without blatant acts of electoral subversion to disqualify Democratic votes. There would still be an element of gross unfairness to the outcome if Trump were once again to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College. That unfairness would be magnified by new laws (so far passed in nineteen states, including Georgia, Florida, Iowa, and Texas) that make it harder to vote and do so in a way that clearly targets Democratic constituencies.
But it is one thing to tilt the playing field and quite another to make it impossible to reach the goal line. In many state legislatures, Trump loyalists are still trying to do the latter. In 2021, Republican state legislators in the three northern swing states tried, though they failed, to pass bills that would have enabled partisan actors to slow down or otherwise sabotage vote counting, re-counting, or certification. If Republican governors are in place in 2023, such laws might pass; and they might be enough to ensure a Trump presidential victory, given our current electoral math.
Most states are no longer very competitive in presidential elections; they will probably vote the way they’ve voted in the recent past. If so, Trump (assuming he is the Republican candidate) would keep hold of Florida and North Carolina; the Democratic candidate would keep Nevada and New Hampshire. In this case, Trump would have 235 electoral votes and the Democrat would have 232. That would leave the election to be decided, once again, by the Electoral College votes of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (which in 2024 will total seventy-one).
In 2020, Biden won four of these states by a fraction of a percentage point each (though he won Michigan by a wider margin). In 2024, Trump could well win any or all of them. Even if Biden won them all again, Republicans could use their recently gained state government control to delay or disqualify the election results in Arizona and Georgia. Then Biden, unless he pulled off an upset in a state like Florida (which he lost by three points in 2020), would have to gain all forty-four of the electoral votes of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in order to win an Electoral College majority.
The rules make it easy to prevent such a victory. Merely delaying a state election result past the federal “safe harbor” deadline (six days before the Electoral College vote on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December) might give Trump the presidential election: The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution provides that if no candidate wins a majority of Electoral College votes, the decision falls to the House of Representatives, where votes are cast not by individual members but by state delegations.
Republicans now control twenty-seven state delegations; it is very unlikely that they will fall below twenty-six delegations, which make up a majority. So, if they can just delay certification of the vote in swing states they have lost, they can probably throw the election to the House, where they would win. (True, there is some uncertainty about whether the required “majority” of Electoral College votes means a majority of all 538 votes that states are constitutionally entitled to cast or only of those actually cast by electors who were appointed in a manner accepted by Congress as constitutional. It would probably fall to the Supreme Court to decide this, in a context of staggering partisan polarization.)
Dirty Tricks of Other Sorts
But wait, as they say—there’s more. Another type of Republican subversion of the 2024 presidential election, especially if Republicans were to win Pennsylvania’s governorship, would use a remarkably cynical but perfectly legal strategy to try to lock in a Republican Electoral College victory. It would go like this: If Republicans won Arizona and Georgia, they would need to pick up only eight more electoral votes to win the presidency. They could of course gain the votes by winning a fair fight in any of the three northern battleground states—or, as Ohio State election law expert Ned Foley recently speculated, they could do it by manipulating the system in a way that would look—on the surface—marvelously democratic.
Maine and Nebraska are currently the only two states that allocate their electoral votes by congressional district, awarding one electoral vote for each district that a presidential candidate carries and two votes to the winner of the statewide vote. In 2020, under this rule, Maine gave three of its electoral votes to Biden and one to Trump. Nebraska gave one vote to Biden and five votes to Trump.
If Pennsylvania Republicans controlled the state’s governorship as well as its legislature, they could adopt the Maine-Nebraska rule, crowing about how they were “democratizing the Electoral College.” But even if the Democrats won Pennsylvania’s popular vote, Republicans—who would likely control at least eight and probably nine House seats—would probably win the presidential vote in at least eight House districts. If so, splitting Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes according to the Maine-Nebraska rule would give Trump 270 Electoral College votes and a presidential win.
In fact, Foley also imagines a still more audacious scenario, in which Republicans keep legislative control of Arizona, Georgia, and the three northern swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; win the governorships of the five states; and institute the Maine-Nebraska rule in all of them. In that case, even if the Democratic presidential candidate won the popular vote in all five states, redistricting plans would likely give Republicans six House seats in Arizona, nine in Georgia, six in Michigan, eight in Pennsylvania, and six in Wisconsin.
For the mathematically challenged, those numbers add up to thirty-five Electoral College votes in the five swing states, no matter what the statewide popular vote. Unless the Democratic candidate countered with a win in at least two substantially Republican congressional districts in these states, Republicans would win either an Electoral College victory or an Electoral College tie, and then an ultimate victory in the House vote. This is a narrow path, to be sure, but one that would make the actual election a sideshow.
If Republicans were to gain the governorship of one or more of the three northern battleground states, they would probably prefer a Georgia-style law, giving the legislature control over the electoral process, as a safer pathway to the presidency than parceling out a state’s electoral votes, Maine-Nebraska style. But neither tactic would have anything to do with democratic principles.
In an era when the Republican Party has shown a hardening will to do whatever it takes to win and retain power at all costs, Trump Republicans have probably thought of all the scenarios above and more. That is why the governors’ races in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin will be the three most important elections of 2022. Political math matters. It may determine, more than the will of the people and well before the 2024 presidential election, whether we will continue to live in a democracy.
Larry Diamond, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
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