Florida’s Ron DeSantis and other governors have been telegraphing national ambitions for years, but the midterms elevated more candidates ripe for White House speculation.
PITTSBURGH — President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are at the moment their parties’ leading candidates for 2024.
Should that change, count on a governor to be waiting in the wings.
There’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose decisive victory in Florida Tuesday night only added fuel to speculation about his national plans. Similarly, high-profile Democratic governors like Gavin Newsom of California and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois also had big wins. But more competitive midterm contests appear poised to inject a host of new prospects into the 2024 conversation for both parties.
For Democrats, that includes two from key presidential battlegrounds: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who won a second term following a tough and expensive re-election battle after previously making Biden’s short list for vice president in 2020, and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, who was already being hyped as the future “first Jewish president” before winning in a landslide Tuesday. Wes Moore, elected Tuesday as Maryland’s first Black governor, likewise won with lofty national expectations and has the added benefit of working in close proximity to the nation’s capital.
That governors would already find themselves in the 2024 spotlight comes as little surprise to political observers. With the onset of Covid in 2020, voters suddenly became more attuned to state-level policy being enacted by governors of each party who were on the front lines of the crisis. At the same time, governors could act decisively on many hot-button issues at the forefront of modern politics — abortion rights, education, voting rights and crime — that leaders in Washington have had little say on.
“Governors get s--- done, right?” Shapiro said in a recent interview after batting away questions about his own future ambitions. “I don’t know why we got away in this country from valuing public servants who actually deliver things for their constituents.”
In the meantime, Kari Lake, the Republican who remains locked in a race that is too early to call against Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in Arizona, has emerged as an heir to Trump’s combative and personality-driven style of politics, and the best performing of the myriad swing state election deniers he backed. Even if she loses, she could be to Republicans what Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams were to Democrats after close elections in 2018 — a newcomer whose promising debut instantly makes her a national figure.
No former or sitting governor has been elected president since George W. Bush in 2000, though not for lack of trying or speculation. A decade ago, Republicans nominated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And in 2016, the early focus in the GOP race was on governors or former governors such as Florida’s Jeb Bush, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. Their campaigns emphasized their achievements in state government before Trump steamrolled through the primaries and to the nomination.
But the Trump era and the pandemic have earned governors another longing look, said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 presidential bid.
“I think the governors could sit in their state capitals and build their own brands while every senator and congressman woke up in the morning, having to answer questions about Donald Trump,” said Conant, who also served as a spokesperson in the Bush White House.
Republicans may be more likely to see a governor take the next step ahead of 2024. Other governors making moves or stoking speculation include Republicans Glenn Youngkin of Virginia; Greg Abbott of Texas; and Kristi Noem of South Dakota. Both Abbott and Noem decisively won re-election Tuesday, while Youngkin spent time on the campaign trail on behalf of a number of Republican candidates.
Many in the GOP blame Trump for a poorer-than-expected midterm election performance and have expressed interest in new leadership. Biden, meanwhile, only appeared to strengthen his position ahead of 2024 by overseeing the strongest midterm result for an incumbent president in 20 years.
Trump has taken notice of the attention Republican governors like DeSantis have received, calling him “Ron DeSanctimonious” and lambasting him in a multipage statement in which he seemed to suggest without evidence that as president, he had the federal government interfere with DeSantis’ 2018 election. He also recently attacked Youngkin on his Truth Social platform.
At a campaign event Lake held with Youngkin last month in Arizona, an attendee shouted “Youngkin-Lake 2024” from the back of the room. Youngkin turned to Lake, saying, “That’s your call.”
Speaking to reporters later, Lake, a former TV anchor, said she was “flattered” at the suggestion “because it wasn’t so long ago that many of you in the fake news were saying I wasn’t even qualified to run, what the heck is she thinking? Why would she run? And now you’re asking me questions about being V.P., running for office, going to the White House.”
Lake, however, added that she is “laser-beam focused on Arizona” and wants to serve eight years in office, or two terms, should she win a first one.