Talking Points

Every governor's race is now about Washington

One thing seems to be missing from state politics these days: states

Pick any gubernatorial race and you'll see national politics featuring prominently in the campaign. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) won his recall election earlier this month in large part by linking his critics and opponents to former President Donald Trump. In Virginia, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin boasts of bringing together "Forever-Trumpers and Never-Trumpers" while taking questions about whether President Biden's victory was legitimate. And in Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is flat-out declaring her intention to nationalize her race.

"As I travel around the state, I keep hearing this criticism, 'Oh, there's that Sarah Sanders, nationalizing the race,'" Sanders, a Republican who served as Trump's press secretary, recently told a crowd of voters. "And my answer to those people is, 'You bet I am.' Because if you're not paying attention to what is happening in this country, you're missing what is going on."

Perhaps. But the job of the Arkansas governor is to pay attention to what is happening in Arkansas, right? The same goes for California, Virginia, or any other state.

It's not that statehouse and national politics never overlap. The next Pennsylvania governor, for example, will choose the person who oversees the 2024 presidential election in their swing state. And it's easy to understand why candidates pursuing state office use national politics as their frame of reference for voters — it's often more exciting, not to mention more familiar. (Very few people spend their time doomscrolling the news about Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.) Americans usually pay much more attention to Washington than their state capitals or local city halls. 

Still, most of what any governor does is necessarily focused on the needs and issues of their state. And those issues  — whether it's the quality of a state's schools, the generosity of its unemployment insurance, the size of its citizens' tax bills, or even the welfare of its rice farmers — often have a more direct bearing on the lives of these politicians' constituents than does the latest battle in our national culture war. Talking about Trump might be compelling, but it's also a distraction from what governors actually do.