Analysis: Mask wars preview the 2022 battle for the Sun Belt

23August 2021

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.
The 2022 governors’ races in those four critical states will test whether these shifting patterns of geographic support have reconfigured the electoral balance enough for Democrats to dislodge that statewide GOP dominance. Though President Joe Biden last November narrowly won Arizona and Georgia and made gains in Texas — in each case because of growing strength in the large metropolitan areas now feuding with the GOP governors over mask requirements — Democrats have not elected a governor in the 21st century in any of these states except Arizona. And even there, Democrats have not won since 2006.
Elementary school students line up to enter for the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.
Despite that track record, top-tier Democratic candidates have already entered the governors’ races in Florida and Arizona and Stacey Abrams is virtually certain to join them eventually in Georgia — all states where Republican governors have moved aggressively to overturn local mask requirements in school districts and Democratic-run cities. Texas is the potential exception to this pattern: Even though Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has faced a succession of reversals this year, capped by widespread defiance by local school boards and governments to his executive order banning mask mandates, Democrats seem likely to seriously press him only if 2018 Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke enters the race, as most party activists are hoping.
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.
Determined to maintain sky-high turnout among former President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters, the GOP governors in all these states have notably tilted to the right on an array of issues, most pointedly in their determination to block local mask requirements, even as Covid caseloads soar and hospitals fill to capacity. The risk Republicans face is that their hardline positioning could alienate more center-right voters in the big suburban communities already trending away from them — from Atlanta to Houston, Dallas and Phoenix — and deepen the geographic trench between the two-party coalitions that the explosive mask wars have so vividly exposed.
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?

Across these four states, Democrats have few recent examples of success in governors’ races. The party last elected a governor in Georgia in 1998, in Florida in 1994 and in Texas in 1990; the only Democrat in the four states who has won a gubernatorial election in this century is Janet Napolitano, with her 2002 and 2006 victories in Arizona. In Arizona and Texas, Democrats haven’t exceeded 43% of the vote since their last gubernatorial wins; in Georgia they didn’t exceed 45% of the vote between 2002 and Abrams’ narrow defeat in 2018. Only in Florida have Democrats been consistently competitive: In the three gubernatorial contests since 2010, the party has suffered heartbreaking defeats of 1.2, 1 and 0.4 percentage points.
Yet Democrats are already assured serious candidates in all but one of these states. In Georgia, Abrams is widely expected to run in a rematch of her narrow 2018 loss to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. In Arizona, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has already announced her candidacy and is considered a strong front-runner for the seat that will open when term-limited GOP Gov. Doug Ducey steps down. In Florida, Democrats have two plausible contenders against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis: Agriculture Secretary Nikki Fried and US Rep. Charlie Crist, a former GOP governor who changed parties.
The situation is murkier in Texas, where Democrats face the longest odds. Most Democrats are hoping that the candidate will be O’Rourke, who has not yet signaled his intentions. Since his 2020 presidential bid fizzled, O’Rourke has played an Abrams-like role in the state, leading efforts to register and organize more voters and taking a prominent role in opposition to the restrictive voting law Texas is considering as well as the ban on mask mandates.
“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.
Given their historic success in the Sun Belt governor races, the enormous financial resources their incumbents will muster (Abbott has already accumulated a stunning $55 million for his campaign) and the tradition of midterm losses for the president’s party, Republicans express optimism about all these governors’ races, despite the Covid surges wracking those states. Both sides expect Arizona and Georgia, where Democrats have broken through in recent years, to be the most competitive of these contests, with Florida, and especially Texas, leaning more toward the GOP.
“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.
Abbott, DeSantis and Ducey have all moved to bar local mask mandates, including in schools (along with other public health steps such as vaccine mandates for city employees and the use of “vaccine passports” by restaurants and other businesses). And all have escalated their conflicts with defiant local officials in the past few days. DeSantis, with the support of Republican state legislators, is pushing to withhold pay from local school officials defying his order; Ducey, practically daring Biden to intervene, is offering federal dollars as an inducement for school districts to reject mask mandates; and Abbott, after the state Supreme Court rejected the state’s push for a preemptory decision, is pursuing multiple lawsuits against local jurisdictions defying his ban on mask mandates (although the state Texas Education Agency has indicated it won’t enforce that ban until the cases are decided). In Georgia, Kemp has not barred school mask mandates but last week he issued an executive order prohibiting local governments from mandating that businesses require masks or proof of vaccination.
These efforts have sparked political backlash from local governments of all sizes. But the resistance has been greatest in the states’ largest population centers, which also mostly voted against these GOP governors in their last races and generally moved further toward Democrats (with some important exceptions) in 2020. Those metro areas also accounted for virtually all of the past decade’s population growth in their states, according to recently released census figures analyzed for me by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
In Texas, at least some school districts in all five of the state’s largest counties — Harris (Houston), Dallas, Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio) and Tarrant (Fort Worth) — are defying Abbott’s mask mandate ban and/or suing him over it. In 2018, Abbott lost all of those except Tarrant, and in 2020 Biden improved the Democratic performance in all of them, including narrowly capturing Tarrant. Looking more broadly at not only these core urban counties but also the surrounding areas, Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate since favorite-son Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to win all four of Texas’ largest metropolitan areas — those centered on Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio, according to analysis by the Metropolitan Policy Program.
In Florida, DeSantis’ mask mandate ban is facing open defiance from school districts in most of the state’s largest counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough (Tampa); Orange County, which includes Orlando, is considering a mask mandate at a meeting this week as well. DeSantis lost all of those counties in 2018, though the partisan trend isn’t as consistent as in Texas: in 2020, Trump slightly improved on DeSantis’ 2018 performance in most of those large counties, and significantly in Miami-Dade, where he benefited from major gains among Cuban Americans and voters with roots in Central and South America.
The dynamic in Arizona and Georgia looks more like the situation in Texas. Ducey’s mask mandate ban is confronting defiance from school districts in the state’s two largest counties: Maricopa (Phoenix) and Pima (Tucson); in 2018, against a weak Democratic opponent, Ducey easily carried Maricopa and only narrowly lost Pima, but Biden in 2020 won Pima convincingly and became the first Democratic presidential candidate since Harry Truman in 1948 to capture Maricopa. In Georgia, Kemp said he acted to preempt possible mandates from Democratic-run cities including Atlanta and Savannah; the Brookings analysis found that compared with 2016, Biden improved the Democratic vote in the Atlanta area, including the massive suburban counties of Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb, more than in any other Sun Belt metro.

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.
Many political analysts agree that the Sun Belt Republican governors and legislators are governing in a manner that risks further erosion in those suburban areas. Polls consistently have found that a majority of Americans support mask requirements in schools and oppose statewide efforts to ban them. That feeling is especially pronounced among the well-educated voters common in many of the highly contested suburban areas. Even in Texas, a recent Spectrum News-Ipsos poll found that three-fifths of college-educated Whites, and nearly 9 in 10 people of color with college degrees, supported a mask mandate in schools, according to detailed results provided by Ipsos.
“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.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on April 10, 2021, in Marietta, Georgia.
The mask battles have followed legislative sessions in which these Republican governors, responding to pressure from Trump’s most ardent supporters, sharply moved to the right on other issues. DeSantis, Kemp and Ducey have all signed into law new restrictions on voting passed in response to Trump’s discredited claims of fraud in 2020, and Abbott is expected to join them shortly, now that enough Democrats have returned to the state House of Representatives to provide a quorum. DeSantis, Abbott and Kemp signed laws making it more difficult for local governments to cut police budgets. Abbott also signed laws that allow Texans to carry firearms without permits and will ban abortion in the state if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
While DeSantis, Abbott and to a somewhat lesser extent Kemp at various points tried to moderate their images earlier in their tenure, all are now heavily focused on responding to the GOP’s hard-core base. Abbott’s transformation since his election in 2014 in some ways has been the most dramatic. Early on, he was seen as a source of restraint on the most militant conservatives led by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. However, Abbott has not only abandoned that role but also moved to the “front of the parade” on many of the most divisive issues, notes Matthew Dowd, the veteran Texas-based political strategist and commentator.
“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.
Abbott and Kemp face primary challenges from ardent conservatives claiming the Trump mantle against them; Kemp, who drew Trump’s ire by defending the integrity of Georgia’s election results last year, will likely face more turbulence than Abbott but both are expected to survive. Yet those contests will discourage either from moving too much to the center on masks or other issues. And while DeSantis is unlikely to face a serious primary in 2022, his emergence as perhaps the leading 2024 GOP presidential contender if Trump doesn’t run will also discourage him from moderating his opposition to almost any public health requirements against the virus. In the Arizona GOP gubernatorial primary, Kari Lake, a former newscaster claiming the Trump mantle, is running with uncompromising zeal against mandates of any sort, while also even criticizing the vaccine. At this early stage, Lake may be the race’s front-runner, which may pull the entire field toward absolutist positions.

Challenges for both parties

The GOP’s positioning in these races could provide Democrats strong arguments for centrist suburban voters, including many who have backed Republicans in the past. Zermeno notes that the GOP could antagonize not only voters who disagree with the aggressive conservative positions they are advancing on issues such as open-carry gun laws, abortion or transgender rights, but also those who simply believe the party has been preoccupied by “culture war issues … that are not priorities for Texans” rather than “the health, safety and well-being” of the broader community, not only on Covid but also the catastrophic failure of the state’s power grid last winter. “We’re seeing this extremist set of policies where they are trying to feed into [their] base at the cost of lives,” she argues.
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.
What Manchin and Sinema can learn from the Lincoln Republicans on voting rights
Another dynamic common to all these races is the changing profile of the states. All are rapidly adding population and all are becoming more racially diverse as they do: Recently released census figures show that Whites have fallen to less than 54% of the population in Arizona, only slightly above 51% in Florida, barely more than 50% in Georgia and less than 40% in Texas; if the current pace of change persists, people of color will become a majority of all four states’ populations in this decade. That population shift has been an unconditional benefit for Democrats in Arizona and Georgia, where they have posted strong margins and increased turnout among Hispanics and African Americans, respectively; in Florida and Texas, the demographic advantages for Democrats have been muted by Republican inroads with Hispanic voters, especially for Trump in South Florida and South Texas in 2020. Rolling back at least part of those GOP advances is an indispensable ingredient for Democrats winning either state’s governor race next year.
One other wild card looms over these races. Republicans, muscling past nearly complete Democratic opposition, have pushed through new restrictions on voting in each of these states; prominent in the Georgia law and Texas proposal are provisions to specifically block techniques that the state’s largest counties (Fulton and Harris, respectively) used to increase turnout in 2020. Georgia Republicans have even launched a process that could oust the Democratic majority on the Fulton County Election Board and replace them with a new administrator appointed by GOP state officials. In Texas, the restrictions will be added to a state that academic researchers already rank as the most difficult in which to vote.
With all this underway, few races anywhere in the country may be influenced more than these Sun Belt contests by whether congressional Democrats can pass legislation establishing a nationwide floor of voting rights. That legislation is now stalled in the Senate, blocked by the refusal of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to revise Senate rules to circumvent the Republican filibuster blocking it.
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.

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