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Trump and Biden are circling each other, but governors wait in the 2024 wings

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 California’s Gavin Newsom and Illinois’ J.B. Pritzker 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 earlier making Biden’s shortlist for vice president in 2020, and Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, 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 have been able to act decisively on many hot-button issues at the forefront of modern politics — abortion, 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.”

Meanwhile, Kari Lake, the Republican who remains locked in a race that is too early to call against Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, 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 like 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.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer celebrates her re-election during a watch party in Detroit on Nov. 8, 2022. Brandon Bell / Getty Images

Many in the GOP blame Trump for a poorer-than-expected midterm election performance and are expressing 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 where 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.

Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist who formerly worked at the Democratic Governors Association, said Biden is and will remain Democrats’ top choice in 2024. But the governors, particularly those elected or re-elected in critical swing state races, will see their national profile rise, whether or not that means a future presidential bid is in the cards.

Shapiro “has provided a real model for how Democrats can run” — from his work as the state’s attorney general to his “successful campaign, even against strong headwinds,” he said, adding that Whitmer is “going to be someone who’s very much sought after on the national scene.” 

Moore, a former anti-poverty nonprofit leader and Army veteran who was backed by Oprah Winfrey, has “a huge story” and will “be right in the Beltway” — a media-rich environment for nationally ambitious politicians. And “of the 2022 class of candidates,” Leopold said, Lake “has been the most DeSantis-like, just finding compelling fights to pick that the right-wing Fox News audience cares about.”

In both Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Whitmer and Shapiro led Democrats to massive wins Tuesday, voters and officials seemed to think anything was possible for the two rising stars. 

“I think the sky’s the limit for Gov. Whitmer,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a fellow Democrat re-elected this week, said in an interview with NBC News in which she praised Whitmer’s “incredible courage and grit.” 

“I’ve told her directly many times that one of the things I feel most fortunate about is that I’ve been able to serve Michigan alongside her these last several years,” Benson added. “So I hope to continue doing so in the years ahead. And I’ll always support her in whatever form she wants to continue serving.”

Whitmer’s handling of Covid defined her first term. Her shutdowns and restrictions followed the science but also fomented hostilities on the right; Whitmer’s management of the pandemic made her the target of an alleged kidnapping plot by furious anti-government extremists. Biden’s interest in her as a potential running mate helped elevate her nationally. Democratic activists and voters in Michigan who spoke to NBC News ahead of Tuesday’s election sounded as if they expected Whitmer to at least explore a presidential bid.

“Michigan needs her, so I personally would like to see her do her work here in Michigan,” said Julie Campbell-Bode, who chairs a Fems for Dems group and lives in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak. “If she wishes to run for president or whatever she would like to do in the future, I think being the governor of Michigan is an incredibly important job — and I think it actually is a great entrée into any future, larger role she thinks that she might like to run for.”

In an interview, Whitmer was mum on future aspirations.

“I’m proud of being a Michigander,” Whitmer, when asked about a run for president, told NBC News in an interview on Monday, election eve. “And that’s where my focus is at the moment.”

In the run-up to Shapiro’s 14-point thrashing of Republican opponent Doug Mastriano, voters in Pennsylvania thought they might be witnessing a future president campaigning before them.

“I’m old enough to think that there’s just a hint of John F. Kennedy” in Shapiro, said Ray McGunigle, 78, of Clarion, at a Shapiro campaign stop. “Young, honest guy who wants to make the world a little bit better. And in a time like this, that’s the kind of thing we need.”

Other favorable reviews of Shapiro’s White House credentials centered on his relatively moderate tone and politics, his ethics, and his fights on behalf of consumers. 

“You know, he is the real deal,” Sam Cangemi, 76, also of Clarion, told NBC News at the same event. “And I think that down the road — he’s a young man, and I think that if he wanted to run for president, I would certainly support him. But we want him as governor here first.”

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