ST. LOUIS – Missouri Gov. Mike Parson steadfastly refused to mandate mask-wearing even as the coronavirus spread across his state this year, telling a group of cattlemen in July, “You don’t need government to tell you to wear a dang mask. If you want to wear a dang mask, wear a mask.”
In late September, the Republican governor and his wife both tested positive for the coronavirus, and COVID-19 is now spreading rapidly throughout the state, with rising cases and deaths.
Parson, who took office in 2018 after Eric Greitens resigned, said he did not have symptoms and has since returned to campaigning. His Democratic challenger, state Auditor Nicole Galloway, is emphasizing pandemic response and health coverage as key issues in one of the most contested of the 11 races for governor across the U.S. on Nov. 3.
Galloway's message has been gaining traction as the virus spread worsens. The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Missouri has risen from 1,528 per day on Oct. 17 to 2,247 as of Saturday.
In St. Louis, Mark DuBro, 64, a retired executive chef and a Republican, said Parson's handling of the virus persuaded him to cast his ballot for Galloway.
“I think he was a little lax, not as on top of it as he might have been,” he said.
The race is the best hope for Democrats to flip a governor's seat this year. Republicans hold the governor's office in 26 states and are hoping to retake the top job in Montana, where Democrats have held it for the past 16 years.
Which party holds the governor's office could be especially consequential over the next few years. In the majority of states, though not the ones with the most competitive races this year, governors have a role in the process of drawing congressional and state legislative district maps starting next year.
The expanded conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court could restrict abortion access and potentially upend former President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. If so, it would be up to state legislatures and governors across the country to set policies in those areas.
Governors also are key players in deciding whether to impose mask mandates, business restrictions, social gathering limits or travel restrictions in response to the coronavirus.
In Missouri, the handling of the virus has been a key consideration for 52-year-old Yolanda Thompson of St. Louis, a secretary in a doctors’ office who voted for Galloway in early voting. She said Parson and some other governors have not handled the pandemic properly.
“If they knew, they should have responded accordingly,” she said. “Because they knew this was coming and they knew the impact that was going to come.”
Vincent Harris, a writer and Republican who lives in rural Trenton, said he was voting for Joe Biden for president but still learning toward supporting Parson. Like other Republicans this year, Parson is emphasizing a law-and-order approach after the protests against police brutality and racial inequality.
For Harris, 54, the difference between Trump and Parson is character.
“I like to think that deep down inside, there’s a much more rock steady individual,” he said, adding that Parson “might be capable of ratcheting back and making more intelligent assessments.”
Most of the governors' seats up for election this year are considered safe for the incumbent party. Republicans are expected to keep the positions in solidly Republican Indiana and North Dakota, as well as in New Hampshire and Vermont, where Democrats control the legislatures.
Republicans also are expected to keep control of the executive branch in Utah, where Gov. Gary Herbert is not seeking re-election after more than a decade in office. There, the race is so civil that the candidates, Republican Spencer Cox and Democrat Chris Peterson, have appeared in a video to say they respect each other even though they disagree.
Democrats are likely to keep seats in Delaware and Washington. The race in North Carolina, a swing state in presidential elections, might be a little more suspenseful, although polls have shown incumbent Democrat Roy Cooper ahead of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
In governor’s races, many of the attack ads are funded by each party’s governors association. According to an Associated Press review of reports filed with the IRS, the Republican group outraised the Democrats from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, but the Democrats had spent more.
In Montana, a state without any major media markets, campaigns and the parties' governors groups had poured at least $24 million into the race through September.
The governor's race there is the best chance for Republicans to gain control of a seat now held by a Democrat. While Democrats have held the executive branch for the last 16 years, Republicans control the Legislature.
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, is running for an open seat against Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, a Democrat whose first elected job came in 1976.
Republicans are portraying Cooney as an entrenched politician and liberal who would raise taxes. For Angie McClaflin, who moved to Helena from Oregon in 2017, the Trump connection is the key to her support for the Republican.
"There’s just a lot of things that need to get addressed, and Democrats want to take away gun rights and they want to take away all of our freedoms," said McClafin, 43, who is out of work on disability.
Democrats say Gianforte, an entrepreneur who has spent millions on the election, would curtail access to public lands and institute a sales tax in Montana, one of five states without one.
Mark Paulson, of Kalispell, used to consider himself an independent and regularly split the ticket. But in early voting this year, the 70-year-old civil designer said he voted for only Democrats.
In the governor’s race, he said Gianforte’s financial support of a Montana museum dedicated to creationist beliefs was a big problem.
"He’s a creationist. I’m an amateur astronomer,” Paulson said. “For somebody to basically believe that the world was 6,000 years old in this day and age is just stupid.”
Mulvihill reported from Davenport, Iowa. Summer Ballentine in Columbia, Missouri, and Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana, contributed to this article.