How Wes Moore and Kari Lake could redefine America’s political future

Midterm elections often produce candidates who later become important players in national politics. In 1978, Bill Clinton was elected the nation’s youngest governor at the age of 32. Although he lost his reelection bid in 1980, Clinton returned to the governor’s mansion two years later and held that office for a decade before running for President.

In 1994, George W. Bush won the uphill race for governor of Texas, defeating incumbent Gov. Ann Richards. Bush, who made his mark as the owner of the Texas Rangers, was not expected to win. Even Bush’s parents doubted their son could win, and were even more convinced that his older brother, Jeb, would be Florida’s next governor. Of course, George W. won, and Jeb lost (although he would later win). Four years later, Bush was re-elected by the largest margin ever given to a Texas Republican and went on to win his party’s presidential nomination. The 1990s and 2000s were the Clinton and Bush eras, respectively, as these two extraordinary personalities dominated politics.

This year, two stars emerged who seemed destined to play important roles in the next chapter of our political life: Wes Moore and Kari Lake. Both are seeking to fill the governorships of their respective states, Maryland and Arizona. Of the two, Moore is expected to win by a landslide, while Lake is favored. But both have compelling personas and are likely to be fixtures in our living room.

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Start with Moore. He won a very competitive primary to become the Democratic nominee for governor. His main opponent, Tom Perez, entered the race with a resume tailor-made to become the country’s chief executive. Perez served as president of the Montgomery County Council, was the secretary of state for labor under Gov. Martin O’Malley, became assistant attorney general and secretary of labor under President Obama and in 2017 was elected chair of the Democratic National Committee. Perez emphasized his ability to “get things done,” and his ad featuring Obama highlighted his credentials. In many ways, Perez’s campaign was like Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run against Barack Obama with an emphasis on experience. But like Clinton, Perez ran into the buzzsaw of charisma embodied by Wes Moore, who was a Rhodes Scholar, had served in Afghanistan and former CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, which focuses on creating jobs and opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The similarities between Moore and Obama are striking. Both were raised by their mother and grandparents – in Moore’s case, his father died unexpectedly when he was three years old. Both have written a bestseller, with Moore’s autobiography contrasting his life with another person named Wes Moore who is serving a life sentence for murder. Like Obama, Moore is a gifted speaker with an uncanny ability to channel the hopes and aspirations of his audience. At a rally in August, President Biden called Moore “the real deal.” Obama praised Moore as someone who “worked to bring people together and lift them up.”

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Moore is running against Republican Dan Cox, a 2020 election denier who organized a bus full of Trump supporters who attended the “stop the seal” rally on January 6, 2021. That day, as rioters stormed the Capitol, Cox tweeted that Vice President Pence should be tried for treason.

He easily won his primary against an opponent supported by the popular Republican governor Larry Hogan. With his victory, former President Trump boasted that “RINO Larry Hogan’s endorsement doesn’t seem to be working out for the highly favored candidate.”

Hogan, who wants to move the Republican Party into a more moderate, post-Trump era, refused to endorse Cox, calling him a “QAnon whack job.” Polls show Moore 32 points ahead and on track to become Maryland’s first African American governor. Given the country’s proximity to the Washington, DC, media market, he is someone to watch.

Kari Tasik faced a more competitive race. Like Moore, Lake defeated an establishment candidate endorsed by party leaders, in Lake’s case former Vice President Mike Pence. For 22 years, Lake was a fixture on local television news. Once a supporter of Barack Obama for president, he has become a full defender of Donald Trump. As a television personality, he has a strong on-camera presence that has translated on the campaign trail. Some even call him “Donald Trump in heels.”

Lake’s unusual campaign resembles a modern version of the Jim Carrey movie “The Truman Show”. Like Truman’s character, Lake is always on camera and on message, thanks to the crew led by her husband who never stops filming. Like Trump, Lake said he would accept the election results only if he won. But unlike Trump, Lake’s more pleasant personality makes him more likely to be invited into people’s homes.

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Lake’s opponent, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, recognizes the power of her on-camera persona and has refused to debate. Local commentators, even Biden’s 2020 Arizona co-chair, criticized Hobbs for refusing a joint appearance. Adding to his woes, Hobbs got a little help from Arizona’s two Democratic senators, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema. Kelly has kept her distance from Lake as she mounts her own campaign for re-election, and Sinema would not say whether she plans to vote for Hobbs.

Both Moore and Lake want to occupy executive positions. If they win, their success or failure will determine their political fate. But these two candidates — one Democrat, one Republican — have emerged as the stars of the 2022 midterm elections.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book, co-authored with Matthew Kerbel, is titled “American Political Parties: Why They Were Formed, How They Work, and Where They Are Going.”


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