Republican Governors Reluctant to Weigh in on Trump

Their collective hesitancy reflects skepticism about how Trump would fare as the nominee and a realization of the risk in insulting someone they may soon have to embrace.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard checks his cell phone at the conclusion of the opening session of the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington on Saturday
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Karyn Bruggeman and Zach C. Cohen
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Karyn Bruggeman Zach C. Cohen
Feb. 22, 2016, 8 p.m.

Far re­moved from the hub­bub of their party’s primary hun­dreds of miles away, the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors on hand Sat­urday for the Na­tion­al Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation winter meet­ing demon­strated a near-uni­form un­will­ing­ness to en­ter­tain the idea of Don­ald Trump as the GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee.

Asked about that pro­spect, many offered a sim­il­ar re­frain: I’d rather not say. They took pains to cau­tion—with a hint of hope­ful­ness in their voices—that much could yet change.

“I think we have a long way to go,” Ten­ness­ee Gov. Bill Haslam said.

“It’s a long race. It’s just get­ting star­ted,” cau­tioned Ari­zona Gov. Doug Ducey.

“I think the pro­cess is a pro­cess that the people are go­ing to de­cide,” New Mex­ico Gov. Susana Mar­tinez said.

Usu­ally abuzz with activ­ity, the an­nu­al week­end gath­er­ing at the J.W. Mar­ri­ott in Wash­ing­ton was sig­ni­fic­antly more sub­dued, as it was vastly over­shad­owed by the two far-flung pres­id­en­tial primar­ies and caucuses un­der way in South Car­o­lina and Nevada, and the fu­ner­al of Su­preme Court Justice Ant­on­in Scalia tak­ing place down the road.

The col­lect­ive hes­it­ancy about Trump came hours be­fore the bil­lion­aire real­ity-TV star notched an­oth­er primary win, and it mirrored the stunned dis­be­lief among party fig­ure­heads that the com­bat­ive real-es­tate mogul could yet emerge vic­tori­ous from the GOP primar­ies. The our-lips-are-sealed theme that dom­in­ated the week­end likely also re­flec­ted a grow­ing ac­cept­ance of the po­ten­tial Trump-as-nom­in­ee real­ity and that the time has passed to pub­licly ques­tion or chas­tise someone they may soon have to em­brace.

Nevada Gov. Bri­an San­dov­al—who’s been vo­cal about the dam­age that Trump could do to the party as the nom­in­ee—will host the Nevada Re­pub­lic­an caucuses Tues­day. He de­clined to re­it­er­ate his past skep­ti­cism, say­ing only, “All the can­did­ates have run hard, and I think it’s go­ing to be pretty close.”

Most gov­ernors made it clear they would sup­port the even­tu­al nom­in­ee. Still, with Trump as the un­spoken tar­get, many lamen­ted the neg­at­ive turn that the Re­pub­lic­an primary has taken.

“One thing I do want in our Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee is someone who can win, and I worry that someone who is too po­lar­iz­ing or too ap­peal­ing to one ex­treme or an­oth­er will not in the end be able to win—and that’s my greatest con­cern,” South Dakota Gov. Den­nis Daugaard said.

Neb­raska Gov. Pete Rick­etts en­cour­aged the can­did­ates “to take a pos­it­ive tone and think about one of the greatest lead­ers of our party, Ron­ald Re­agan, and one of the reas­ons he was so suc­cess­ful and brought to­geth­er people from both sides of the aisle was be­cause he was up­lift­ing.”

There was some grumbling about how poorly fel­low gov­ernors have fared in the primary pro­cess.

“All along I’ve had a bi­as to­ward gov­ernors who ac­tu­ally have a re­sume and ex­per­i­ence, and you know, have a re­cord of solv­ing prob­lems,” Haslam said. “Ob­vi­ously that field has nar­rowed some­what so we’ll see what hap­pens after” South Car­o­lina.

Hours later, former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush fin­ished a dis­tant fourth and dropped out of the race, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich re­ceived even less sup­port, though he is push­ing for­ward.

“I have a bi­as to­ward gov­ernors, but that doesn’t mean I rule any­one else out,” said North Car­o­lina Gov. Pat Mc­Crory, who faces a com­pet­it­ive reelec­tion this year. Mc­Crory said he doesn’t plan to en­dorse since he’ll be shar­ing a bal­lot with who­ever is nom­in­ated.

In­di­ana Gov. Mike Pence is also up for reelec­tion but said he may en­dorse be­fore In­di­ana holds its pres­id­en­tial primary in May.

De­scrib­ing the re­main­ing GOP field, Utah Gov. Gary Her­bert said Bush and Kasich are “both friends of mine, and I think they’ve done good jobs, and cer­tainly would be good pres­id­ents. Marco Ru­bio is still there, Ted Cruz is still there: smart people, le­gis­lat­ors with no ex­ec­ut­ive-branch ex­per­i­ence. To me that’s their one short­com­ing. And then we’ve got Don­ald Trump.” Her­bert was adam­ant that he’d sup­port who­ever wins the nom­in­a­tion.

Daugaard was par­tic­u­larly down on Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er’s exit from the race, call­ing him a friend and say­ing he “would have been a good pres­id­ent.”

Walk­er wandered through the halls without much fan­fare, un­like in years past when he was typ­ic­ally swarmed by throngs of re­port­ers. Asked what it was like to be watch­ing the pres­id­en­tial race un­fold from the side­lines, Walk­er found the sil­ver lin­ing.

“It means I get to sleep in my own bed each night and show up in my own of­fice every day,” he said. “So in a way it’s kind of nice.” 

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