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.”