Republican Governors Prep for Big Cycle

There will be 38 governors elected in the next two years.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott at the Republican Governors Association annual conference in Orlando on Tuesday
AP Photo/John Raoux
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Zach C. Cohen
Nov. 16, 2016, 8 p.m.

OR­LANDO—Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors met with donors and party strategists here at the Wal­dorf As­tor­ia in down­town Dis­ney World this week in part to cel­eb­rate Don­ald Trump’s sur­prise pres­id­en­tial vic­tory and their near-his­tor­ic growth in state cap­it­als.

But with a host of com­pet­it­ive races on the ho­ri­zon in 2018, one ques­tion re­mains amid the en­thu­si­asm: Have they hit a ceil­ing?

With the elec­tion of Trump, Re­pub­lic­ans capped off a six-year rout in fed­er­al and state polit­ics, lay­ing claim to the ma­jor­ity of mem­bers of Con­gress, gov­ernors, and state le­gis­lat­ors. GOP gov­ernors will be forced to play plenty of de­fense as they look for fur­ther gains over the next two years, when 38 gov­ernors will be elec­ted, in­clud­ing in Vir­gin­ia and New Jer­sey in 2017.

Most of those races will take place in states with term-lim­ited Re­pub­lic­ans who were ini­tially elec­ted in the 2010 Re­pub­lic­an wave, in­clud­ing here in Flor­ida. And eight Re­pub­lic­ans who won seats four years ago, a gov­ernor seek­ing a third term, and two elec­ted to two-year terms last week will face reelec­tion in 2018.

“In two years, we’ll have to de­fend,” said Utah Gov. Gary Her­bert, who won reelec­tion over­whelm­ingly last week as the party net­ted two gov­ernors. “The Re­pub­lic­ans have so many. We have over two-thirds now plus two ter­rit­or­ies.”

Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, the in­com­ing chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation, said in an in­ter­view here Wed­nes­day that “there aren’t a lot” of Demo­crat­ic seats to tar­get. But he noted the party’s im­proved out­look in Mid­west­ern and Rust Belt states where Trump won or per­formed well.

That in­cludes of­fens­ive op­por­tun­it­ies in Min­nesota and Pennsylvania, and states where Re­pub­lic­ans will play de­fense, in­clud­ing the open seats in Ohio and Michigan and Walk­er’s own Wis­con­sin, where he’s ex­pec­ted to seek reelec­tion in 2018. The two-term in­cum­bent pos­ited that Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors laid the ground­work for Trump by ap­peal­ing to “work­ing-class Amer­ic­ans” and their “high level of cyn­icism about Wash­ing­ton.”

“The map that Don­ald Trump car­ried Wis­con­sin by is al­most lit­er­ally identic­al to the map, county by county, that I car­ried in each of my three elec­tions,” Walk­er said.

He also said Re­pub­lic­ans could tar­get the open seat in Col­or­ado, along with Govs. Dan­nel Mal­loy of Con­necti­c­ut, An­drew Cuomo of New York, and Kate Brown of Ore­gon. In list­ing pos­sible Re­pub­lic­an pickup op­por­tun­it­ies, he left out only deep-blue states such as Cali­for­nia, Rhode Is­land, and Hawaii.

Re­pub­lic­ans’ most chal­len­ging races are for their open seats in Flor­ida, New Mex­ico, Nevada, Maine, and Geor­gia. And blue-state GOP Govs. Bruce Rau­ner of Illinois, Charlie Baker of Mas­sachu­setts, and Larry Hogan of Mary­land are all ex­pec­ted to seek reelec­tion.

“Those are tough states to win in, and so reelect won’t be easy,” Walk­er said of those three in­cum­bents, not­ing that, for now, Baker and Hogan en­joy high fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings.

In in­ter­views with more than a half-dozen gov­ernors this week, the term-lim­ited ones en­cour­aged those look­ing to re­place them to fo­cus on is­sues such as the eco­nomy, fisc­al man­age­ment, and edu­ca­tion. Sim­il­arly, those seek­ing reelec­tion in­tend to high­light those parts of their own re­cords.

Ari­zona Gov. Doug Ducey, who is ex­pec­ted to vie for a second term in 2018, said he is “fo­cus­ing on the eco­nomy, K-12 edu­ca­tion, pub­lic safety—these aren’t par­tis­an is­sues.” Ok­lahoma Gov. Mary Fal­l­in, who is term-lim­ited, sim­il­arly urged pro­spect­ive suc­cessors to pri­or­it­ize spend­ing on “edu­ca­tion, pub­lic safety, health, and in­fra­struc­ture,” and “make state gov­ern­ment more ef­fi­cient.”

Arkan­sas Gov. Asa Hutchin­son, who is up in 2018, touted the state’s in­come-tax cut and his com­puter-sci­ence teach­ing ini­ti­at­ive, and noted that the most chal­len­ging time of his first term was the sign­ing of a new re­li­gious-free­dom law that crit­ics said could be used to dis­crim­in­ate against LGBT people.

“It’s a very bal­anced bill that’s been tested at the fed­er­al level, and so I don’t see any is­sue there,” Hutchin­son said. “With the cur­rent cli­mate of Amer­ica today and chal­lenges that we face, there will be oth­er so­cial is­sues that come up that we have to deal with, but we’ll take them one at a time.”

Term-lim­ited South Dakota Gov. Den­nis Daugaard, when asked about his veto of a bill le­gis­lat­ing trans­gender ac­cess to bath­rooms of choice, sim­il­arly hedged on wheth­er the is­sue would per­col­ate among can­did­ates look­ing to re­place him. “I would ex­pect that two years from now that may or may not have run its course. We’ll see,” he said.

Fol­low­ing a Monday sit-down with Vice Pres­id­ent-elect Mike Pence, gov­ernors hoped that the new White House, as Texas Gov. Greg Ab­bott put it, would be­gin “peel­ing back these reg­u­la­tions” to boost the eco­nomy and let the states gov­ern as they see fit.

Gov­ernor races could also act as a ref­er­en­dum on Trump. The most im­me­di­ate test will be in Vir­gin­ia, which has his­tor­ic­ally elec­ted gov­ernors of the op­pos­ite party of the pres­id­ent. Ed Gillespie, a former Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man who is vy­ing to re­place term-lim­ited Demo­crat­ic Gov. Terry McAul­iffe, at­ten­ded the RGA.

“Vir­gin­ia is very much in play,” Walk­er said, cit­ing Gillespie’s can­did­acy.

But the next two years of gov­ernor races will co­in­cide with the first midterm cycle of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which Demo­crats hope can be the start of their re­build­ing. Kan­sas Gov. Sam Brown­back, who is term-lim­ited, said an im­proved polit­ic­al cli­mate for Demo­crats is “something to be con­cerned about,” but he “wouldn’t count on that hap­pen­ing” if Trump fo­cuses “on grow­ing the eco­nomy.”

“A lot of things hap­pen over the next two years,” said Ver­mont Gov.-elect Phil Scott, who dis­avowed Trump dur­ing the pres­id­en­tial primary and months be­fore he won elec­tion to a two-year term in the blue state. “It could be really good, or it could be something to be con­cerned with.”

Chris Sununu, who was just elec­ted to a two-year term in neigh­bor­ing New Hamp­shire, said he has “an in­cred­ibly pos­it­ive out­look” for the next pres­id­en­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion, and noted that Trump’s vic­tory in­dic­ates the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that Demo­crats have a shot at gains won’t ne­ces­sar­ily ap­ply.

“If there’s any­thing that we’ve learned, it’s that if you look at the his­tor­ic­al per­spect­ive of polit­ics, it means noth­ing any­more,” Sununu said.

National Journal graphic | John Irons
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