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.