One of the few remaining paths for the Republican Party to grow its near-historic majority of governors is a sweep of one of the bluest parts of the country.
Republicans in Connecticut and Rhode Island, the two remaining New England states with Democratic governors, are hoping to defeat a couple of incumbents with flagging ratings in states with a recent history of electing GOP governors.
New England generally prefers Democrats for federal office—in 2016, the six states collectively gave all but one of their 33 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton and elected only one GOP member of Congress—but Democrats’ recent travails at the state level could offer Republicans an opening.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo in 2014 became the state’s first governor elected as a Democrat since Bruce Sundlun in 1990. Connecticut’s Democratic drought went back to 1986 before Gov. Dannel Malloy was elected in 2010. They are now among the party’s most vulnerable incumbents.
Republicans picked up governor seats last year in New Hampshire and Vermont, which have two-year terms, and already controlled them in Maine and Massachusetts. They must defend all four next year as they seek to complete the New England set.
The Republican Governors Association sees Connecticut as “a top pickup opportunity in 2018,” according to spokesman Jon Thompson. He said the group is also “keeping a very close eye” on Rhode Island and its governor’s “weak leadership.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who chairs the RGA, said in an interview shortly after the November elections that Malloy, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, is “one of the most unpopular [governors] in the country, by far.” General Electric’s decision to move its headquarters to neighboring Massachusetts “may be a centerpiece to that campaign,” he added.
Supporting his assessment was a Quinnipiac University poll from June 2016 that found the state’s economy had sunk Malloy’s approval down to 24 percent, which was among the lowest ratings the polling unit had ever recorded among governors in the nine states it regularly surveys.
“The right candidate, I think, could do well there,” Walker said.
While Malloy hasn’t said whether he will seek a third term, at least two Republicans are publicly angling for the nomination to face him: Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, who both spoke with National Journal in D.C. last week at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“I would be shocked if he ran for reelection, although I would be the first one to donate so I could run against his record,” Boughton said.
Malloy’s first term was dominated by a $1.5 billion tax hike. After narrowly winning reelection in 2014, he alienated labor unions and progressive groups by slashing public-sector jobs to patch a $1 billion deficit.
“He’s paid a political price for it,” Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s chief strategist on his two successful campaigns for governor, said of the state’s budget cuts under his tenure.
Connecticut Democratic Party spokesman Leigh Appleby said in an email Wednesday that “Democrats are optimistic going into 2018,” citing progressive policies Malloy approved such as paid sick leave and a minimum-wage increase, as well as “investing in manufacturing opportunities” in aerospace and naval construction. Malloy also signed gun-control legislation after the Newtown school massacre.
Democrats are already using President Trump as a boogeyman in the midterm elections. Appleby said Republican candidates aren’t sufficiently pushing back on repeal of the Affordable Care Act, anthropogenic climate-change denial, or abortion rights. And DGA spokesman Jared Leopold said it “will be challenging for Republicans to make an argument that Donald Trump needs an ally in Connecticut or Rhode Island.”
Boughton recognizes the difficulty of running statewide as a Republican in Connecticut. “It’s about as blue as you can possibly get,” he said. But he noted his “great story to tell” as the mayor of a “Democratic city” and his “demonstrated ability to relate to blue-collar voters, people in our urban cores” from his campaign for governor in 2014 and lieutenant governor in 2010.
Herbst similarly touts his hometown of Trumbull as an “oasis of opportunity” in a state plagued by “Hartford insiders.” In launching his statewide exploratory committee after losing the 2014 state treasurer race, Herbst said he hopes to appeal to Republicans and “sensible Democrats.”
Raimondo could face a rematch with Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican who said in an interview last week that he was giving a potential bid “serious consideration.” His vanquished opponent in the 2014 Republican primary, Ken Block, has also said he will “consider what to do about 2018.” Current and former state legislators have expressed interest in a bid.
The governors might also have to fend off primary challenges. In Rhode Island, Clay Pell, one of Raimondo’s 2014 primary opponents and the grandson of former Sen. Claiborne Pell, hasn’t hinted at his 2018 plans. In Connecticut, Middletown Mayor Dan Drew formed an exploratory committee in what is likely an effort to lay the groundwork for a campaign should Malloy retire, though in an interview Monday he declined to rule out challenging the governor.
If the Connecticut seat does open, Democrats would have a deceptively short timeline to jump into the race. It took Malloy 18 months to become the first gubernatorial candidate under the state’s campaign finance system to qualify for more than $6 million in public funds for his successful 2010 race.
“If you’re gonna qualify for public financing and you want to run for governor in 2018,” Occhiogrosso said, “you probably don’t have a whole lot longer to wait.”