Democrats are bullish on cutting into Republican governor seats this cycle in states where Hillary Clinton excelled last year. And there are more of them than one might expect.
The Southwest in particular will likely invite plenty of attention. It includes Nevada and New Mexico, two of the nine states that Clinton carried where a Republican-held governor seat is on the ballot, as well as Arizona, where Clinton’s 4-point loss was narrower than other recent Democratic nominees.
Those provide golden opportunities for the party to cut into the GOP’s near-historic majority of governors. Democrats hope the combination of President Trump’s sagging approval numbers and the picking apart of Republican incumbent records can assist their effort to resuscitate the national party at the state level.
“Our margin was closer than most battlegrounds, including North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa,” Arizona Democratic Party Chair Alexis Tameron said.
Texas was also in that territory, as Clinton’s 9-point losing margin was just a point higher than in Ohio. But Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has stockpiled $34 million as of the end of 2016 in what is one of the most expensive states to wage a statewide campaign.
Arizona has elected governors of the party opposite that of the White House in every election since 1994. The potential for a down-ballot backlash to Trump prompted Democratic state Sen. Steve Farley to consider running. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and David Garcia, the 2014 Democratic nominee for superintendent of public instruction, are also possible candidates.
To prepare for 2018, Gov. Doug Ducey told National Journal in December that he is “focusing on the economy, K-12 education, public safety—these aren’t partisan issues.” Ducey had more than $500,000 as of Dec. 31 and could reap support from political groups associated with the Koch brothers, whose summit in California the governor attended last month.
Ducey is a business-minded executive whom even Democrats view as distinctly removed from his controversial predecessor, Jan Brewer. He has also tried to separate himself from Washington Republicans: He warned against hasty repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and he’s been silent on further construction of the border wall and an import tariff, both of which could impact the state’s Mexican-dependent economy and enjoyed little support in a recent poll by Phoenix-based Data Orbital.
“Those are two losers, as far as Arizona is concerned,” said Terry Goddard, a former Arizona attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor. “Ducey would have to campaign with the administration, and that could be a dicey proposition—but I’m not saying it is yet.”
Nevada promises to be a gubernatorial battleground next year after serving as one of the few bright spots for Democrats in November. Clinton carried it by 2 points, and the party held Harry Reid’s open Senate seat and flipped both state legislative chambers.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval is term-limited. Among potential candidates, Democrats are already eyeing Steve Sisolak, who chairs the Clark County Commission and recently reported $3.8 million on hand. He could face Republican state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who reported $1.5 million on hand to start 2017 and is considering a bid.
Sandoval told reporters in Washington last month he was confident that his party would prevail, noting the state’s “cyclical” history of Republican advances in midterms.
“It all depends on the candidate,” he added. “Nevada is a place where a lot of people vote for the candidate versus the party, and I think the Republicans will have pretty strong lineup.”
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a former chair of the Republican Governors Association, is also leaving office in two years, and Democrats have wasted no time making moves to replace her.
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced in December that she would run. State Attorney General Hector Balderas and Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales are both “considering” bids. Venture capitalist Jeff Apodaca, whose father, Jerry Apodaca, was governor in 1970s, is also a possible candidate.
In an interview at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington last month, Gonzales praised New Mexicans’ rejection of Trump in November and said “many of us” in the Hispanic community “personalized” the president’s description of undocumented immigrants as criminals.
“What the ballot looks like and who’s on it in 2018 could very much influence what turnout is going to be,” Gonzales said. “And that’s our opportunity.”