Clinton Lights Path for Democratic Governor Pickups

The former presidential nominee did well in four Southwestern states with Republican governor seats on the ballot in 2018.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton departs after speaking at a rally at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Zach C. Cohen
Feb. 6, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.”

Graphic by John Irons
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