GOP Split on Display in Governor Primaries

The White House has weighed in across the map, sometimes in opposition to outgoing Republican governors.

President Trump greets Rep. Diane Black after speaking at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention in Nashville on Jan. 8. Behind them is Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
March 7, 2018, 6:18 p.m.

In another sign of the schism between the Republican Party’s past and present, President Trump and his allies are backing candidates promising a break from the governors they seek to replace.

Some of the president’s preferred standard-bearers are actively opposing either the candidates aligned with the outgoing governor or the policies implemented during their tenure.

“Because neither [Nevada Gov. Brian] Sandoval nor [Michigan Gov. Rick] Snyder would be considered full-throated Trump supporters, it’s not surprising to see the president and vice president support candidates in those primaries that do not have the support of the governor,” said Phil Cox, cofounder of 50 State and former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is running with the president’s support, as is Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, for whom Trump headlined a fundraiser in October.

Vice President Mike Pence, acting as the administration’s campaigner in chief, has also weighed in. Besides backing six incumbents seeking reelection, his Great America PAC has donated to Schuette, DeSantis, Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee, and Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Pence praised Laxalt as “a strong leader for Nevada” during an official visit to an Air Force base near Las Vegas in January.

Marty Obst, a spokesman for Great America PAC, said Pence’s team “works in tandem with” the RGA and the White House Office of Political Affairs to determine a state’s competitiveness and “strategic importance to the reelection effort in 2020.”

The former Indiana governor also seeks political advice from past colleagues, including ex-RGA Chairman Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. Walker and Bevin are members of the RGA’s leadership and are up for reelection this year and next, respectively.

Schuette, who toured Michigan with Pence last weekend, said in an interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month that he and his team “work closely” with Trump’s cadre, and he hoped Trump and Pence would campaign for him before the Aug. 7 primary.

Schuette noted that “the president is clearly aware of who is with him and who deserted him”—a shot at his primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who renounced his Trump endorsement in 2016 following the release of the Access Hollywood tape.

“The fact that they’re engaged in a primary is all about making sure that we win,” Schuette said. “And if you have winning policies, that means you have winning politics.”

Snyder, who is term-limited, hasn’t publicly endorsed a candidate but has fundraised for Calley and has expressed concern about Schuette’s plans to cut taxes further. Schuette for his part listed both men’s record on taxes as evidence of the “big philosophical differences” between the two GOP candidates.

In a brief interview on Capitol Hill, Snyder described Trump’s endorsement of Schuette as “just another factor” in the race. And while he hasn’t outright endorsed Calley, “what I can always say is he’s the best lieutenant governor in the country” and a “fabulous partner.”

In Nevada, neither Laxalt nor state Treasurer Dan Schwartz are allies of Sandoval, who can’t seek reelection. Both Republicans oppose the Commerce Tax, a cornerstone of Sandoval’s funding formula, and Sandoval intimated late last year that support for its repeal would be a nonstarter for potential endorsees.

Laxalt spokesman Andy Matthews said Tuesday that Laxalt has “worked with the governor on hundreds of issues” since taking office in 2015, and that while Laxalt still opposes the Commerce Tax, the attorney general believes Sandoval “has done a good job.”

“Adam is in a very strong position to be the Republican nominee for governor, and he hopes to earn Governor Sandoval’s support,” Matthews said. “He is the only candidate who will protect Governor Sandoval’s legacy of needed reforms from being completely dismantled by liberal majorities in both houses and a Democrat governor.”

Trump has also lavished praise on members of Congress running in contested primaries. In October, he tweeted that Black, “the highly respected House Budget Committee Chairwoman, did a GREAT job in passing Budget, setting up big Tax Cuts.” Pence called Black his “great friend” during a speech in Nashville last week and praised her as “one of the great, great champions of life in the Congress.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who chairs the RGA, hasn’t endorsed and is expected to stay neutral, but his former staff and donors are backing Randy Boyd and Bill Lee, two of his former appointees, in the Aug. 2 primary. Former Haslam consultant Tom Ingram said that while the governor has a “close relationship” with Boyd, ”he would consider himself friends with all of them.”

Even Trump’s family is jumping in. Donald Trump Jr. is slated to stump for a second time for Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who cochaired the presidential voter-fraud commission. Kobach faces Jeff Colyer, who was elevated to governor in January when Sam Brownback was confirmed to an ambassadorship.

Colyer said in a brief interview on Capitol Hill last week that he hasn’t asked Trump if he’ll get involved in the primary. It “doesn’t matter” if Trump does so, he added. “It’s a Kansas thing.”

Trump hasn’t weighed in for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s front-running governor campaign. Term-limited Gov. John Kasich, who is considering running against Trump again in 2020, backed Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor to replace him. But Taylor has distanced herself from the outgoing chief executive’s tenure and in an interview at CPAC said her team “stays in contact with the political staff at the White House.”

However, all three Republican National Committee members from the state sent letters Friday to the RNC waiving the national party’s rule against supporting Republican candidates in contested primaries, approving “any and all pre-primary financial assistance and in-kind aid the RNC may choose to provide” for DeWine and Rep. Jim Renacci, who is running for the Senate.

Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken, whom Trump supported last year, said that among party leadership “there was an overwhelming support for” DeWine and his running mate, Secretary of State Jon Husted. “Quite frankly, they worked very hard for that endorsement.”

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