Gu­ber­na­to­rial races could hold Democrats’ fu­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - Dan.balz@wash­post.com

When West Vir­ginia Gov. Jim Jus­tice an­nounced that he was leav­ing the Demo­cratic Party and re­turn­ing to the Repub­li­can Party, the move high­lighted once again the dom­i­nance of the GOP at the state level — and sig­naled to be­lea­guered Democrats the im­por­tance that the 2018 gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tions could play in start­ing a come­back.

With Jus­tice’s switch, an­nounced Thurs­day at a rally with Pres­i­dent Trump, Repub­li­cans now hold 34 of the 50 gov­er­nor­ships, ty­ing the record for the most ever for the GOP. Democrats, who at the be­gin­ning of the Obama pres­i­dency held 28 gov­er­nor­ships, have seen their ranks dwin­dle to 15. At some point over the past decade, ac­cord­ing to the Repub­li­can Gover­nors As­so­ci­a­tion, there has been a Repub­li­can gov­er­nor in 46 of the 50 states.

Repub­li­can con­trol of the states is even more lop­sided when the par­ti­san bal­ance of state leg­is­la­tures is in­cluded in the sta­tis­tics. Ac­cord­ing to the National Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures, Repub­li­cans now hold the gov­er­nor’s of­fice and con­trol of the leg­is­la­ture in 25 states. Democrats en­joy to­tal con­trol in six, with 18 states hav­ing split con­trol. (Ne­braska has a Repub­li­can gov­er­nor and a uni­cam­eral, non­par­ti­san leg­is­la­ture.) Eight years ago, Democrats held the up­per hand, con­trol­ling 17 states to nine for the Repub­li­cans.

For Democrats, the rapid loss of power in the states is both cause for alarm and some rea­son for hope. Repub­li­cans posted enor­mous gains in the states and in Congress in the midterm elec­tions of 2010 and 2014. If it hap­pened for the Repub­li­cans, Democrats ask, why couldn’t it hap­pen for them?

Midterm elec­tions for a new pres­i­dent gen­er­ally re­sult in losses, some­times sub­stan­tial losses, and Trump cur­rently suf­fers from the low­est ap­proval rat­ings of any new pres­i­dent at this point in a first term. That’s com­pounded by the fact that the pres­i­dent and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans have so far failed to en­act a health-care bill, which could dampen en­thu­si­asm among many Repub­li­can vot­ers.

GOP strate­gists be­lieve they must pre­pare for a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate like that of 2006, when Repub­li­cans lost the House and sur­ren­dered their ma­jor­ity among gover­nors.

A year from now, the at­mos­phere might look bet­ter, if the econ­omy con­tin­ues to ex­pand and Congress en­acts ma­jor leg­is­la­tion. If not, look for Repub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates to dis­tance them­selves from Wash­ing­ton.

Democrats plan to make an is­sue of Trump in the state races. They also hope to see more in­tra­party tur­moil over al­le­giance to the pres­i­dent in Repub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial pri­maries. That was a fea­ture of the Vir­ginia GOP pri­mary ear­lier this year.

Even if there are fa­vor­able con­di­tions for the Democrats, it is dif­fi­cult to over­state the sig­nif­i­cance of these 2018 con­tests for their longer-term im­pli­ca­tions for the party. Win­ning more gov­er­nor­ships of­fers at least two po­ten­tial div­i­dends. First, it could bring new faces to a party des­per­ately in need of a rein­vig­o­ra­tion through fresh, younger tal­ent. Sec­ond, it could give Democrats more power in the redis­trict­ing bat­tles that will take place af­ter the 2020 Cen­sus and that will af­fect the shape of the House for a decade.

“The fu­ture of the Demo­cratic Party re­ally is at stake in these gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tions,” said Elis­a­beth Pear­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Demo­cratic Gover­nors As­so­ci­a­tion.

Over the next 15 months, there will be 38 gu­ber­na­to­rial races, start­ing this Novem­ber with con­tests in Vir­ginia and New Jersey. Democrats are heav­ily fa­vored to pick up New Jersey, where cur­rent Gov. Chris Christie (R) has an ap­proval rat­ing in the teens. In Vir­ginia, cur­rently in Demo­cratic hands un­der Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the race will be closer, but Democrats rate a nar­row ad­van­tage.

The real test will come in Novem­ber 2018, with the Repub­li­cans hav­ing to de­fend 26 states to nine for the Democrats. Of those 26 Repub­li­can-held seats, about half will fea­ture in­cum­bents run­ning (al­though sev­eral were ap­pointed since 2014 and will be run­ning on their own for the first time) while the re­main­der will be open seats and there­fore po­ten­tially more at­trac­tive tar­gets.

But here’s just one ex­am­ple of the chal­lenge for Democrats. Repub­li­cans cur­rently hold the gov­er­nor­ships in Mary­land, Mas­sachusetts and Ver­mont, all deep-blue states pres­i­den­tially. Yet the in­cum­bents — Larry Ho­gan in Mary­land, Char­lie Baker in Mas­sachusetts and Phil Scott in Ver­mont — are among the most pop­u­lar gover­nors in the na­tion. In a wave elec­tion, one or more could be vul­ner­a­ble, but Democrats can’t count on easy pick­ups in states where their pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates won by big mar­gins last year.

Their best hopes in blue states will be in Maine, where out­go­ing Repub­li­can Gov. Paul LePage has been a source of con­stant con­tro­versy, and in Illi­nois, where Repub­li­can Gov. Bruce Rauner, a busi­ness­man who had never held of­fice un­til he was elected four years ago, has been in a mul­ti­year war with Democrats in the leg­is­la­ture. Mean­while, Democrats could find them­selves on the defensive in at least one other blue state, Con­necti­cut.

Nor can Democrats look to many deep-red states for easy pick­ups. The non­par­ti­san Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port list of solid or likely Repub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial seats in­cludes a dozen or so of these red states. Demo­cratic strate­gists say they will not write off those states, ar­gu­ing that they are de­ter­mined to go af­ter seats in all ar­eas of the coun­try.

As is so of­ten the case in pol­i­tics, the Mid­west looms large in the gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tions. To mount a se­ri­ous come­back, Democrats will need to show strength in the re­gion that gave Trump the pres­i­dency over Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton. In Wis­con­sin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) will be try­ing for a third term. Since win­ning the of­fice in 2010, he has sur­vived a re­call elec­tion and a re­elec­tion cam­paign. Walker re­mains a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure, but the Demo­cratic bench is not strong there.

Three Mid­west­ern states will have open races: Michi­gan and Ohio, cur­rently held by Repub­li­cans; and Min­nesota, now in Demo­cratic hands. Ohio went strongly for Trump, and Democrats have strug­gled in most statewide races in re­cent elec­tions. Michi­gan nar­rowly backed Trump and prob­a­bly will see a fierce bat­tle for the gov­er­nor­ship. Min­nesota backed Clin­ton by a sur­pris­ing small mar­gin, and the gu­ber­na­to­rial race next year will be crowded and com­pet­i­tive. In Penn­syl­va­nia, in­cum­bent Gov. Tom Wolf is seen by Repub­li­cans as vul­ner­a­ble, and Democrats rec­og­nize he will have a se­ri­ous chal­lenge.

Other tra­di­tional pres­i­den­tial bat­tle­grounds present op­por­tu­ni­ties for the Democrats, in­clud­ing Florida, New Mex­ico and Ne­vada, where Repub­li­can gover­nors Rick Scott, Su­sana Martinez and Brian San­doval are term-lim­ited. Colorado Gov. John Hick­en­looper (D) also is term-lim­ited, giv­ing Repub­li­cans an op­por­tu­nity in a pur­ple state.

The over­lay of the com­ing redis­trict­ing bat­tles adds an ex­tra el­e­ment of im­por­tance to 2017 and 2018 gu­ber­na­to­rial races. In 28 of the 38 states with elec­tions this year or next, the gov­er­nor has the power to veto a redis­trict­ing map pro­duced by the state leg­is­la­ture. For Democrats, that pro­vides the eas­i­est route to check the power of Repub­li­can-held leg­is­la­tures to draw maps fa­vor­able to their party — and vice versa.

Out­side money will prob­a­bly be pour­ing into many of these con­tests. Democrats have set up an op­er­a­tion aimed specif­i­cally at win­ning back House seats through more bal­anced con­gres­sional dis­trict lines, and that has height­ened at­ten­tion on the gu­ber­na­to­rial races. “Nor­mally, our peo­ple are fo­cused on fed­eral races,” Pear­son said. “This year, it feels like the dif­fer­ence be­tween night and day.”

Next year’s con­gres­sional elec­tions will draw out­sized at­ten­tion for the pos­si­bil­ity of Democrats re­gain­ing con­trol of the House and putting a huge road­block in front of Trump and the Repub­li­can Party. But no one should lose sight of the longert­erm im­por­tance of the gu­ber­na­to­rial races and what they will say about the re­build­ing ef­forts of the Demo­cratic Party.

JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) greets a pa­tient July 21 at the Re­mote Area Med­i­cal Clinic in Wise, Va. Democrats hold a nar­row ad­van­tage in the state’s gu­ber­na­to­rial race this year.

Dan Balz THE SUNDAY TAKE

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