Republicans who control two-thirds of the nation’s governorships gathered Wednesday in America’s largest red state, in part to strategize about how to maintain their political dominance.
Electoral defeats last week, unfulfilled congressional promises and President Donald Trump’s plummeting popularity had some attendees concerned about a shifting political landscape.
Vice President Mike Pence was to address the two-day gathering of the Republican Governors Association in Austin. Some of the former Indiana governor’s ex-colleagues may need a pep talk. Just as some Democrats facing tight midterm elections once shied away from President Barack Obama, there might now be Republicans tempted to tiptoe away from their party’s leadership.
“The national environment is affecting every elected official at every level,” said Republican political strategist Matt Mackowiak.
GOP job performance
He said the Trump administration and GOP-controlled Congress still can deliver wins on policies such as tax cuts. But if that doesn’t happen, Mackowiak said, “there are going to be questions about not getting the benefits of Washington being fully run by Republicans.”
Earlier this year, Democrats lost special congressional elections in Kansas, Montana, Georgia and South Carolina, but last week won the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey. Republicans will still hold a 33-16 advantage in governorships nationwide after January. Alaska Governor Bill Walker is an independent up for re-election next year.
The Democratic successes revealed some potentially troublesome trends for Republicans. In Virginia, suburban women failed to turn out strongly for GOP candidates. In 2016, that demographic helped put Trump in the White House. By comparison, minority turnout for Democrats was strong.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the association’s chairman and one of those seeking re-election, said examining the factors driving turnout will be important for next year.
“Every state is different,” Walker said at a news conference.
Problems in D.C.
Republicans in Congress failed to make good on their promise to “repeal and replace” Obama’s health care law and are still trying to craft a tax cut plan that would have sufficient support to pass. Meanwhile, Trump’s approval ratings are sagging and the investigation into Russia’s meddling in last year’s election has accelerated.
Walker shrugged off concerns that Trump’s approval ratings could cause trouble for Republicans running next year, urging his gubernatorial colleagues, “Run your own race. Be your own person. Talk to the voters about the issues that matter to them in the states.”
Florida Governor Rick Scott, who is term-limited and can’t run again in 2018, added: “I do think it’s going to be important, whether Congress and the president do what they said they were going to do.”
Republican Governors Association spokesman Jon Thompson said that Republican governors in some blue states “have their own brand separate from Washington,” pointing to Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Maryland’s Larry Hogan. But Baker isn’t attending this week’s meetings.
Having a sizable advantage in governors’ offices means the GOP will have to play more defense in 2018. Thirty-six states are electing governors — Republicans will try to hold 26 compared with the Democrats’ nine. That includes 12 open governorships currently held by Republicans, and four open seats now held by Democrats.
The gubernatorial races are important for a reason other than political bragging rights: In many states, governors will play a key role in the next round of redistricting after the 2020 census.
Republicans control 31 state legislatures, the bodies that typically draw congressional and legislative maps. A Democratic governor in a state with a Republican-run legislature can sometimes limit the type of extreme gerrymandering that would entrench Republicans in political power.
Democratic Governors Association spokesman Jared Leopold said that, if his party can win a lot of next year’s governor’s races, Democrats can at least wield veto power over districts drawn to favor the GOP.
“The governors’ races in 2018 will shape congressional maps for a decade to come,” Leopold said.