Washington (CNN)Washington Gov. Jay Inslee knows about political wave elections: He was wiped out by a Republican wave as a three-term House member in 1994.
Democrats eye major gains in depleted governors' ranks in 2018 'awakening'
Now, citing President Donald Trump's unpopularity, he's confidently predicting an even bigger Democratic landslide in the 2018 midterm elections. Inslee projected that Democrats would reverse the 2010 and 2014 losses that left them with just 15 governor's offices.
"You cannot overstate the fact that the Republicans are going to be trying to carry around someone that independents revile," Inslee said in an interview.
"You saw in Virginia that they can run from that stench but they can't hide," he said. "If they embrace him, they're in trouble. If they run from him, they're in trouble. There's no way out for them."
Inslee is taking over Monday as the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association ahead of a 2018 election cycle in which 36 governor's offices are on the ballot -- including 26 currently held by Republicans.
If 2017's trends, with Virginia and New Jersey easily electing Democratic governors, hold up, 2018 represents a massive opening for the party to reverse some of its losses during former President Barack Obama's tenure.
The party's top pick-up opportunities could come in states with term-limited or retiring Republican governors: New Mexico, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Maine. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is also a top target.
Democrats are unlikely to win back the nearly 1,000 state legislative seats they lost in one election. But many governors have veto power over state legislative maps -- which means winning governor's races in 2018 would give Democrats some ability to block the Republican map-making process that allowed them to lock in their gains after the 2010 election for the rest of the decade.
"We sort of yielded this to the Koch brothers and the Republicans in these state races, and we have just awoken," Inslee said. "This has been the great awakening in the Democratic team."
Republicans have credited Democrats with shifting their focus to the state level. At the Republican Governors Association meeting in Austin, Texas, last month, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker cited billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, labor unions and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder and backed by former President Barack Obama.
"My biggest fear is not who my opponent's going to be," Walker said. "It's how much money is going to come from this Obama-Holder group, and how much can I offset that?"
Inslee said Democrats expect some races that aren't on the competitive map to become close contests "in places like South Carolina, Kansas."
Democrats are aiming to pick up other down-ballot statewide offices, too. The Democratic Attorneys General Association recently released a list of five states -- Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin -- where they hope to pick up Republican-held seats.
"2018 is almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will help shape our states and the nation," Inslee said.