For Democrats, this year’s governors’ races present a once-in-a-decade opening.
This year features 36 gubernatorial contests – including 23 in Republican-held states – starting in less than a month with the primary in Illinois to determine who will take on GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, perhaps the nation’s most vulnerable incumbent.
It’s the opposite of this year’s Senate map, where Democrats are defending 10 seats in states President Donald Trump won in 2016.
What’s at stake in many of these races is an opportunity to have a direct hand in the congressional map-making process after the 2020 Census – something Republicans dominated after the wave election of 2010 swept them into power in statehouse across the country.
Wins in gubernatorial races are perhaps the best way for Democrats to lock in any of the gains they’re expected to make in suburban House races in 2018 and potentially 2020.
Governors of both parties gathered in Washington over the weekend for a National Governors Association meeting. Republicans and Democrats also met separately, and the governors are scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House on Monday.
“Everybody realizes that’s what is at stake,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. “While we think it’s really important who sits in every statehouse, there are also consequences for the national picture.”
This weekend, the Democratic Governors Association unveiled plans to spend $20 million in eight states – Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – where governors play a key role in the redistricting process.
In those eight states combined, Republicans hold 26 more seats in Congress than Democrats – two more seats than the 24 Democrats need to flip to take control of the House of Representatives.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the chair of the Democratic governors’ group, said Democrats are “excited, fired up” and expect “one of the best years we’ve had in a long time” in governors’ races.
Newly-elected New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said 2018 is “potentially an extraordinary year” for the party.
The biggest opportunities for Democrats come in states Hillary Clinton won in 2016 – starting with Illinois. Two Western states with term-limited Republican governors, Nevada and New Mexico, also present major opportunities. And in Maine, the departure of bombastic Republican Gov. Paul LePage makes for a top Democratic target.
Democrats are also trying to win back some traditional swing states that Trump captured in 2010 – including Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott is retiring and could run for the Senate; Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich is weighing a presidential run against Trump in 2020; and Michigan, where Gov. Rick Snyder is departing.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has also sounded alarm bells ahead of his re-election bid for a third term. And Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican seeking his second term, could see his race complicated by high turnout for competitive House and Senate contests in his marquee state.
At the National Governors Association meeting, Ducey said he’s staying relentlessly focused on state-level issues like growing entrepreneurship and educational attainment – an indication he’ll try to steer his race away from national themes and the President himself.
“The best thing you can do as a governor is have a record of accomplishment and achievement,” he said. “My job is in the state capitol and the 15 counties in the state of Arizona, not on the East Coast.”
Republican candidates are being warned that turnout in this year’s elections is likely to look much different than it has in the most recent races many of this year’s candidates have run in.
“Republicans should be aware that when your party’s in the White House, there’s a wind at your face instead of a wind at your back,” said Tennessee’s Haslam, the Republican Governors Association chair.
“If you’re running and the last time you ran was in ’10 or ‘12 or ‘14 or ‘16, you should realize it’s a pretty different world out there,” he said.
Democrats elsewhere have the authority to stymie and challenge Trump’s agenda – for example, by denying cloture votes in the Senate and with state attorneys general suing to blocks his executive actions. But Democratic governors see themselves as unique in the party in being able to go on offense.
Seizing on an energized base eager to turn out to oppose Trump, they are positioning themselves as a counter to Trump’s federal moves on issues like climate change and gun control. Murphy touted work with three other Northeastern Democratic governors to form a coalition to work on gun safety.
“We are as committed to retaking our progressive soul as we are to growing our economy,” Murphy said.