President Donald Trump’s stumbles overseas and awkward intervention in key states has Democrats optimistic that the playing field is expanding in what could be the most important year of governor’s races for the next decade.
November’s midterm elections feature 36 governor’s races – including 23 seats that are currently in Republican hands.
Because most governors have veto power over redistricting maps made by state lawmakers, Democratic governors have spent the year arguing that this year is their only chance at installing a check on Republican-dominated legislatures and preventing maps that would give the GOP a major advantage in the battle for control of Congress for another decade.
The stakes grew higher when the Supreme Court refused to rule this year on several cases that challenged gerrymandered maps.
Democratic governors at the National Governors Association meeting in New Mexico this weekend said the combination of Trump’s roundly condemned handling of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ongoing concerns among rural voters in Republican strongholds about a trade war and his ham-handed intervention in GOP primaries – as well as local backlash over GOP policies like education funding – has broadened the battleground map.
“We’re going to compete in places that people have not thought of as competitive before,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, the group tasked with steering the party’s strategy in gubernatorial races.
This year’s gubernatorial battlegrounds already included marquee open-seat races in several key presidential swing states with outgoing Republican governors – including Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Nevada.
Republican incumbents long thought to be in danger include Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Democrats also believe Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham will win the New Mexico governor’s race against Republican Rep. Steve Pearce, and think special election results in the state have shown Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker is vulnerable in his bid for a third term.
Now, though, Democrats believe they have a shot at winning several more states – including two Sun Belt states that could become presidential battlegrounds in 2020.
The party increasingly believes it can win in Georgia after President Donald Trump’s endorsement of bombastic Secretary of State Brian Kemp over the more moderate Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle ahead of Tuesday’s Republican runoff. There, progressive favorite Stacey Abrams is vying to become the nation’s first black female governor.
Meanwhile, the “Red for Ed” teachers’ movement has made Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey look vulnerable in a year where the state’s electorate will already be mobilized with a major Senate match-up.
Democrats even argue that if 2018 turns into the blue wave progressives hope for, it could even crash Tornado Alley: Teacher protests have also emerged in Oklahoma, and in Kansas, controversial Secretary of State Kris Kobach could win the Republican primary and prove a weak general election nominee.
They also believe Tennessee – where former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen is mounting a competitive Senate race – could be a major surprise.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper pointed to Trump’s Monday news conference with Putin, saying it outraged some Republicans.
“In these tight races, that’s going to be a powerful factor,” he said.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, said trade will be a driving factor in governor’s races.
“Tell me the price of soybeans in October and I’ll tell you what states” will be competitive, Malloy said.
Democrats are on defense in several states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Minnesota.
Inslee and other Democratic governors said the Supreme Court vacancy – and Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh – has given them a new opportunity to highlight the stakes of gubernatorial races.
Their argument: If Roe v. Wade or Obamacare’s protections are undercut by the Supreme Court, states can still implement their own laws addressing abortion rights, health care and more.
“We need Democratic governors to protect us,” Inslee said. “In the future, in our most basic right of choice, our ability to stop gerrymandering – you’re not going to be able to call the court. … You’re going to need a Democratic governor to call to protect your most basic rights.”
Republican governors at the summer meeting in New Mexico – largely those in safe races or not on the ballot this year – also said they feared the party could face blowback over Trump on the state level.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert criticized Trump’s refusal to blame Russia for meddling in the 2016 election.
“I don’t know whether he believed that or it just came out of his mouth without a filter and now he’s going back and changing his mind, I don’t know,” Herbert said.
He also pointed to the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies – including family separations at the border – as politically problematic. “We’re a little bit more moderate in Utah than some of the rhetoric that’s out there,” Herbert said.
South Dakota Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he fears the political fallout of a trade war in rural states.
“I worry that our trade imbalances and the aluminum and steel are resulting in problems for our farmers,” Daugaard said.
He said he hopes Trump is using threats of a trade war with China and other countries as a negotiating tactic that will result in better trade agreements. “I worry whether that’s true or not,” he said. “I just don’t know.”