MESA, AZ - OCTOBER 19:  Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks during a rally for President Donald Trump at the International Air Response facility on October 19, 2018 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
CNN  — 

Donald Trump is causing a headache for the Republican Governors Association.

Inside the GOP, the former President’s hostility toward officeholders and candidates who refuse to embrace his false election fraud claims has fomented fear that Trump may be negatively impacting the party’s gubernatorial recruitment and retention, particularly as he threatens to enlist primary challengers against certain incumbents, multiple Republicans told CNN.

Such concerns come at a critical juncture for the Republican Party, which remains hamstrung in Washington amid Democratic majorities in both congressional chambers and whose ability to retake the White House in 2024 may ultimately be decided in key states where the party that controls the governor’s mansion typically enjoys an advantage. Allies of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, the RGA chair, said they believe the pressure GOP candidates are under to embrace Trump and pledge allegiance to his election lies has even discouraged potential top-notch recruits from launching campaigns against incumbent Democratic governors in all-important battlegrounds such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Earlier this year, for instance, former Rep. Candice Miller, who previously won two statewide races in Michigan and was considered a potentially formidable challenger to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, announced that she would not be running. Miller, now a public works commissioner for Macomb County, was critical of Democratic objections to the 2004 Electoral College results but has not weighed in on Trump’s false claims about the 2020 contest. And in Pennsylvania, outgoing Republican Sen. Pat Toomey surprised state GOP operatives when he announced both his plans to retire from the upper chamber and to stay out of the governor’s race.

One top Ducey ally, who was granted anonymity to speak freely, said Republicans would normally have Democrats “running scared” in these states because of the party’s ability to recruit “highly qualified candidates.” But Trump, this person said, “has gotten in the way and is complicating those efforts.”

Part of the problem is that Trump’s litmus test requiring that candidates embrace his false assertion that the 2020 election was stolen leaves little room for nuance – creating potential issues for GOP candidates who must appeal to MAGA conservatives to clinch victory in a primary without alienating moderate voters whose support they will likely need to win statewide later on.

“You have to agree that the election was stolen or else Trump is going to smoke you out, and in certain races that could mean Republicans end up with nominees who are less electable in a general election,” said longtime Republican strategist Rob Stutzman, the onetime communications director for former GOP California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Trump-Ducey relationship remains tense

Ducey, who is at the forefront of GOP efforts to grow the number of governors’ mansions the party controls, already failed that litmus test. The Arizona governor left Trump so irritated after shutting down his voter fraud claims in a Twitter threat last year that the two men are not currently on speaking terms.

Despite being responsible for protecting incumbent Republican governors who are up for reelection next fall, Ducey is one of the only GOP leaders involved in the party’s electoral apparatus who has not met with Trump since the 2020 election to discuss the former President’s involvement in upcoming gubernatorial races or to demand that he stop actively recruiting primary challengers to take on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, one of two Republican governors whom Trump has very publicly criticized since the November election. Others, like Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who chairs the Senate GOP’s campaign committee, have made the pilgrimage down to Mar-a-Lago to huddle with Trump – or in the case of McCarthy, to smooth over his relationship with the former President.

Senior Trump adviser Jason Miller told CNN there has been zero outreach by either side to schedule a meeting between Ducey and the former President. Trump, he added, has been independently evaluating certain races and may hold a rally in Georgia this summer to support both a Kemp challenger and Rep. Jody Hice, who recently announced plans to primary Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger. Kemp and Raffensberger both refused to invalidate the state’s 2020 election results amid intense calls from Trump and his campaign to do so after he lost the state to Joe Biden last November.

“President Trump is going to help Republicans win governor’s races all over the country and he doesn’t need Doug Ducey to do that,” Miller said.

In a statement provided to CNN after this story first published, RGA communications director Jesse Hunt said, “Numerous impressive Republican candidates have already stepped forward in the first few months of the cycle to run against scandal-plagued Democrat governors across the country.”

“This is more manufactured drama concocted by Democrats and operatives who wish to remain relevant,” Hunt claimed, adding that Republicans “will be united in our push to turn more governor mansions red.”

Democrats have seized on the fractured relationship between Trump and Ducey to claim their party has a distinct advantage in gubernatorial races with Republicans distracted by internal party squabbles. The group will soon launch, a website that underscores “the GOP’s bitter internal feud” over the 2020 election results, according to a person familiar with the plan, and has relished Trump’s criticism of incumbent Republican governors such as Kemp and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, both of whom are up for reelection in 2022.

Democratic Governors Association political director Marshall Cohen noted that Trump’s loyalty test has, in some cases, placed Ducey in the uncomfortable position of defending Republican incumbents who have split from his own opposition to voter fraud claims to align themselves with the former President.

“Ducey is not only out of odds with the former President but out of odds with other governors who have taken the side of the former president,” Cohen told CNN, adding that “closeness to Trump is a currency in Republican politics” that the Arizona governor currently lacks.

“He doesn’t have it and that puts the RGA at a disadvantage in a key cycle,” Cohen claimed.

Trump and company expand their involvement in governor’s races

Between now and next November, 38 states will host gubernatorial elections – including two elections this fall in Virginia and New Jersey and an expected recall election in California targeting incumbent Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Already, Trump and his allies are involved in several of these races. While Ducey has vowed to support sitting GOP governors, the former President and many of his onetime campaign aides have been working behind the scenes to recruit insurgent Republican challengers or advise prospective candidates on how to effectively take on Democratic incumbents.

A person close to Trump said the former President remains frustrated with DeWine, who was among the first Republicans to recognize Biden as president-elect last fall, despite the Republican governor’s deep involvement in Trump’s reelection campaign. Still, Trump has not sought out candidates to challenge the Ohio Republican or even privately encouraged possible contenders to make a go for it, including former Ohio Rep. Jim Renacci, who is said to be weighing a campaign against DeWine and has been working closely with ex-Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale.

“He’s upset with DeWine but not in the same way that he’s mad with Kemp,” this person said, noting that Trump has vowed to campaign against the Georgia governor and is actively searching for a MAGA-aligned candidate to primary Kemp.

Some Republican candidates have been quick to embrace the former President, regardless of how popular he may be in their states, as they elbow their way to the nomination in competitive GOP primaries. During a GOP primary debate Tuesday night, New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Hirsh Singh repeated Trump’s unfounded claim that he won the 2020 election – flaunting a “Trump Won” MAGA ball cap at one point during the debate and describing his opponent, former state assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, as a “RINO Never-Trump Republican.”

Others, like Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin, have engaged in strategic balancing acts – attempting to align themselves with Trump while maintaining some distance from the former President’s most radical claims and policies. For instance, in the lead-up to Virginia’s nominating convention, Youngkin refused to acknowledge Biden as the legitimately elected president and spoke often of the need for enhanced “election integrity” in the US. But during a May 13 interview on Fox Business, after he had won the nomination, Youngkin told Fox Business Biden “was legitimately elected our president.” Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is hoping to advance as the Democratic nominee for governor following his party’s June 8 primary, raced to define Youngkin as a Trump sycophant immediately after the Republican received the former president’s endorsement on the heels of the GOP nominating convention.

In Michigan, Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who has had “overwhelmingly positive” conversations with both Ducey and McDaniel about his potential run against Whitmer, according to a person briefed on the talks, has already shied away from questions about Trump, who narrowly lost the state in 2020. Ducey described Craig as “out of central casting” during an interview Wednesday with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Asked earlier this month, however, if he believes Trump’s baseless claims about election fraud, Craig simply told reporters: “I’m not going to talk politics.”

This story has been updated with a statement from the Republican Governors Association.