Democratic governors are facing a messaging conundrum: they say American democracy may hinge on their elections in 2022, but they’re not sure they can get most voters to care.
Attempts to meddle with the certification of the Electoral College count and the partisan takeovers of the voting infrastructure don’t seem to be front of mind for an electorate drained by nearly two years of pandemic living and a creeping sense of economic panic, and that worries a range of Democratic governors gearing up for campaigns who gathered in New Orleans this weekend for grim meetings about their 2022 electoral prospects.
They see former President Donald Trump cheerleading Republican efforts to twist state election laws in the GOP’s favor. They fear he’ll launch another presidential campaign in 2024 and that a bad Democratic year in 2022 could remove bulwarks of the democratic systems meant to ensure impartial vote counts – and results determined by those counts.
But the dozen Democratic governors who assembled for an annual policy workshop and donor conference definitely don’t want to be the next Terry McAuliffe, whose campaign for Virginia governor went down last month amid a fevered effort to make his GOP opponent out as the horseman of a Trump apocalypse.
Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, who chaired the Democratic Governors Association in the flush Democratic 2018 campaign year, has a different horseman in mind.
“We have to be Paul Revere every chance we get to let people know what is at risk and why it is at risk. We live it. Every time we eat breakfast we think about these things,” he said. “I don’t think you can be overly concerned about this. The American psyche has not recognized we were one vice president away from a coup.”
Inslee is not up for reelection in 2022 – he won a third term last year – but the other governors focused on next year’s races say they’re struggling with how to have this conversation with voters.
They think their commitment to fair elections should be a plus in the minds of voters. “Democratic governors believe that every single vote should be counted and that the results should be the results,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who became the new chair of the governors group over the weekend. “And I shouldn’t have to say that as an attribute, but you do, because there are people who are beginning to take positions who don’t believe that and almost would prefer an autocracy, as long as their person is in charge.”
For over a decade, North Carolina has been a Republican laboratory for voting rights cutbacks and gerrymandering. Cooper won in 2016 and again, by a wider margin, in 2020 without spending much of his campaigns talking about any of that. But that was before Trump started questioning the election results, and before his supporters stormed the US Capitol in January trying to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. Even so, in his new campaign advisory role, his advice to other governors hasn’t changed.
“Most everyday people are worried about their kids getting a good education, worried about getting paid for, making sure their roads are fixed, being able to connect to high-speed internet,” Cooper said. “The political process issues – I’ve never been a real fan of making them a central part of messaging.”
An incumbent Democratic governor hasn’t lost since 2014, Cooper pointed out optimistically, never saying explicitly he knows that without a turnaround in Biden’s popularity and the public perception of the economy, that statistic may not hold.
‘That scares the crap out of people’
Several Democratic governors who were in office in 2020 played significant roles in staving off attempts to stir up challenges around the Electoral College certification. The fear is that GOP governors in states with GOP-controlled legislatures will work together to change the electoral rules, potentially adding to the chaos and confusion about reporting electoral votes out of their capitals, regardless of who wins the next presidential election. In backing candidates who question the results of the 2020 election, Trump and his allies seem to be trying to lay the groundwork for an election infrastructure that could be more favorable to future attempts to overturn the outcome.
Tony Evers, the governor of Wisconsin – home to some of the most intense Republican efforts to seize control of election administration currently underway – said he doesn’t know how to avoid it, much as he might try.
“It’s probably the national issue that impacts every state, and our state in particular, because I am going to run a positive campaign on the stuff that we’ve accomplished – and we’ve accomplished quite a bit. But you can’t avoid the fact that I’ve already vetoed six bills that would make it more difficult for people to vote. Probably before the next election, it’ll be another 40.”
Evers said that, if nothing else, he hopes the Democratic base may be energized by hearing about threats to democracy and that that might encourage them to show up in ways Democrats rarely have for midterms other than 2018, when Democrats were motivated by Trump and retook the US House.
“It’ll be clear to the people that vote, that (in) this 2022 election, the 2024 (election) is on the ballot also,” Evers added, noting that Republicans in the state legislature have already pledged to bring back all the vetoed bills for the next governor, if they’re able to beat the Democrat in November. “That scares the crap out of people and it scares me too. So we’ll talk about it, but I don’t personally want it to be something that defines this campaign.”
As attorney general of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro is still in court fighting challenges to the 2020 results. As a candidate for governor currently unopposed for the Democratic nomination, he said he doesn’t see a separation between democracy issues and “kitchen table” issues.
“They’re inextricably linked,” Shapiro said. “If you’re trying to take away their vote or make their vote not count, then you’re basically saying they don’t get to be part of the conversation.”
“If you’re saying, ‘Are voters talking to me about the bills on voting rights?’ Probably not. But do they understand the link?” Shaprio said. “After I explain how voter participation and progress on these issues that make up election integrity affects all the other issues, I believe they do.”
Shapiro doesn’t know who his Republican opponent will be, but in a field of 14 candidates, all have said some variation of the sentiment that Biden didn’t legitimately win the election. That group includes Doug Mastriano, the state senator who organized the fake “hearing” about supposed election fraud in Pennsylvania last December at which Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani testified, and later tried to organize what he called an “audit” of the vote. Now he’s been singled out by a state report as one of three main Pennsylvania players accused of trying to help Trump subvert the election. There is no evidence of widespread election fraud in the 2020 election.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, also running for a second term in another closely divided 2020 state, said he is looking forward to talking proactively about election integrity and voting rights, citing for example, his restoration of voting rights to more than 70,000 felons who’ve served their time and expanding voting by mail. All that, he said, is part of the record he wants to remind voters about next year.
“This is an accomplishment that I’m proud of. We’ve increased access, we’ve increased security for voting. I think people want to know that,” Sisolak said. “They need to know that who’s in leadership in all the individual states is going to have an impact on the 2024 election. … It has a definite impact. The next president’s going to need to carry these purple states. That’s where it’s going to be decided.”
Whatever happens, Inslee said, the argument with voters probably won’t be won by Democrats talking about high-minded principles about democracy, however popular that may be among liberals on Twitter.
“The way to frame it is: There are people in Washington, DC, and in state capitals who want to take something away from you, which is your vote. You talk about it in personal terms: ‘They’re trying to take away your ability to express yourself.’ That’s the bottom line. Don’t talk about it from a systemic standpoint of ‘democracy.’”
But what it really comes down to, Cooper said, is Democrats figuring out how to win their races.
“If you’re successful in your election,” he said, “then those people who want to ignore the votes and do something else don’t get into office.”