WASHINGTON — For almost a decade now, governors’ offices have been a weak link for national Democrats, with Republicans racking up stunning and continuous wins in deep-blue bastions like Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Now, Democrats building a long-term strategy for retaking power in Congress and the states are counting on winning big in statehouse races over the next two years.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi huddled privately with the leaders of the Democratic Governors Association last weekend and looked over maps of top targets. The group has 14 states in its sights and believes it would be impossible to lose more states to Republicans, especially if President Donald Trump continues to struggle.
The organization has picked out nine states that Hillary Clinton won and another five that went to President Barack Obama. Some of the targets are clear — true blue bastions like Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois, where Republicans upset Democratic favorites in 2014. But others are likely to be a slog reminiscent of the drubbing Clinton took in the Rust Belt, like fights in Wisconsin and Ohio.
“Look, there’s anger against this President and what he has done and the chaos, the unpredictability, the violations of the Constitution,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the group’s incoming president, who will lead their 2018 efforts. “So there is anger in every state — to different proportions certainly. So we are going to look forward to 2018 and governors are absolutely pivotal to this.”
The stakes for Democrats are more than just control over state governments: They’re about the redrawing the congressional maps, which have helped Republicans maintain a firm grip on the House of Representatives since 2010.
A series of Democratic efforts sprouted up after the 2016 thrashing, including an effort led by Obama’s former top aides, to look at how to win back more favorable maps and, eventually, control of the House.
And holding the governors’ offices — with their veto pens — is central to that strategy.
“We are also the front line to prevent gerrymandering that has been so insidious, that has prevented people’s wishes from being followed in Congress,” Inslee said.
The bright spot for Democrats is that they are only defending 11 out of 38 seats over the next two years. But Democratic strategists who have been in the trenches of the states are leery that national Democrats, and Obama’s own redistricting group, are ready to support them after years of ignoring them.
Republicans have racked up a 33-16 lead over Democrats in the governor’s offices across the nation (the 50th governor, Alaska’s Bill Walker, is an independent.) The sweep started in 2010 with the tea party wave that carried firebrands like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott and Maine’s Paul LePage to victory.
Walker, who now chairs the Republican Governors Association, credited his organization’s big-tent approach.
“We support Greg Abbott in Texas because it’s Texas,” Walker said. “We support Phil Scott in Vermont who is, on many issues, substantively different, but he matches Vermont and fits the people of Vermont. That’s why you have Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan for example, who have over 70% approval ratings, who fit the unique needs and interests of other states like Massachusetts in Maryland, like the rest of us do in our own states.”
Hogan and Baker, in particular, have become the most conspicuous targets for Democrats; Clinton won Maryland and Massachusetts by almost equally strong margins — 26 percentage points and 27 percentage points.
Both governors have fought openly against Trump, making it harder for Democrats to tie them to the unpopular president, but the political peril is still palpable.
Baker and his entourage dodged national reporters at the National Governors Association meeting over the weekend — an aide hastily pulled a handful of business cards from his pocket and shoved them into a CNN reporter’s hand Sunday as he moved to head off questions for Baker.
But the governor told a local reporter over the weekend that he will continue to keep Trump at arm’s length heading into 2018.
“I’ve said that when I could support what Washington was doing, I would support it, and when I felt I couldn’t support it I would say I was opposed, but I would be respectful in my commentary one way or another,” Baker told The State House News Service in Massachusetts. “And I think for the most part we’ve lived up to that.”
Democrats will get a test run this year with two fights in states Clinton won: New Jersey and Virginia. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is term-limited from seeking re-election and also deeply unpopular following the Bridgegate scandal, but Democrats ran into some trouble when presumptive frontrunner Phil Murphy, a former party finance chairman and ambassador to Germany, compared Trump to Hitler. Virginia has elected Democrats in three of the last four elections, but Democrats are playing defense this year in the purple state, which Clinton just narrowly won.