By Ben Nuckols
WASHINGTON — These should be heady times for the GOP as the nation’s governors prepare to gather for their winter meeting in Washington, D.C. Republicans hold 33 governorships, compared with just 16 for Democrats, and the GOP has full control of the legislatures in two-thirds of the states.
But there is a sense of unease for Republican governors in Democratic-leaning states. They criticize President Donald Trump gently, picking their spots to appease the Democratic and independent voters they need to remain in office. At the same time, they don’t want to alienate Trump supporters.
For some, the best strategy is to avoid mentioning Trump at all.
Democrats sense an opening ahead of the 2018 elections and are taking any opportunity to link Republican governors to the president. Republicans will be defending 27 of the 38 governorships up for election this year and next. Nine of the GOP governors are in states Hillary Clinton carried last year.
“I think what the Trump administration has done, it has really made every Republican governor out there — especially a moderate Republican governor in a Democratic state — it has made them very vulnerable,” said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat and chairman of the National Governors Association.
Republican governors who face re-election next year in states that voted for Clinton are Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, Bruce Rauner of Illinois, Phil Scott of Vermont and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire. Four other states that voted for Clinton have governors who will be forced out by term limits: Chris Christie in New Jersey; Paul LePage in Maine; Susana Martinez in New Mexico; and Brian Sandoval in Nevada.
Sandoval, vice chairman of the governors association, said he is comfortable being the face of moderate GOP governors across the country. He has urged caution on Trump’s pledges to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Sandoval said he believes he and other moderates can work productively with Trump and his Cabinet.
“We’re five weeks into the administration, so I think it’s really premature to start drawing conclusions now, with regard to what the implication could be in future elections,” he said.
Heading into the upcoming governors’ races, the Republican Governors’ Association is better-funded, having raised $60.7 million in 2016, compared with $39 million by the Democratic Governors’ Association. The RGA has tried to paint Democratic challengers as too liberal and out of touch with mainstream America.
This weekend’s bipartisan governors’ gathering includes an audience with Trump and leading Republicans in Congress. Governors of both parties are concerned with a full range of proposals that could affect state budgets, including possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, reforms to Medicaid, immigration enforcement and spending for infrastructure.
Republican governors in Democratic-leaning states are especially vulnerable if policies put forward by Trump and the GOP Congress are disruptive in the states.
Baker, a moderate with high approval ratings in a state politically dominated by Democrats, has distanced himself from Trump since early in the presidential campaign. He said he left his presidential ballot blank.
After the election, the Massachusetts governor promised to forge constructive ties between the state and the new administration. But he has not hesitated to criticize White House policies, including the travel ban aimed at seven majority-Muslim nations that sowed confusion in the U.S. and abroad. He publicly backed the state’s attorney general, a Democrat, when her office filed a lawsuit to block Trump’s action.
During the women’s march after the presidential inauguration, Baker was just blocks away as protesters flooded Boston Common. Defending his absence, he said he was working on time-sensitive matters and said it was not an intentional snub.
In Maryland, Hogan — who has enjoyed approval ratings higher than 70 percent — also said throughout the presidential campaign that he would not vote for Trump. On his presidential ballot, he wrote in the name of his father, a former congressman.
Since the president took office, he has continually sidestepped questions about Trump. Even in a friendly interview on a Baltimore rock radio station, he made clear he was weary of the subject.
“I’m focused on solving Maryland problems,” Hogan said. “I have 31 different policy proposals and a real agenda to turn our state around, and the only questions we get (are) ‘Why aren’t you protesting Donald Trump?’ and ‘Why didn’t you go to BWI (Airport) to do this or that?’ I don’t see that as my role.”
Democrats, who control the Legislature and enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration, went against Hogan’s wishes when they voted to expand the attorney general’s powers in response to Trump. And they’re not nearly as shy about mentioning the president.
“The governor seems unwilling to stand up to Mr. Trump, and so that will fall to the Democrats,” state Sen. Jim Rosapepe said.
As with the other governors, Rauner in Illinois said he is focusing on his state — or at least he’s trying to. He went to great lengths not to stake a clear position on Trump during the campaign — refusing to comment on the race, who he was voting for or even to say Trump’s name. Since the election, he has continued to avoid taking a clear position on the administration’s policies.
His strategy is clearly intended to avoid alienating voters in Chicago, the suburbs and other urban areas who supported Hillary Clinton in November, or those in rural counties that went overwhelmingly for Trump. But avoidance also comes with some peril: Democrats, who control the Illinois Legislature, called the Republican governor cowardly for meeting with billionaire donors out of state while refugees were stranded at Chicago’s O’Hare airport after the president’s travel-banning executive order.
Rauner already has a slim margin for error after a two-year budget stalemate has tanked his approval ratings.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, senses a change after recent elections went overwhelmingly in the Republicans’ favor.
“Clearly, the wave was against Democrats in ’10 and it was against Democrats to some extent in ’14, but I suspect it’s going to be against Republicans just as strongly,” Malloy said. “Can you overcome that? Absolutely, you can overcome that, but you have to overcome that by separating yourself (from Trump).”