Dems on offense in gubernatorial races

Dems on offense in gubernatorial races
© Greg Nash

After Republicans won big in successive election cycles to take control of more governorships than at almost any other time in the party’s history, the GOP now finds itself defending a huge number of seats in critical swing states in 2018. That’s the reverse of the scenario in the U.S. Senate,where Democrats are playing defense.

But party strategists on both sides say the stakes are highest in the races for governorships, because governors will have substantial sway when the decennial redistricting process begins.

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After suffering substantial losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections and in the 2016 presidential contest, Democrats say they must rebuild their party from the state level up if they hope to have any chance of reclaiming control of Congress over the next decade.

“If we do not have Democratic governors and statehouses, then we are going to get wiped out at the state and local level,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) told The Hill. “The key to building this party starts with your governor.”

Between now and 2018, 38 of the nation’s 50 governorships are up for grabs. Two, in Virginia and New Jersey, will be decided this year as terms limits force McAuliffe and Gov. Chris Christie (R) to leave office.

The big prize comes in 2018, when 36 states will hold contests. Twenty-six of those seats are currently held by Republicans, and, critically, 14 of those governors face term limits, leaving open seats in some of the nation’s most populous states, including Ohio, Michigan and Florida.

“From the map perspective, we’re victims of our own success,” said Phil Cox, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association (RGA). “We’re at the high-water mark.”

Democrats are targeting those states, as well as Republican incumbents seeking reelection in swing states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and Wisconsin and traditionally blue states like Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. 

Republicans have their own opportunities in Democratic-held swing states like Pennsylvania, Colorado and Minnesota, a state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE carried by only 44,000 votes.

With so many open seats, and with political enthusiasm running high for both Democrats and Republicans, a lot of candidates are already running or considering jumping in. 

Jennifer Duffy, who follows gubernatorial contests for the Cook Political Report, has a running list of potential or declared candidates that stands at 329 names. The RGA has been surprised by the level of interest in a planned candidate-training conference this summer.

In Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich (R) faces term limits, three statewide elected officials and a sitting member of Congress are vying for the Republican nod. In California, where Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is nearing the end of his fourth term, three current or former statewide elected officials and the former mayor of Los Angeles are running as Democrats. 

A number of prominent candidates have said they will run for open seats in Florida, Michigan and Minnesota. Two statewide Republican executive officers are all but declared in Georgia, and open seats in Kansas, Maine and Alabama will all likely draw crowded fields.

At least a dozen current and former members of Congress have declared that they will run or are seriously considering it.

Rep. Jim Renacci (R) and former Rep. Betty Sutton (D) are running for governor in Ohio. Rep. Tim Walz (D) is running in Minnesota. Rep. Kristi Noem (R) wants to become the first female governor of South Dakota. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) wants to become the first Democratic woman to govern New Mexico.

Reps. Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackThe Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now House to vote on budget next week Blackburn says she's interested in Corker's seat MORE (R) and Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnEquifax breach is the wake-up call we expected Tennessee governor considering Senate run Five major potential Senate candidates MORE (R) are both considering running for an open seat in Tennessee. Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) are all considering bids in their home states.

Former Reps. Gwen Graham (D-Fla.), Cynthia LummisCynthia LummisFemale lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement Despite a battle won, 'War on Coal' far from over Dems on offense in gubernatorial races MORE (R-Wyo.) and Candice Miller (R-Mich.), meanwhile, are also generating gubernatorial buzz.

Both the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) and RGA say they won’t get involved in competitive primaries. As Democrats rebuild following President Trump’s election and their own brutal presidential primaries, many say primary contests will be a healthy exercise for the party — and that picking winners and losers would have a stifling effect they want to avoid.

“Candidates across the country are seeing what we’re seeing, which is there’s real opportunity, there’s real necessity,” said Elisabeth Pearson, who heads the DGA. “We will have a lot of primaries, but we will end up with great candidates in general elections.”

Democrats say backlash against Trump’s administration has spurred interest in many states. Voter enthusiasm that fueled Republican gains in recent midterms, Democrats hope, will now be wind in their sails.

“He’s targeting so many things that are important to the base, from climate change to social programs to the way he talks about touchstone cultural issues,” said Colm O’Comartun, a former DGA executive director. “Enthusiasm was to some extent the lead indicator of Republican success last cycle.”

Republicans acknowledge that they are playing defense, though they say there are many months to go before the elections are held — and many Republican governors who still sport favorable approval ratings.

“We’re not surprised that we’re on defense,” said Jon Thompson, an RGA spokesman. “It’s something we’ve been planning for.”