State Watch

Dems seek to rebuild Rust Belt ‘blue wall’ in governor races

For a quarter-century, Democratic presidential candidates relied on a blue wall of Midwestern and Rust Belt states that delivered electoral votes on a regular basis. Then Donald Trump smashed that wall, winning states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Now, those same states, along with perpetual swing states, are battlegrounds in a different fight: electing governors.

{mosads}Party strategists say the November midterm elections will represent a preview of the 2020 presidential race, as Democrats try to reassemble the rubble of their once-impenetrable wall and as President Trump tries to build a political wall of his own.

“As a party, we fell into the trap of believing that the only offices in the land that matter are the president of the United States and the United States Senate,” said Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who once ran the Democratic Governors Association. “We have to be a national party. We have to win not only governors races, we have to win state legislative races as well.”

Voters in Michigan will choose a governor to replace term-limited Rick Snyder (R). Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is running for a third term. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) is seeking a second term. And in Minnesota, a state Trump came within 45,000 votes of winning in 2016, voters will choose a successor for retiring Gov. Mark Dayton (D).

The Republican wave of 2010 means many sitting governors face term limits in swing states. Voters in Florida, Georgia, Maine, Nevada and Ohio will elect new governors this year.

Party control of a governor’s office, however, does not guarantee a presidential candidate that state’s electoral votes — in 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won eight states where Republicans held power. But it certainly helps, especially in states where governors build robust political machines that can swing into action for the rest of the ticket.

“Where a sitting governor can really impact a race for a presidential candidate is through a state party and a well-run state political infrastructure,” said Phil Cox, head of the Republican Governors Association from 2011 to 2014. “A dysfunctional state party can be a huge headache for a campaign or a committee, and unfortunately there are many of them.”

Cox pointed to the successful approach taken in Wisconsin, where Walker has built a mammoth operation through two gubernatorial campaigns and a recall election he won. Since Walker first took office in 2011, only two Democrats — Sen. Tammy Baldwin and long-time Secretary of State Doug LaFollette — have won statewide office.

The White House has taken note of the challenge ahead. Vice President Pence, a former governor of Indiana, has seized on the races as key to Trump’s reelection campaign. Pence has appeared several times at fundraisers for GOP governors and the Republican Governors Association.

Democrats like O’Malley recognize the importance, too, both for the coming presidential election and for the decennial redistricting process, which begins after the 2020 census — during the terms of many governors who are up for reelection this year.

“We have to win back our states if we’re going to save the United States,” said O’Malley, whose 2016 presidential campaign ended in February that year.

O’Malley has campaigned this year for Steve Sisolak, the Democratic nominee to be Nevada’s next governor, and he has plans to campaign alongside Fred Hubbell, the party nominee in Iowa — both early primary states, and both states where electoral votes are up for grabs.

This year, Democrats and Republicans have high hopes of winning Wisconsin, where Walker remains a deeply polarizing figure. Voters have such ingrained feelings about him that his poll numbers hardly budge from year to year.

If Democrats are able to add to recent gains there — the party’s preferred state Supreme Court candidate won election this spring, a result Walker called a warning sign — they will see that as an indication that the blue wall can be rebuilt.

“For instance, if the Democrats beat Scott Walker, it would give them a huge boost in their effort to win Wisconsin in the next election,” said Curt Anderson, a GOP strategist who did ads for the Republican Governors Association from 2012 to 2013. “It would give them a sense of momentum. More on-the-ground enthusiasm, more fundraising for the state and local party committees, more of everything.”

Fueled by the Republican wave in 2010, the GOP finds itself defending a huge number of gubernatorial seats this year. Many are in deeply conservative states like Idaho, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Republicans hold 33 of the nation’s 50 governorships, and they could make new inroads this year. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, faces challenges from both the left and the right, raising the prospect of a GOP pickup in a usually conservative state.

But some incumbents are feeling the pressure; the Republican Governors Association has reserved advertising time in Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey (R) is up for reelection, and Kansas, where Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) faces a challenging primary from Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R). Democrats are making a run at other Republican-held governorships in states like Georgia, New Hampshire and Tennessee.

Democrats are defending only a small number of states likely to be competitive. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) is retiring with dismal approval ratings, giving the GOP a hope in the ordinarily Democratic Northeast. Minnesota and Colorado are both likely to be hotly contested this November.

But so far, Democrats have focused their spending on GOP territory. The Democratic Governors Association has blocked off $20 million in fall advertising in Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin — all states held by Republican governors.

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Tammy Baldwin
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