Buoyed by November election results, a surge in fundraising and expectations of a massive liberal wave, Democrats are preparing for an assault on one of the GOP’s most heavily fortified positions: governor’s mansions.
It’s a far cry from last summer, when Democrats bottomed out at the state level. Back then, after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice switched allegiance to the GOP, the number of governorships in Democratic Party hands fell to just 15, a historic low.
But the atmospheric conditions have changed since then. Republicans are hampered by an unpopular President Donald Trump. Suburban voters are threatening to desert the party en masse. And Democrats have seen a massive increase in their fundraising numbers after gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey in November.
The GOP is forced to defend 13 states that former President Barack Obama won — from Maine to New Mexico to Wisconsin — while Democrats are just one — Pennsylvania — that fell to Trump.
Republicans now admit that a handful of once-competitive battlegrounds are nearly out of reach for them in 2018. Meanwhile, Democratic hopes are rising in a handful of conservative strongholds.
“I would describe our attitude as rational exuberance, and the reason I say ‘rational’ is it’s based on objective evidence that’s consistent in basically every election since the ‘stable genius’ got to the White House,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, using Trump’s recent Twitter description of himself. “The map has expanded in the last several months, because these patterns exist even in red states."
Democratic confidence has been building since the party’s sweeping wins last fall. At the DGA’s meeting in New Orleans last month, political director Corey Platt gave governors a presentation indicating that the organization is now targeting 17 GOP-held seats for pickup in 2018, according to slides from the presentation obtained by POLITICO.
The growing optimism on the left is mirrored by a burgeoning Republican pessimism, according to a wide range of GOP operatives and lawmakers involved in this year’s races.
Their concerns are legion: with the White House dominating the news across the country on a daily basis, pollsters are seeing signs of a prospective surge in Latino voters that could swamp Republican candidates in battleground states like Florida and Colorado, put New Mexico’s governor’s race even further out of reach and making Arizona’s competitive.
The 2017 off-year election results in Virginia, New Jersey, and the special Senate election in Alabama have also given GOP candidates and incumbents reason to believe they will face an energized Democratic base that could turn out in record numbers, matched by a backlash among highly educated white women whose votes are usually Republican.
“If we nominate bad candidates we are going to lose: we have to be aware that suburban folks — and suburban women in particular — are going to stay home,” warned Republican strategist Jay Williams, who lives in Georgia, a traditionally conservative state that both parties’ leaders believe is on the cusp of coming into play.
With exactly half of the 26 Republican-held seats up for grabs in 2018 being left open by a departing governor, a surge of Democratic turnout could overwhelm any goodwill individual GOP incumbents may have built up in tight states.
“We’re playing [on] a little bit of an uphill playing board,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, the Republican Governors Association chairman. “Add that to the traditional challenges of having your party be in the White House, and for that president’s first midterm, and I think there’s no question we have our work cut out for us."
Much of the GOP anxiety stems from the way a handful of potentially competitive races have broken strongly toward the Democratic candidate. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham is now heavily favored to replace Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in New Mexico, while multiple top New York Republicans have passed on challenging Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. According to top strategists from both parties, similar skepticism about GOP chances have overtaken the races in Pennsylvania — where Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is running for re-election — and Maine, where Republican Gov. Paul LePage is vacating his seat.
While Republicans still see a clear opportunity to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy in Connecticut, they acknowledge they will likely need to spend more resources than they hoped to defend their seats in Ohio, Michigan, Florida, New Hampshire, Illinois, and even Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan remains popular despite the state’s heavily liberal skew.
Add in the costs of competing in expensive battlegrounds like Nevada, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Colorado, and it means they are less likely to spend extensive money or resources to flip once-vulnerable Democratic seats in Rhode Island or Oregon.
Meanwhile, Democrats are on the offensive, expanding their sights into races where they usually wouldn’t venture.
“This was always going to be a huge map, and a map with a lot of opportunity for us, regardless of the larger environment. [But] the suburban dynamic, the young voters dynamic, the fact that Democrats are so enthusiastic — all of those things we hoped would be true, and which were certainly true in Virginia and New Jersey — are making us look anew at some states,” acknowledged DGA executive director Elisabeth Pearson.
Some of that optimism centers around states like Iowa, which broke hard for Trump in 2016 but where his numbers have since taken a dive. While recent polls differ over GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds’ popularity, one December survey that described her as broadly popular still reported that roughly half the state thinks it’s time for her to be replaced.
The prospect of a suburban surge, paired with quality candidates pitching competence in places in typically out-of-reach Georgia and South Carolina — the line pushed by Alabama Democrat Doug Jones in his successful Senate race in December — is also driving enthusiasm. The presence of high-octane Senate races in other places — namely Nevada, Ohio, and even Tennessee — stands to juice turnout even further in those states.
"The fact that former Gov. [Phil] Bredesen got into the race for Sen. [Bob] Corker’s open seat has drawn a lot of interest from across the country, and it was a confidence booster,” said former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat running to replace the term-limited Haslam in a state that has alternated between Democratic and Republican governors without fail since Republican Winfield Dunn replaced Democrat Buford Ellington in 1971.
“There is a feeling out there that people are looking for a change, that people are interested in pragmatism, common sense, [and] it makes the Democratic Party seem very viable, and very much kind of a centrist party.”
Democrats’ ebullience could be tempered by a series of potentially messy primary contests that could mar the party’s prospects in battlegrounds in at least a half-dozen states. Between the Republicans’ strong fundraising and the history of states like Iowa — which has had just two Democratic governors in the last half-century — there’s still some hope on the right.
"At the end of the day I think it comes down to the best candidate usually wins,” Haslam insisted.
Yet Republicans must reckon with their own share of uncomfortable primaries, as well as a pair of contests — in Michigan and Florida — where Trump put his finger on the scale with unexpected Twitter endorsements (for Attorney General Bill Schuette in Michigan and Rep. Ron DeSantis in Florida).
While Senate and House leaders have been wary of Trump’s involvement in their midterm races, the White House and RGA continue to maintain strong relations thanks in part to RGA executive director Paul Bennecke, a longtime aide to Agriculture Sec. Sonny Perdue, and former RGA executive director Nick Ayers, another former Perdue aide who’s now chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.
Still, Trump’s presence looms large. Republican campaign consultants have been working with candidates to find ways to avoid the awkward tip-toeing around Trump that many believe doomed Virginia Republican candidate Ed Gillespie. Those consultants recently circulated strategy memos explicitly warning that 2018 risks turning into an amplified version of 2006 — Democrats’ last big midterm victory year — according to copies seen by POLITICO.
But amid talk of another 2006, Democrats have uncharacteristically stepped up their fundraising operation around these races, often pitching donors on their importance to the next round of redistricting. That push has brought in checks from party mega-donors, like Haim Saban and Mark Gallogly, who previously primarily gave to federal candidates, according to filings. So entering the year, the DGA had raised four times more from individual donors than it had at this point four years earlier — on top of quadrupling its number of contributors.
“For far too long our party has focused on the presidential every four years and hasn’t done what it needed to do on the state level,” said outgoing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who has pledged to spend the year campaigning for gubernatorial candidates across the country.
That focus, he said, is finally starting to shift.
“There’s a tsunami coming in 2018,” he predicted. “We saw it in Virginia with a record voter turnout. We saw it in Alabama."