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Democrats See Openings at State Level, Thanks to Trump Resistance

SANTA FE, N.M. — A polarizing president electrifies the opposition party going into his first midterm election, raising the party’s hopes that it can reclaim governorships, ram through major policy change at the state level and redraw legislative lines in its favor for a decade to come.

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Democrats See Openings at State Level, Thanks to Trump Resistance
Jonathan Martin
Alexander Burns, New York Times

SANTA FE, N.M. — A polarizing president electrifies the opposition party going into his first midterm election, raising the party’s hopes that it can reclaim governorships, ram through major policy change at the state level and redraw legislative lines in its favor for a decade to come.

It’s a scenario both political parties have seen before, most recently in 2010, when out-of-power Republicans rode the Tea Party-led wave against the Obama administration to smashing victories across the country.

This year, governors in both parties acknowledged at the National Governors Association conference here, it is Democrats who appear poised to make major gains as Republicans brace for a backlash against President Donald Trump that could lead to grievous statehouse losses.

“It does feel very much like 2010 reversed to me right now,” said Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, head of the Republican Governors Association. “There’s a lot more conviction about voting on the Democrat side than our side, which is a concern to us.”

While much of Washington was transfixed last week by the latest Trump-created uproar, this one over his widely criticized summit with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the nation’s governors gathered here for their annual summer conference to plot how best to exploit or mitigate a president who is as divisive as he is ubiquitous.

In a series of interviews, Republican and Democratic governors said opposition to Trump had galvanized liberal and many moderate voters, leading to a sizable intensity gap between the two parties. Trump has been seeking to close that political deficit for his party, leveraging the fierce loyalty of the Republican base in the remaining months of the election, while the Democrats are working to keep their base focused on channeling their anger in the midterms.

But beyond Trump’s controversial behavior, the governors said the president’s policies on issues like trade had created an opening for Democrats in Republican-leaning farm belt states like Iowa and Kansas, where farmers are facing retaliatory tariffs.

Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who won the governorship on the strength of the 2010 Obama backlash, bluntly acknowledged he and other Republicans could be facing “a blue wave,” noting that “the wind nationally isn’t at our back.”

The president’s conduct and the fight for control of Congress have overshadowed the 36 governor’s races this year. But the state elections could prove even more consequential in reshaping policy and altering the long-term balance of power both in Washington and state capitals.

Just as Republicans pulled a host of moderate states significantly to the right after their success eight years ago, victorious Democrats could enact sweeping changes on labor, health care and energy to tug a number of centrist states to the left and expand their policy ambitions in liberal states — fulfilling the growing expectations of their progressive base.

Democrats would also be in position to protect their members of Congress when the House map is redrawn after the 2020 census. With 56 Democratic challengers outraising Republican incumbents in the last fundraising period, senior leaders in both parties believe Democrats are likely to gain the 23 seats they need to take the chamber. Because state governments control redistricting, new Democratic governors could help cement the House gains, or at least block Republicans from repeating the post-2010 gerrymandering that helped entrench their power in Congress.

The November election could have “decadal significance” because of redistricting, said Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association.

Inslee is all too well acquainted with wave elections. A former member of Congress, he was defeated in the Republican insurrection of 1994. The current political environment, he said, is reminiscent of that uprising.

Should 2018 yield a large new class of Democratic governors,Inslee said, they would move quickly next year to shape policies that would put blue-tinged states even more sharply at odds with a Trump-led federal government.

“We’re seeing a clean-energy jobs message can be very effective, virtually, in every state,” Inslee said. He also cited gun-control and voting-rights laws as other areas where Democrats would take action. Across the country, he added, “You cannot overstate the anger, the concern and the desire to vote.”

In a private meeting Friday morning, Democratic governors reviewed their political strategy for the midterms: Corey Platt, a strategist for the governors, laid out a map of 18 Republican-controlled states where Democrats could conceivably take power, including five important Midwestern battlegrounds and traditionally conservative-leaning states like Tennessee and Georgia.

Platt also highlighted several important races where the Republican Party’s rightward lurch had widened political openings for Democrats, people familiar with the presentation said. In Florida, the president’s support for Rep. Ron DeSantis, a hard-line member of the House who appears frequently on Fox News, in a contested governor’s primary has badly undermined Republican chances there, Platt argued. Platt also pointed to Adam Laxalt, Nevada’s attorney general and Republican nominee for governor, as a candidate who could be too conservative to win a state Hillary Clinton carried two years ago.

Laxalt is hindered by the refusal of Gov. Brian Sandoval — a more moderate Republican, who is departing — to endorse him.

As Democrats weighed how best to harness the anti-Trump energy, Republicans locked in competitive races acknowledged the headwinds they are facing and vowed to emphasize their own governing records and political identities to separate themselves from the president.

Deploying euphemisms about “Washington” or “national politics” so as not to offend the president and his supporters, Republican governors said they would seek to localize their races.

“There’s energy on the left, there’s anger on the left and there’s some signs of organization,” said Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, who is facing a competitive re-election bid. “So I think the role of the campaign is not only to communicate the message but to separate from Washington and differentiate what we’ve done over the last four years.”

Republicans also still have crucial structural advantages: The economy is roaring in many of the states where they hold power, the political committee led by Haslam has $87.5 million to spend on the midterms, and in state legislative elections, Republicans are shielded by gerrymandered district lines.

As a result, even if Democrats win governorships in places like Ohio and Florida, they are all but certain to face divided governments and formidable Republican opposition.

Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a moderate Democrat finishing his second term, said he expected the party to have to reach out to Republicans after the elections no matter how inviting the political environment appears to be. But if Republicans are likely to hold on to some measure of power in many states, there was no mistaking the deflated demeanor of a number of governors in Santa Fe.

There were fewer Republicans than Democrats in attendance at the event, once a highlight of nearly every governor’s calendar.

Those who did come were candid about the difficulties his divisive behavior and nationalist policies on issues like trade and immigration had created for the party.

“Every ad is about immigration or a border wall,” Haslam, who is leaving office next year, said with dismay about the Republican primary to succeed him. “The conversation has changed.”

Democrats, though, expressed excitement.

“This is the only time in my lifetime when I’ve ever been aware of so many Republicans, moderate Republicans, who are throwing up their hands and in some cases writing checks to support Democratic candidates,” said Hickenlooper, whose state is an example of one that has moved gradually to the left.

The scale of Democratic ambitions was display Friday as Inslee campaigned at a local college with Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic nominee for New Mexico’s open governorship. They trumpeted Lujan Grisham’s clean-energy plans and proposals for new environmental regulations, a suite of policies she cast as “rejecting the federal government” and its rightward shift.

Should Lujan Grisham win the general election, she would end eight years of divided government under Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, and deliver New Mexico wholly into Democratic hands — a prospect that Lujan Grisham said could clear the way for significant expansions on several fronts, clean energy chief among them.

“We intend to catch up and then advance beyond all the other states,” she declared.

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