The Election(s) Washington Should be Watching

By Randall Gerard

While the country has grown accustomed to epic pugilistic presidential battles every four years, Washington shouldn’t lose focus of the other four-year contests that carry just as much weight as the midterm congressional elections in determining the future of this country: the races for governor.
 
Yes, the party that controls the Senate in the 116th Congress will make or break President Trump’s ability to confirm political appointees and advance his agenda. And, it’s true that if Democrats flip the House there will likely be heightened interest in investigating the Trump Administration’s every past and future move. But, while the congressional elections are of critical importance, the Beltway should keep a close eye on the state capitals.
 
Voters in 36 states will pick their next governors this year in what the experts call a “super cycle.” It’s worth paying attention any time voters choose this many state leaders. This year is particularly important, however, because it’s the first time many of these states will be in the hands of a first-term governor who will be pushing his or her priorities and policies ahead of 2020 – the year of the next presidential election and the next census that will form the basis for new congressional lines.
 
Each state has its own process for drawing congressional lines: in 37 states it’s decided by the state legislature; in four states an independent commission draws the lines; two states appoint a partisan committee to oversee the process; and, in the remaining seven states there are no lines because each has only one congressional member. Regardless of the method, in the majority of states, governors hold the power to veto the proposed lines. Bottom line: both parties have much to lose in terms of their ability to win seats in Washington if their party’s governors are not crafting district lines in an official or unofficial capacity. 
 
 
Beyond drawing congressional district lines, governors play an undervalued role in helping or hindering a presidential candidate. While the push-pull between Washington and the White House rages on as to if President Trump is an anchor (blue wave) or an engine (red wave) for congressional Republicans in their fight to maintain control of Congress, having a popular sitting governor on your side is an unquestionable asset for the president come 2020. This is especially true in battleground states like Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and New Mexico. Not only can governors help national candidates tap into critical voting blocks in their respective states and raise money but they can also triangulate political nuances in states that only they understand. President Trump relishes his role as a political foil (real or imagined) and uses it to elevate himself with his base. For the president to be successful in 2020, however, the political climate in a state must be ripe for his message. The sitting governor can either incubate that environment or burn it down over the next two years. 
 
President Trump will need help in battleground states if he wants four more years in the White House. A prime example is Ohio. If you are the Republican party, would you rather have Republican nominee for governor Mike DeWine marshalling the troops or Democratic nominee Richard Cordray – President Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director and a protégé of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)? Or think about Florida. Does President Trump want to campaign next to Congressman Ron DeSantis (R-FL) – a vocal supporter who won the president’s endorsement – or would he prefer Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum – a Bernie Sanders supporter – dictating policy ahead of the 2020 elections? 
 
To top off these scenarios, new governors – of whom we’ll see plenty on election night – typically enjoy their highest popularity in the first two years of their four-year terms which can help or hurt a party come November 2020. Pundits talk about presidential or Senate down-ballot pull, but popular governors can also help pull a president backward or forward. What happens to the midwestern “blue wall” that President Trump demolished in 2016 if democratic governor control states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa in 2020? And while the Beltway likes to brand states as red or blue, it’s not always that cut and dry. According to The Morning Consult, the two most popular governors today are Charlie Baker (R-MA) and Larry Hogan (R-MD) – Republican governors in traditionally blue states lost by President Trump in 2016. 
 
Both Vice President Mike Pence and his Chief of Staff Nick Ayers understand this connection between governors and the path to the White House. The vice president is the former governor of Indiana and Ayers was the executive director of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) when it became a national force. Both Vice President Pence and Ayers worked to secure seats for Republican governors and create the apparatus to place Republicans in control of 33 gubernatorial offices. Furthermore, they know the value of this office and the correlation between drawing congressional lines and presidential campaign politics. 
 
Former Republican governors have been a popular pick for this administration. Beyond Vice President Pence, former Texas Governor Rick Perry heads the Department of Energy; Sonny Perdue, the former governor of Georgia, serves as the Secretary of Agriculture; and, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Republicans have grown accustomed to Governors Susana Martinez (NM), Rick Scott (FL) and Nathan Deal (GA), but these familiar faces are termed out, placing their states in the battleground category as we inch towards Election Day. Not termed out but always in the political fight of his life is Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, placing that state in the toss-up category. Given the number of termed-out governors as well as those running for reelection in toss-up states, it will be interesting to see if the administration acquires additional former governors post-November in a reshuffled cabinet. 
 
Among the Democrats, 2018 concludes the Jerry Brown era in California. There, in the fifth largest economy in the world and what some would call the “Trump resistance epicenter,” the Democrats have nominated Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, as their gubernatorial candidate. With a clear path to victory, it will be interesting to see how Newsom’s legislative priorities unfold, because what California does, Washington often follows. Switching gear to Georgia, Democrats are looking to make history there by running governor candidate Stacey Adams who is campaigning to reverse 16 years of Republican state control and become the first state-wide elected African American.   
Let’s pause here for a quick recap of the governor races by the numbers: 
 
36: Governor races in 2018. Of these, 26 offices are currently held by Republicans, nine by Democrats and one by an independent. 
 
33: Republican governors currently in office followed by 16 Democrats and 1 independent. 
 
22: States safely in the Republican camp with 20 other states in Democratic control according to Real Clear Politics.
 
20: Governors running as incumbents seeking reelection this cycle. 
 
16: States that will have a new governor come January 2019 regardless of election night outcomes.
 
13: Governors who are termed out eliminating a combined 112 years of gubernatorial experience: 88 years for Republicans and 24 for Democrats. 
 
8: Toss-up gubernatorial races with significant battleground overlap according to Real Clear Politics. The list includes Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin.  
 
With college football season well underway, we see week after week the benefit teams have when playing in their own stadiums before friendly crowds. Homefields give teams an advantage over opponents just as governors do for presidential candidates. As the electorate heads to the polls in states like Florida and Michigan this November, keep in mind that those voters aren’t just electing state officials, they are writing the playbook for the next decade in Washington as well. Cogent Strategies is well-positioned to help clients achieve success at both the state and federal levels, designing strategies to educate current and incoming governors and mobilize them as advocates to advance clients’ Washington agenda.  
 
Randall Gerard has a deep bench of relationships in our nation’s capital and in state capitals, spearheading government relations campaigns for a range of Cogent clients on tax, energy, environment and telecommunications policy issues. Randall is an active member of the finance committee at the Republican Governors Association and maintains close ties to governors and their staffs across the country, participating in key leadership conferences throughout the year. For Randall’s complete bio, click here