For or Against Trump? The Question Candidates for Governor Can't Escape

The president has emerged as a central issue in races all over the country, underscoring a shift toward partisanship that has intensified since his election.
by | December 13, 2017
President Trump putting his fist in the air.
(AP/Susan Walsh)

There's a certain set of issues that every candidate running for governor knows he or she will have to address -- creating jobs, improving schools, paying for health care. In 2018, there's one more thing they'll have to take a position on: President Donald Trump.

Many Republicans are trying to outdo one another in their levels of rhetorical support for the president, while most Democrats are doing their best to excoriate him.

"President Trump is now our nation's political touchstone," says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "The clearest way to communicate your values to the voters and to energize them is to declare yourself either a staunch ally or a steadfast opponent of the president."

Last week, when the U.S. House held an impeachment vote, even most Democrats opposed the idea. But some supported it, including Reps. Jared Polis and Tim Walz who are running for governor of Colorado and Minnesota, respectively.

Following a GOP forum last month in Loveland, Ohio, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story headlined, "Ohio's Republican governor candidates: I'm most like Donald Trump. No, I am."

The fact that candidates are taking a stance on Trump underscores a shift toward partisanship that has been happening in state races for a while but has intensified in recent election cycles.

"When the 2012 and 2014 elections made red states redder and blue states blue, that made it a safer electoral strategy for gubernatorial candidates to tie themselves closely to the dominant party in their state," says Kousser.

Where governors used to routinely cooperate and collaborate across party lines, they're now more likely to act and think of themselves as belonging to separate camps.

"They used to be governors first and Democrats or Republicans second," says Ray Scheppach, a former executive director of the National Governors Association. "Now, they're Democrats or Republicans first and governors second."

That strategy might help some candidates get elected, but Scheppach says it can make it harder to get things done when it comes to addressing prosaic state-level concerns.

"The division in Washington has influenced not just how they campaign in the states but actually how they govern," says Scheppach, now a public policy professor at the University of Virginia. "You get those divisions and it's just harder to do the practical things on a bipartisan basis."

Such concerns aren't stopping any gubernatorial candidates from making their positions known. Georgia state GOP Sen. Michael Williams describes himself as a "fierce supporter of Donald Trump," while California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has made standing up to the president part of his platform.

"The world, literally the world, is counting on all of you, counting on California to reject Trump's deception and destructiveness," he declared at the state Democratic Party convention this spring.

This phenomenon is compounded by news coverage. Reporters are often more interested in collecting reactions to Trump than in a gubernatorial candidate's own platform.

"The media's not always so interested in talking about state issues," says Seth Weathers, the campaign strategist for Williams. "The media tends to be more interested in talking about Donald Trump."

As the year progresses -- and depending on the state -- Republicans may have to finesse how tightly they embrace Trump. The president continues to enjoy approval from roughly 85 percent of Republican voters, making the strategy of linking to him in primaries almost a no-brainer. But assuming his overall approval ratings remain at a historic low, Republicans in blue or purple states might seek to pivot away from Trump in the general election in the fall.

In an interview this week, Ed Gillespie, the GOP nominee for governor in Virginia this year, called Trump "a big factor" in his defeat. After nearly losing the primary to an opponent who more ardently embraced Trump, Gillespie then took up the Trump mantle, emphasizing immigration and support for Confederate monuments.

Regardless of how Republicans ultimately position themselves -- or Democrats, for that matter -- it's clear that Trump will be an issue in races for governor across the country. Perhaps the dominant issue.

"What we're seeing across the country in the age of President Trump is the nationalization of state politics," says Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. "The future of any state depends on things that have little to do with Washington, such as schools and economic development, but those issues don't get nearly the attention they should from the candidates or the media, because Donald Trump has been such an extraordinary media figure."