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Scott Walker's Reign Over Republican Governors Begins This Week

With the GOP poised for one-party control in Washington, Gov. Scott Walker has a new political mission: keeping Republicans in power in the states.

By Craig Gilbert

With the GOP poised for one-party control in Washington, Gov. Scott Walker has a new political mission: keeping Republicans in power in the states.

Walker will take over this week as the chair of the Republican Governors Association, the partisan organization that seeks to elect GOP governors across the country.

There will be two contests for governor in 2017 during Walker's one-year term. He also will be working to lay the groundwork for 2018, when there are 36 contests.

Republicans currently hold 27 of those offices.

"It's a formidable task. We think we're up to it," said Walker, who pointed repeatedly in an interview to Trump's victory in swing states such as Wisconsin as boding well for the party in upcoming races for governor.

But Walker said the fate of his party in these midterm races would depend heavily on the first two years of unified Republican control in Washington and the policies his party enacts at the federal level.

"If the policy works, I think (our) governors are in a great position. If for some reason, they just fall apart, which I don't think they will, obviously that would make it much more difficult," he said.

Walker said unified GOP control in Washington was a "phenomenal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to partner with this new administration, the House and the Senate (and) kind of push our wish list as governors."

Citing Medicaid, education and transportation, he said there was "an incredible opportunity to push those responsibilities back to the states."

Walker said acting boldly and early in Trump's term would "help not only unite Republican, right wing voters, but I think to the extent that they get things done, it unites a whole lot of those swing voters that ... voted for Trump because they said, 'Hey, I don't agree with everything he said or every way he said it, but I want to shake things up.'"

The GOP gains in recent years in state legislatures, statehouses, Congress and now the White House come with their own political challenges.

One is overreach. Another is that the more one party expands its turf, the tougher it becomes to hold what it has gained.

After last week's elections, there will be more Republican governors (33) than at any time since the 1920s.

Many of those governors -- including Walker if he seeks re-election -- will have to run in 2018 at a time when their own party "owns" Washington. The first mid-term of a new presidency is often perilous to the party in power. Walker's own approval ratings remain lower (the low 40s) than they were when he won re-election in 2014.

"Obviously, we've got a lot of incumbents, and a lot of currently held seats that we need to hold. But I think the results on Tuesday bode well," said Walker.

Asked whether he sees the possibility of enduring GOP dominance in Wisconsin, he said, "I do."

He added, "As long as we don't go off on weird issues -- if we continue to focus on positive reforms."

Walker cited the GOP's methodical legislative gains since 2010, its hold on five of eight US House seats and the re-election victory of Republican US Senator Ron Johnson last week.

The party has its biggest legislative majorities in the state since the 1950s, though its success has been buttressed by a Republican-friendly redistricting plan that all but ensures GOP control.

Walker, the current vice chair, will be elected chair of the RGA at the group's annual meeting in Orlando Wednesday.

He said GOP governors will meet with vice president-elect Mike Pence Monday night in Orlando.

The two races for governor next year are in New Jersey (held by a Republican right now) and Virginia (held by a Democrat).

Walker said 18 of the 36 contests for governor in 2018 will feature open races (no incumbent) and of those, 15 are now held by the GOP.

In the other 18, the incumbent is eligible to run for re-election. Of those incumbents, 11 are Republican.

(c)2016 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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