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The Litmus Test for (Most) Republicans Running for Governor: Trump

The president remains popular among Republican voters, leading most GOP candidates to pledge their allegiance to him. But they may shift that strategy after the primaries.

mcmaster trump
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster was the first statewide elected official in the country to endorse Trump in 2016. That credential -- along with an endorsement from Trump himself -- is a factor in McMaster's sizable polling lead in this year's elections.
(AP/Susan Walsh)
Tim Pawlenty will have a lot to answer for during his recently launched campaign to once again serve as Minnesota's governor. There's his work running a banking industry association, his faltering bid for president in 2012 and his record running a state that was in recession when he left office.

But Pawlenty's biggest problem might be that the Republican Party has changed dramatically since he led the state eight years ago.

Pawlenty stepped down after the 2010 elections, when the Tea Party wave was just starting to crest -- and long before Donald Trump reshaped the party. Loyalty to Trump has become a touchstone in GOP primaries for governor around the country. While Trump's overall approval ratings remain low, around 40 percent, he enjoys continued backing from 80 to 85 percent of Republicans. 

"Trump remains quite strong with Republicans at a time when Republican voters remain skeptical of their leaders outside of the White House," says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a political newsletter published by the University of Virginia. 

"Indeed, GOP base voters' anger at their own leaders helps explain the Trump nomination in the first place," Kondik continues. "So it makes sense that candidates who might be skeptical of Trump may draw the ire of Republican voters."

That creates a dilemma for Pawlenty.

After the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape emerged, in which Trump made lewd comments about women, Pawlenty declared that Trump was "unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit." He said at the time, just before the 2016 election, that he was withdrawing his support.

Pawlenty now insists that he voted for Trump, but Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the GOP frontrunner before Pawlenty entered the race, attacked him for his lack of loyalty.

"He publicly trashed Donald Trump a month before Election Day," Johnson wrote on his campaign Facebook page. "He's the last person Republicans should want at the top of the ticket in 2018."

Pawlenty is a Rip Van Winkle candidate, finding himself reawakened in a wholly new political environment.

"Some people think being more supportive of Trump means being more conservative," says Chris Baylor, a fellow at the American Political Science Association and author of First to the Party, a new book about how parties change. "As long as conservative activists think like that, people like Tim Pawlenty are going to be seen as RINOs [Republicans in name only]."

Not all GOP gubernatorial candidates are pledging their allegiance to Trump. Popular Republican governors in blue states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont seem to be getting a pass on pledging loyalty to the president.

But in states like Idaho, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Republican candidates repeatedly hail the president while sometimes accusing their opponents of being insufficiently supportive of Trump -- or of having been too slow to get on board his bandwagon in 2016.

In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Scott Wagner, who earned the party's official endorsement, has called Trump a "visionary" while sending out fundraising appeals adorned with a Trumpian promise to "drain the swamp."

"Support for Trump is definitely a litmus test for candidates in the Republican primary," says Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the College of Charleston, about the South Carolina race.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster was the first statewide elected official in the country to endorse Trump. That credential -- along with an endorsement from Trump himself -- is why he has a sizable polling lead.

"McMaster has a huge advantage because he endorsed Trump when other South Carolina politicians supported other candidates," says Knotts.

McMaster has attacked his chief rival, former state health official Catherine Templeton, for having the support of American Future Fund, an outside group that sponsored "Never Trump" ads in 2016.


Post-Primary Campaigns

In states where Democrats have a chance of winning the general election, Republican candidates will have to be more careful about expressing support for Trump while trying to appeal to a broader electorate that is more skeptical of him. It's a delicate tightrope to walk.

After nearly losing the GOP nomination for governor of Virginia last year, Ed Gillespie ran on some Trumpian themes in the fall, stressing his opposition to criminal gangs and undocumented immigrants. He lost, and exit polls suggested that Trump had been a drag on his campaign. Nearly half of Virginia voters -- 47 percent -- said they strongly disapproved of Trump, and 95 percent of those voters supported Democrat Ralph Northam, who won easily.

Nevertheless, after Gillespie lost, Trump tweeted that "Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for."

Winning over Trump supporters in the primary without putting off independents in the fall may be a difficult task.

In Colorado, the two frontrunners in the June GOP primary, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, have ducked the question of whether they would welcome Trump's endorsement. 

"There is a significant cadre of the activist Republican Party for whom allegiance to Trump is a litmus test," says Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst in Colorado. "But Stapleton and Coffman both figure they have the luxury of being far enough ahead in their primary contest to play this game quite as much."

Minnesota is a purple state that Trump lost by 2 percentage points in 2016. He retains considerable support among Republicans there but is unpopular among its voters as a whole.

"Pawlenty's in a bind because he can't win the nomination without mending fences with Trump supporters," says Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "As he does that, he risks losing the general electorate that is decidedly disappointed in the president's performance."

To win the party's official endorsement, one of the candidates must win support from 40 percent of the delegates to the GOP's state convention in June. That might be tricky for Pawlenty. Jacobs says he's a smart and capable politician, and he certainly has name recognition and experience, but Pawlenty launched his campaign late and hasn't inspired much passion among the activists who will dominate the convention.

If anything, Jacobs says he inspires some antipathy among them.

"You have this intense group of anyone-but-Pawlenty folks," he says. "He kind of embodies everything they don't like about the Republican Party. He's corporate, he governed but didn't really transform government, and he came out and savaged Trump during the campaign."

This appears in the Politics newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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