Democratic governors seize on Trump's Washington to reverse defeats in states
Democratic governors are seizing on an intransigent Congress and national discontent with President Donald Trump to reverse their hapless fortunes in state capitals.
Chief executives from blue states are moving forward on controversial policy fronts, like gun control, to distinguish themselves from Washington's malaise.
At the same time, the Democratic Governors Association is attempting to insert heightened national stakes into their statewide contests, emphasizing that governors will sit at the apex of congressional redistricting challenges ahead of the 2020 census.
The DGA committee announced on Friday a $20 million investment in eight swing states that will elect governors in November who will wield considerable sway over where map lines are drawn for the U.S. House of Representatives. The states are Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
"The significance of this is much beyond individual governors because each governor in these states now is a national race and they can help restore some balance to the national position for years and years to come. And it has been an awakening," said Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who chairs the DGA. "Frankly, our team has been a little asleep at the switch for a couple decades here and we've not been as aggressive as we should be on these local, gubernatorial and legislative races. That is changing."
Inslee estimated that having a Democratic governor in place in these eight targeted states could net the party as many as 20 congressional seats, if maps are redrawn to better proportionally represent the population. Democrats need to flip 24 seats to win back the House this year.
The importance of a governor in the redistricting process was most recently seen in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed a revised map drawn by the Republican legislature due to a court ruling that the current lines are gerrymandered. The state supreme court intervened, crafting a map more favorable to Democrats which the GOP is now challenging to the U.S. Supreme Court. Experts believe Republicans will likely lose their challenge, ultimately generating a half dozen more competitive House seats in the commonwealth.
"Gerrymandering has gone from maybe something that political scientists talked about and agonized over to something that actually ordinary people really care about," said Wolf, who is running for re-election this November.
Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy, who opted against running for a third term in Connecticut this year, said the gerrymandering issue is "a particularly easy issue for us to raise money around right now."
A handful of the 18 Democratic governors already in power are also attempting to demonstrate progress on policy issues that continue to languish in gridlocked Washington.
This week, four northeastern governors from Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island launched a regional coalition to combat gun violence. The initiative will create a cross-state task force designed to strengthen coordination between law enforcement and intelligence services to trace and intercept illegal guns as they travel up the I-95 Interstate corridor.
The Democratic governors also said they would pursue an interstate research consortium through their universities to study gun violence and smart-gun technology.
A 1996 federal law, backed by the National Rifle Association, effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting such research.
"We're not waiting for federal action," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on a conference call.
"It's not rocket science. In many ways it's harder, because it takes political courage."
Cuomo stressed that the initiative wasn't a substitute for federal action and dismissed a Trump-backed plan to raise the legal age to purchase assault rifles from 18 to 21 as "political crumbs," mirroring House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's previous description of Republican tax cuts.
"No, I'm not especially optimistic that the federal government is going to be responsible," he added.
Democrats noted it was one of their own -- Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon -- who shepherded through her legislature the first gun control measure since the Parkland, Florida shootings.
This week, state lawmakers in Oregon banned people convicted of stalking, domestic violence or under restraining orders from buying or owning firearms and ammunition, with a Republican gubernatorial candidate registering a "yes" vote joining with Democrats.
"I would say there's been no other time in recent history that governors have mattered as much as we do now," said Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat. "We are living through an unprecedented period of inaction, political gridlock in Washington like we've never seen. That means the responsibility is falling to governors."
In a sign of the rising political pressure, Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a likely top flight Senate candidate in the coming months, endorsed a multi-pronged plan to raise the gun age, ban the sale of bump stocks, bolster background checks and require some mentally ill patients who have been committed to temporarily surrender weapons.
On the other hand, Wolf, a northeastern governor facing re-election in a state Trump carried, was notably absent from his colleagues' gun control coalition, an indication of the delicate politics being calculated on both sides of the aisle.
On another front, newly minted New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is vowing to vigorously fight Trump's decision to open up most of the nation's coastal waters to oil and gas drilling. And Inslee noted that his state of Washington just passed its largest transportation infrastructure plan in its history, jabbing that "in Washington, D.C. under Donald Trump, they can't build a birdhouse."
The message conveyed among Democratic governors, who are joining their Republican counterparts in Washington this weekend at the National Governors Association annual summit, was intended to convey a burst of political momentum heading into this year's 36 gubernatorial races.
Democrats are optimistic the political environment will enable them to net gubernatorial gains this year. The question is how big of a dent they'll be able to make in races Republicans will likely portray as local affairs and in places Trump carried in 2016.
The executive director of the RGA doubted the DGA even has the funding it claims to pull off a fleet of such victories.
DGA executive director Elizabeth Pearson would only say the committee has "multiple entities" involved in the $20 million investment. Republican governors and their candidates have regularly enjoyed a gaping financial advantage over their Democratic opponents.
But the DGA sees manifest signs of a blue wave as lifting their prospects in a way they haven't seen in many cycles.
"The reason to some degree," Inslee says, "is because we have such a sort of desire for leadership and revulsion against what's going on in the White House."
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