WASHINGTON — Republican missteps, weak candidates and fund-raising woes are handing Democrats unexpected opportunities in races for governor this year, including in two states with departing Republican chief executives and in a number led by Democrats where G.O.P. contenders now face far longer odds than they had hoped.
The potential to at least limit their statehouse defeats offers Democrats a bright spot in a midterm election in which they’re likely to suffer heavy congressional losses, as President Biden’s approval ratings plunge below 40 percent and the vast majority of voters remain convinced the country is on the wrong track amid fears of a recession.
“I hear all this talk about a wave year,” said Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor, a Republican. “Yeah, but $20 to 25 million worth of attack ads can take away whatever advantage we have.”
The more competitive map has alarmed Republican officials, while lifting the spirits of Democrats who’ve been demoralized by Mr. Biden’s unpopularity and nagging questions about his future.
“The governors’ races could be our silver lining,” said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.
The 36 statehouse contests this year loom large, in no small part because of the role many governors play in certifying election results and the opposition of Democratic governors to Republican state legislative efforts to change voting laws, two issues that could prove pivotal should the 2024 presidential results be contested.
As they have for five years, since the first statewide elections following President Trump’s election, Democrats are counting less on their own contenders and more on voter backlash: a strong liberal turnout coupled with the revulsion of moderates toward Mr. Trump and his inflammatory style of politics. That formula has been bolstered by the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, a decision particularly significant in races at the state level, where abortion rights will now be determined.
“Never have the rights of Americans depended more on who’s running their states,” said Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, the head of the Democratic Governors Association.
Unlike last year in Virginia, where Mr. McAuliffe’s comeback bid was snuffed out by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who helped underwrite his own campaign and kept Mr. Trump at arm’s length, Republican voters have aided the Democrats’ strategy by elevating problematic nominees in a handful of states.
Still, the overall political environment favors Republicans, and they may pick up governorships in a number of states Mr. Biden carried, including Wisconsin, New Mexico, Nevada and perhaps even Oregon, where a three-way race has made the otherwise liberal bastion a wild card.
“I’m very bullish right now,” said Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah, pointing to rising support for Republicans among Latinos, which could help lift his party in the west.
But, Mr. Cox added, “it’s no secret that there are some divides within the party we’re still working through and that’s going to continue to play out.”
More specifically, he said, “I’m very interested in electability, and there are some in our party who are less interested in that and hold a different standard.”
The governor was alluding to a number of races, most glaringly those in Massachusetts and Maryland. Both states have highly popular moderate Republican governors who opposed Mr. Trump, which prompted him to seek revenge and imperil G.O.P. control of the governorships.
The former president threatened to wage a primary against Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, who decided to retire rather than seek a third term, all but handing the deep-blue state’s corner office to Democrats. In Maryland, Mr. Trump intervened in the primary to succeed the term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan to elevate a state legislator who falsely claimed the election was stolen, organized buses to come to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021 and called Vice President Mike Pence “a traitor” on that day.
The Republican Governors Association is almost certain not to invest in either state.
At a time when Democrats are hungry for next-generation leaders, three states — Massachusetts, Maryland and Pennsylvania, a state the party is now favored in — could deliver the party a fresh-faced trio of governors that reflects their coalition. Maura Healey, a lesbian former college basketball player, is their likely standard-bearer in Massachusetts; Wes Moore, a young Black author with a compelling (if exaggerated) life story, is the nominee in Maryland; and in Pennsylvania, some believe that Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general and nominee for governor, has hopes of becoming the first Jewish president.
In a number of states with Democratic governors, including Pennsylvania, Illinois and Minnesota, Republicans have rallied behind candidates who may squander coveted opportunities for G.O.P. pickups. And in primaries this Tuesday in Michigan and Arizona, two battleground states, many Republicans are concerned their voters will nominate individuals who may imperil their chances or at least require a massive infusion of money to stave off defeat.
The lack of cash is a growing concern among many Republicans, a sore spot rubbed raw because some of the candidates propelled through primaries by Mr. Trump are the same ones now staring down gaping fund-raising deficits — and expecting a bailout from the Republican Governors Association.
“They’re furious about it,” Karl Rove, the Republican strategist, said of the Republican governors.
Compounding the frustration is Mr. Trump’s reluctance to transfer the more than $120 million he has in his fund-raising accounts for the candidates he’s backed, a topic Mr. Rove pointedly raised last week in his Wall Street Journal column.
“Trump-endorsed candidates might start to wonder how strong an ally the former president really is, beyond lending his name in a primary,” Mr. Rove wrote.
Attempting more positive reinforcement, Mr. Walker, the former Wisconsin governor, said Mr. Trump should consider how much the party’s success this fall could mean for his hopes of reclaiming the Republican presidential nomination.
“If I was advising him, I’d say that if he can get the candidates he endorsed in primaries over the finish line in November, that would be a compelling argument to our primary voters that this guy has still got it,” Mr. Walker said.
Perhaps the state most significant to Democrats is Pennsylvania, both because of the candidates Republicans nominated there and because of its importance to the presidential map.
With Mr. Trump’s endorsement, Republicans tapped Doug Mastriano, a far-right state legislator who has said he wants to ban all abortions. He was also closely involved in the former president’s attempt to overturn the election.
The Democratic nominee, Mr. Shapiro, did not have a primary, which allowed him to establish an enormous fund-raising advantage: As of last month, he had nearly $13.5 million on hand while Mr. Mastriano had less than $400,000.
In Pennsylvania, the governor is granted the power to appoint the secretary of state, who oversees elections, making this year’s race all the more significant should 2024 bring a replay of 2020 when Mr. Trump attempted to block certification of the election.
The Republican Governors Association has not ruled out aiding Mr. Mastriano, but he will likely have to show that he can run competitively for it to spend substantial sums of money in a sprawling state where it is expensive to blanket the airwaves.
“If it’s close in Pennsylvania, we’ll allocate resources there, and if it’s not competitive, we’ll try to make it competitive as much as we can,” Mr. Cox said. “But there’s always a point of diminishing returns.”
Dave Carney, a longtime Republican strategist, was even blunter about the landscape of governor’s races, invoking an old aphorism the association has embraced. “They don’t fund landslides or losers,” Mr. Carney said of the group, calling it “a workfare effort, not a welfare group.”
This mindset will likely ensure Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s re-election in Illinois, where the billionaire Republican donor and part-time Chicago resident Ken Griffin was willing to largely underwrite the campaign against Mr. Pritzker until his party nominated a far-right state legislator, Darren Bailey.
As with Mr. Mastriano, Mr. Bailey benefited from Mr. Trump’s endorsement in the primary as well as an overt effort by Democrats to prop up the Republicans they viewed as weaker general election candidates.
The meddling was particularly brazen in Illinois, where the billionaire Mr. Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association plowed nearly $35 million into ensuring Mr. Bailey’s nomination. A number of prominent Democrats have recoiled from such efforts, which are now being mirrored by the party’s House campaign committee, believing them to be both politically risky in a difficult election year and antithetical to Democrats’ high-minded rhetoric about protecting democracy.
But to Democratic governors and their aides, the ends — blocking Republicans from governorships ahead of Mr. Trump’s potential comeback — justify the means.
“We have a responsibility to maintain our morals in politics,” said Anne Caprara, Mr. Pritzker’s chief of staff. “We also have a responsibility to win. Moral victories don’t cut it anymore.”
Mr. Cooper, the head of the Democratic Governors Association, was somewhat more sheepish, noting that the Republicans that the group had backed were “winning these primaries by large margins” anyway, but defended the spending as a way to highlight “the extremism of these candidates.”
The cross-party interventions haven’t been successful everywhere: Democrats were unable to stop Joseph Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff, in the Nevada governor’s race. Yet the Democratic Governors Association is turning to the tactic again in Michigan heading into Tuesday’s primary. The group is airing a commercial lashing the Republican front-runner, Tudor Dixon, from the right, claiming Ms. Dixon supports a budget they claim would “mean less cops on the street.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is ahead in early polls and will also begin the general election with a substantial fund-raising advantage, but Ms. Dixon is viewed by many Michigan Republicans as the party’s strongest potential nominee.
She also has the support of Michigan’s wealthy DeVos family, which could relieve the Republican Governors Association of some of its burden to pour money into one of the most important states on the country’s political map.
So much of the shadowboxing between the parties in these summer months owes to fund-raising and, in particular, to determining where money can be saved and redirected as needed. That question is at the heart of Tuesday’s other hotly contested primary for governor, in Arizona.
Should Republicans nominate Karrin Taylor Robson, who is married to one of Arizona’s wealthiest developers and is the favorite of Doug Ducey, the term-limited governor who is co-chairman of the Republican Governors Association, she would save the group millions. However, Republican officials expect they’ll have to subsidize Kari Lake, the election denier who has Mr. Trump’s endorsement, if she emerges as the nominee and the former president continues to keep his money to himself.
“All you’re looking for in a wave year are generic, replacement-level candidates,” said the Democratic pollster Zac McCrary. “But some of these nominees could be two or three clicks worse than a generic Republican.”
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