PHOENIX — Republican governors are anything but “tired of winning,” and in Phoenix at the annual Republican Governors Association conference, it became clear that may not be the only point on which the party and the former president diverge.
Fresh off a national upset win in Virginia and a near-miss in New Jersey, the group of high-profile Republican governors and their strategists are now tasked with replicating their momentum across the map in some of the most highly competitive midterm races in decades — a goal actively complicated by former President Donald Trump’s continued endorsement of primary challengers to incumbent governors who have fallen out of his personal favor. And plans on how they navigate the minefield of remaining undistracted by Trump while not alienating him or his supporters remain fuzzy.
Rather than embracing or denouncing the former president, the over a dozen governors present who spoke publicly at the conference stressed that their path to winning lies in drilling down on issues-based campaigning — focusing on things like increasing police funding, combatting higher taxes, curbing immigration, ensuring election security, allowing parents a bigger role in public schools and other cultural issues like so-called “critical race theory.”
And to the highly confident Republican Governors Association, there is no more perfect blueprint than freshly-elected Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, who pulled off a gubernatorial win in a reliable blue state in part by nationalizing local issues while keeping the former president, and his continued gripes surrounding the 2020 election, at arm’s length.
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“Before Glen Youngkin, there were 27 sitting republican governors. Today there are 28. We are the only majority Republican caucus in the country. Now, we certainly believe that the United States Senate at the House of Representatives can become majority institutions in 2022,” said RGA chairman Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona. “We saw a road map in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And whatever happens after 2022 will be decided after 2022.”
Ducey side-stepped questions of whether the association was concerned that incumbent candidates might lose their seats due to Trump’s involvement.
“We believe that our incumbents across the country deserve reelection,” he said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “Now ultimately, we may believe they deserve reelection, but that will be left to the people of fill in the blank, whatever state they are participating in.”
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Ducey himself has been a high-profile target of Trump’s ire, despite being term limited. Trump has previously called Ducey an “unelectable RINO” and endorsed vocal Ducey-critic Kari Lake for Arizona governor. Ducey has not definitively shut the door on a run for Senate — a move Trump would no doubt condemn — though he previously said he had no intention of running. Trump has also endorsed GOP challengers in Idaho, Massachusetts and openly mocked sitting GOP Govs. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Brian Kemp of Georgia.
Still, Ducey declined to paint Trump’s involvement as problematic to the RGA.
“We make decisions state by state, race by race,” he said. “We don’t fund landslides. We don’t fund losers…I will also say the RGA follows the eleventh commandment: we do not speak ill of another Republican.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said it’s a matter of contrasting with Democrats.
“The reasons why Republicans will win even more governorships in this next election cycle is because we will continue to show the contrast of where Republican governors stand versus the leftist progressive agenda that is espoused and promoted by President Biden himself,” he said.
RGA executive director Dave Rexrode sees vulnerability among Biden’s coalition, particularly among the blue collar electorate Biden championed during the campaign.
“More working-class democratic voters are souring on Biden and Democrats at a faster pace. We certainly saw that in Virginia — that working-class Democratic group is working quickly against the president,” Rexrode said.
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Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting last week, former RGA chair Chris Christie stressed that turning away from Trump, and other 2020 baggage, is the only way the party can see massive gains.
“We can no longer talk about the past and the past elections. No matter where you stand on that issue, no matter where you stand, it is over. And every minute that we spend talking about 2020, while we’re wasting time doing that, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are laying ruin to this country. We better focus on that and take our eyes off the rearview mirror and start looking through the windshield again,” he said.
During a press conference Wednesday evening, a slew of Republican governors did not address whether Christie’s stance is the right one.
Only Youngkin, the party’s winning template, chimed in.
“I fundamentally campaigned on looking forward and not looking backward,” he said.