noscript
Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politics

Who's afraid of Donald Trump? Not Democratic governors.

Sign up for Semafor Americana: Chronicling America’s political landscape. Read it now.

Title iconThe News
Pennsylvania Republican candidate for Governor Doug Mastriano and his wife Rebbie speak with talk show host John Fredericks next to his "Real America Speaks Team MAGA Election Bus." November 7, 2022.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEW ORLEANS – Ten years have passed since Joe Biden predicted that the Republican “fever” would “break” if they lost an election. Three years ago, he updated the prediction — there would be a post-election “epiphany among my Republican friends” if Democrats won.

After last month’s midterm elections, Democrats have started to believe it. At the Democratic Governors Association’s meeting here, governors and governors-elect described a GOP that had run to the right, embraced Donald Trump, obsessed over the 2020 election, and lost.

“The people that were on the crazy side, they’ve kind of been sent off to the frontier,” said Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, who won a second term by 3.4 points over a Republican who Trump endorsed and campaigned for. “If you’re denying the last election, or any election, I think that balloon has been popped.”

For the first time since Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, many Democrats see him as politically spent — too unpopular to win again and probably the weakest Republican that his party could run in 2024. In New Orleans, they explained how their suburban-urban coalitions from 2020 had held tight, or expanded, and how Trump helped nominate candidates who misread the electorate, counting on an anti-progressive backlash that never materialized.

“I don't think the fever has broken amongst the Republican Party,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, whose Republican opponent repeatedly and falsely claimed that schools were providing litter boxes for students who identified as cats. “I think it's broken amongst the American public, from an electoral standpoint. If Republicans choose to continue on this path, certainly in Minnesota, I don't think they can win.”

AD

Walz, Evers, and other Democrats who recapped their victories in New Orleans described a two-part strategy, which the least successful GOP nominees played into.

First, they acknowledged that inflation was real, and either passed or promised policies that would lower the cost of living, like the rebate checks that went to voters in Michigan and Minnesota.

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, they promised to keep in place the abortion protections that voters were used to. They warned that Republicans would end them for good if they took power, and they stuck to that, while no social issue that conservatives prioritized — limiting sex education in schools, blocking “boys in girls sports” with bans on transgender athletes — was as compelling to swing voters.

“They were pushing whatever buttons it took to garner attention,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told reporters on Friday, referring to the Republicans who lost every statewide race and the legislature last month. “They preferred the sugar rush of partisan warfare to practical, policy-centered problem solving.”

Whitmer and other Democrats had more advantages that are harder to scale up in the next election. She outraised Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, who won Trump’s endorsement after botched signature-gathering removed five candidates from the primary ballot, by a 5-1 margin. Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, who said that his campaign’s focus on “democracy” helped it win a landslide, did even better — a 6-1 spending advantage over Republican Doug Mastriano.

AD

But Democrats had run ahead of expectations even in places where spending was even, like Arizona. That bolstered the idea that Trump had dragged his party down, and that Republicans who’d followed him there were so chastened that they might come to the table and work on election reform, as Evers hoped they might in Wisconsin.

“We talked about this being a race between sanity and chaos, and that resonated with people,” Arizona Governor-elect Katie Hobbs said at a Saturday breakfast panel for DGA donors. “People still come up to me and say, ‘I voted for sanity.’”

The winners had less to say about 2024, reiterating their support for Joe Biden and rejecting any on-record speculation that the party might need another, younger nominee. But Trump, they agreed, was the weakest candidate that the GOP could run. Republicans who’d been targeted by Trump, like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, ran ahead of their party; Republicans obsessed with overturning the 2020 election had run behind it, and lost.

“Of course we're concerned about Trump and his continued denial of this election,” said Cooper. Voters, he explained, had just proven that they were “not going to tolerate that, and those candidates are not going to be successful.”

undefined headshotDavid 's view

Democrats have not been this confident about Donald Trump’s political weakness since October 2016, when the Washington Post published the “Access Hollywood” story and Republicans started talking about how they’d resist the inevitable Hillary Clinton presidency. In the short term, that means a lot of gloating that may or may not age well. In the medium term, it makes them far more confident about investigating Trump — there was no political backlash to the Mar-a-Lago raid, which plenty of pundits speculated about — and far less nervous that investigations of Joe Biden and his son Hunter will connect with people outside of a MAGA base they now see as focused on issues most voters don’t follow.

Title iconAnother View

Outgoing Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican not well-known outside the state who is considering a run for president, said at the Reagan Library last week that “the voters did not reject Republican ideas” when they stiffed Trump-style candidates, setting them up for a comeback if they can better police their primaries. “They did not embrace Republican principles,” he said of the losing GOP nominees. “Historically, Republicans do not attack America’s democracy.”

Title iconNotable
  • There’s a secondary effect to Republican failures to defeat Democrats in key gubernatorial elections that could have long-term effects, The Washington Post notes — Democrats now have a deep bench of high-profile politicians with executive experience who could potentially run for president in 2024 if Biden does not, or in 2028.
AD