MILWAUKEE — Democratic and Republican governors at the National Governors Association’s summer meeting began sketching out the battle lines of the 2014 election Saturday, with Democrats eager to talk about the GOP’s record on social issues and Republicans preferring to stay focused on economic matters.
“We believe that we have never had a better story to tell,” Democratic Governors Association Chairman Peter Shumlin of Vermont said in an interview. “Democrats are the job creators. The Republican governors have been constrained by these conservative social issues.”
The more than two dozen governors attending the three-day meeting that ends Sunday have been mingling at social events and discussing policy in both open- and closed-door meetings. Breakout discussions covered issues including the economy, health care, transportation, education and homeland security.
“There’s actually very, very, very little discussion of politics at these meetings,” said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D), the outgoing chairman of the NGA.
But in interviews on the sidelines of the meeting, Democratic and Republican governors offered their perspective about the 2014 campaign. There will be 36 gubernatorial races next year, in addition to contests this year in New Jersey and Virginia.
Republicans enjoyed an immensely successful 2010 election cycle, leading to a 2014 map ripe with Democratic pickup opportunities. In total, Republicans are defending 24 seats this year and next. Democrats hold just 14 seats that are up. The total count right now is 30 Republican governors and 20 Democratic ones.
“We’re very optimistic about not only holding the incumbents we have but gaining Democratic seats in 2014,” Shumlin said.
Republican governors in Pennsylvania, Florida and Maine are vulnerable to Democratic challenges, polls show. From there, Democrats have several other states on their radar, including Michigan, Virginia and Ohio. Republicans’ best pickup opportunity lies in Arkansas, an increasingly conservative state where Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe faces a term limit.
Coupled with GOP gains in state legislatures, the 2010 elections gave rise to a new class of Republican governors equipped to enact sweeping economic and social policy changes. Now, those governors will face their biggest tests yet at the ballot box in 15 months. Democrats are banking that Republican efforts on abortion will backfire; Republicans say Democrats simply are trying to distract from an economic policy argument they can’t win.
“There are social issues that are important to myself and other governors that we have particular opinions on, but I think on the bottom line, people want to know that their pocketbook issues are going to be addressed by the governors,” said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), the next chairman of the NGA.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who faces reelection in 2014, said, “Look at the choices that you’ve got. You can elect Republican governors who will lead, create jobs, reduce the size and cost of government, or you can continue with these tax-and-spend liberal Democrats who think you can tax your way to prosperity.”
The abortion debate has moved to the forefront of the political conversation after some highly publicized legislative battles in recent months. Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) became a national figure after she filibustered a measure to tighten abortion regulations that eventually passed. And in Congress, the GOP-controlled House recently passed a 20-week abortion ban, the most sweeping restriction cleared by either chamber on Capitol Hill in a decade.
The debate has spilled over onto the 2014 gubernatorial landscape. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has taken heat from Democrats for signing a budget this year containing stringent abortion restrictions. And Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed a bill restricting insurance coverage of abortions that Democratic critics have seized upon. In Virginia’s open race, Democrats have targeted Republican nominee and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II on abortion, too.
But Republican governors counter that their agenda is not rooted in battles of social ideology.
“We spend a minute fraction of time talking about those issues, other than when we are asked,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who signed a bill last month to tighten abortion restrictions that was blocked until at least November by a federal judge.
Perhaps the poster child of the 2010 class of Republican governors, Walker already has survived an effort to remove him from office early after he signed a 2011 bill to curb collective bargaining for public employees. A Democratic recall effort failed in 2012, and now Walker stands in reasonably sound position ahead of his 2014 reelection bid; he is even being talked about as a potential 2016 White House contender.
In Ohio, Kasich’s effort to curb collective bargaining was met with repeal from voters and saddled him with low approval ratings. But he has bounced back during the past two years amid an improving economy. Like Walker, his reelection odds look much better than they once did.
Gubernatorial aspirations weren’t the only ones on display. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) sounded like someone gearing up to make a run for the White House in 2016, telling reporters here Saturday that by the end of this year, he expects to have amassed the experience and policy record necessary for a viable candidacy.
O’Malley, who is term-limited, said in April that he is considering a White House bid and would give the matter more serious consideration during the latter part of this year. His Saturday comments are a fresh sign that a presidential campaign might be in the offing.
O’Malley built up his liberal credentials during the last legislative session in Maryland, winning passage of bills on guns, the death penalty and transportation.
For his part, Walker played the role of enthusiastic, nonpartisan host to the nation’s governors here this weekend. He led a handful of them on a motorcycle ride to the Harley-Davidson Museum on Friday evening and showed them the Milwaukee Brewers baseball stadium Thursday.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), one of the nation’s most visible governors, has kept a low public profile this weekend. Coming out of a governors-only lunch Saturday afternoon, Christie didn’t respond to questions about his public war of words with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Governors have engaged in some good-natured geographic ribbing and appeared generally upbeat as they entered and exited meetings. As reporters eagerly waited outside the governors’ lunch, O’Malley joked that there must be a “royal baby” inside.