AUSTIN, Texas — For nearly a decade, meetings of the Republican Governors Association were buoyant, even giddy, affairs, as the party — lifted by enormous political donations and a backlash against the Obama administration — achieved overwhelming control of state governments.
But a sense of foreboding hung over the group’s gathering in Austin this past week, as President Trump’s unpopularity and Republicans’ unexpectedly drastic losses in elections earlier this month in Virginia, New Jersey, and suburbs from Philadelphia to Seattle raised the specter of a political reckoning in 2018.
“I do think Virginia was a wake-up call,” said Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee, who took over here as chairman of the governors association. “There’s a pretty strong message there. When Republicans lose white married women, that’s a strong message.”
In a series of closed-door meetings, governors tangled over how best to avoid being tainted by Trump, and debated the delicate task of steering Trump’s political activities away from states where he might be unhelpful. Several complained directly to Vice President Mike Pence, prodding him to ensure that the White House intervenes only in races in which its involvement is welcome.
A larger group of governors from agricultural and auto-producing states warned Pence that Trump’s proposed withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement could damage them badly.
Republicans have long anticipated that the midterm campaign will prove difficult. But the drubbing they suffered in Virginia, where they lost the governorship by 9 percentage points, along with at least 15 state House seats threaded throughout the state’s suburbs, has the party’s governors worried that 2018 could be worse than feared.
“Any time the titular head of the party is underwater, obviously there’s going to be issues there. You can’t just ignore that,” said Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who is facing reelection in a state that Trump lost by less than a percentage point.
The battle for Congress, already center stage, will draw only more attention if the embattled Roy Moore loses an Alabama Senate race in December, jeopardizing Republican control of the chamber. But the contests for governor are perhaps more consequential.
Next year’s statehouse races will reorder the country’s political map for a decade, because many of the 36 governors elected will have a strong hand in redrawing state legislative and congressional boundaries after the 2020 census.
Several candidates and strategists said the governors association had been pressing recruits to define themselves early and develop independent personal brands.
But that is a more complicated task than it was during the Obama years, when Republican governors shared an easy template of railing against a Democratic administration and fiscal profligacy at the state level.
What Republicans agree on is that their candidates must avoid the contortions of Ed Gillespie, their Virginia nominee for governor, who embraced Trump’s divisive messages on immigration, crime, and Confederate “heritage” but danced inartfully around whether he actually supported the president.
“You can’t be halfway in and halfway out,” said Governor Phil Bryant of Mississippi, a conservative and admirer of Trump’s.
Haslam, a more centrist voice who did not vote for Trump, agreed. “If you try to wear somebody else’s clothes, they never fit,” he said.
But that consensus breaks down over whether to appear with Trump in their states.
Governor Paul LePage of Maine, a fierce Trump supporter, said Republicans should “absolutely” stump with the president in 2018. “He is the leader of our country, and we should respect our leader,” LePage said.
Other Republican governors do not bother with the rhetorical dance, believing that an invitation to Trump is a political death wish. His approval rating is in the 30s in a swath of states that the party will be defending next year, and the last thing that governors in liberal-leaning or even moderate parts of the country want to do is make it easier for Democrats to link them to the president.
Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, who faces a 2018 reelection fight in one of the country’s bluest states, urged Republican candidates to distinguish themselves from “the mess in Washington,” and instead stress economic issues close to home. So far, Hogan said, Republicans are not running campaigns equal to the political environment.