WASHINGTON — Governors, traditionally insulated from national politics, are one of the last bastions of Republican elected leaders able to maneuver around former President Donald Trump.
But maybe not for long.
Trump is stepping up his involvement in gubernatorial primaries, looking to make examples of critics in his own party and elevate allies ahead of a potential 2024 presidential run — just as some of those elected before the former president’s takeover of the GOP are hitting their term limits.
The result could be unelectable candidates in otherwise winnable races and the purging of some of the few Republican elected leaders who didn’t need to depend on Trump’s base, critics say.
“It’s bad for the party, and it’s bad for the country,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who will leave office next year and is term-limited, said in an interview. “The people that I think are good Republicans that we need in the party that are being unfairly criticized because they won’t swear allegiance to the Dear Leader.”
Popular Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced last month that he won’t run for re-election after Trump endorsed a GOP primary challenger. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, is term-limited. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, who has dramatically expanded vote by mail in opposition to Trump, hasn’t yet said whether he’ll run again even though he was declared the most popular governor in America.
Even conservatives who otherwise align with the national GOP on policy have faced Trump’s ire. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Idaho Gov. Brad Little both face Trump-backed primary opponents — even though Trump called Little “a terrific gentleman” at an event at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida a week before he endorsed his opponent.
Anti-Trump Republicans insist the fight for the soul of the party isn’t over.
“Republican governors in blue states consistently have the highest approval ratings,” said Hogan, who plans to travel the country supporting candidates Trump has targeted. “We need more people who have a wider appeal that can actually win races.”
Hogan has been a regular critic of Trump. And his departure from office has stoked speculation that he could run for another job, including whether he could make his own bid for president.
Moderate Republicans have a strong track record of winning governorships in states that might never vote for a Republican president, especially in tough years for Democrats, as this one is shaping up to be.
Hogan worries that his party now risks throwing out a winning formula that not only elected Republican governors in Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont but also made them three of the most consistently popular elected officials in the country.
To replace him, Hogan is backing his former commerce secretary, Kelly Schulz, while Trump has lined up behind state Del. Dan Cox, who helped arrange buses to the Jan. 6 rally at the Capitol and called former Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor.”
“There’s no way in hell he can win a general election. Not in a state where we’re outnumbered 2-to-1,” said Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, referring to Cox. Steele, an MSNBC political analyst, considered entering the governor’s race himself.
Cox has raised less than $350,000, while Schulz has brought in $1.5 million and the leading Democratic candidate has raised almost $5 million.
Famously liberal Massachusetts has been governed by Republicans for 22 of the past 30 years, including future national leaders like Mitt Romney, Paul Cellucci and Bill Weld.
Baker, despite healthy approval ratings, announced last month that he wouldn’t seek a third term after Trump called him a “RINO” — a Republican in Name Only — and endorsed former state Rep. Geoff Diehl, who was already running against Baker in a GOP primary.
Baker insisted that his decision had nothing to do with Trump. But moderate Republicans are struggling to find a replacement candidate and say Diehl stands little chance of winning in November. He won just 36 percent in a 2018 Senate run against Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
In Nevada, which Trump lost twice, all eight Republican gubernatorial candidates have aligned themselves with the former president — a far cry from Nevada’s last Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, who supported abortion rights, immigration reform and efforts to combat climate change and was so popular that no significant Democrat even bothered to run against him.
“We’ve got to draw the line, because if we don’t, we lose races,” Steele said. “There is a growing effort and resistance to a lot of this, those of us who want to save our party from ourselves. … And I think the party can pull itself, hopefully, away from the cliff with leadership from these governors.”
Conservatives, however, point out that the popularity of moderate Republican governors is often driven by Democrats and independents — not members of their own party. Just 41 percent of Massachusetts Republicans, for instance, approve of Baker, compared to 65 percent of Democrats, according to a UMass Amherst/WCVB poll.
Conservatives say it’s about time their values are represented.
“I applaud Geoff Diehl for his support of our party and his solid commitment to conservative principles,” said state GOP Chairman Jim Lyons. “It’s an exciting time to be a Republican in Massachusetts.”
Both sides claim Virginia’s recently elected Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, as one of their own and point to him as a model.
Conservatives say he successfully ran on culture war issues like banning critical race theory in schools and maintained good relations with Trump, saying he proved the formula could work in a state that hadn’t elected a Republican since 2009.
“I would like to thank my BASE for coming out in force and voting for Glenn Youngkin. Without you, he would not have been close to winning,” Trump said in a statement after Youngkin’s victory.
Youngkin’s Democratic opponent tried to make the race about Trump, running ads and sending mailers driving home the message that the former president had endorsed him.
Non-Trump Republicans, meanwhile, say Youngkin won only by keeping Trump at arm’s length, persuading him to stay out of the state, and presenting himself as a reasonable dad and a competent manager more than a MAGA warrior.
“The way to not make it about Trump is to support him but not really talk about it. Youngkin did that,” said a Republican strategist involved in governors’ races who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
“You can’t do it if your brand is just about being anti-Trump,” the strategist said. “And if you say you don’t want to talk about Trump, your race is going to be all about Trump. It’s a kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t.”
CORRECTION: (Jan. 24, 2022 12:40 ET) A previous version of this article mischaracterized DeWine’s primary opponent. Jim Renacci was endorsed by Donald Trump in his 2018 Senate race, but not in his current gubernatorial bid.