Now in Trump’s shadow, Republican governors put presidential aspirations on hold

The political ground shifted suddenly last week underneath Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and other Republican governors who might have been eyeing the White House in 2020.

As the Republican Governors Association convened its annual meeting this week, Walker and his colleagues found themselves adjusting to life with Donald Trump as president, with many reassessing their plans for a future presidential run.

Walker, who will formally become the association’s chairman on Wednesday, said he isn’t worried about his own national aspirations for now.

“I’m 21 years younger than the president-elect,” the 49-year-old said in an interview late Monday. “I don’t worry too much about age. My only focus is going to be on 2018. I’m not term-limited, so, should I choose to run, I can continue to be relevant.”

The meeting at a resort near Disney World is the first major gathering of Republican office holders following an election that propelled Trump to the White House and saw Republicans winning three governorships previously been held by Democrats in New Hampshire, Vermont and Missouri.

The party emerged from the balloting with at least 33 governorships, its highest total since 1922. North Carolina’s race between Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper and Gov. Pat McCrory is still too close to call.

“The Republican Party is very much alive and well and that recovery has been led by the states and it was reaffirmed in Washington on Tuesday,” Walker said. “The one thing I can say good about this president is that he probably helped reestablish the strength of the Republican Party, inadvertently, in America because when he came in there were 28 Democratic governors. By January, there will be as few as 16.”

Republicans also control roughly two-thirds of state House and Senate chambers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The party’s sweeping gains in state legislative seats and governor’s offices in 2010 and 2014 have been used to cut taxes, restrict abortion and collective-bargaining rights, and implement new voting requirements. They’ve also redrawn legislative districts to their advantage.

The dominance at the state level, however, could also come with some awkwardness. Some Republican governors renounced Trump during the campaign and major policy disagreements may also loom on issues like trade, health care and immigration.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who ran unsuccessfully in the Republican presidential primary and harshly criticized Trump, is perhaps the most dramatic example of someone contemplating a 2020 bid who is now largely obscured by a giant political shadow.

Kasich had planned a speech in Washington less than 48 hours after the polls closed to present his vision for the future of the Republican Party, but the speech was scuttled after the election results became clear, according to the Columbus Dispatch. A Kasich spokesman didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on whether the governor fears any retribution for Ohio during a Trump administration.

Besides the repeal of Obamacare, Walker said he wants to see Trump rescind nearly every executive order and action Obama has taken. Speed, he said, is of the essence.

“If they want to sustain it in two, four, six years and beyond, they’ve got to be big and bold and they’ve got to do it early,” he said.

Before getting on board with the Trump campaign, Walker had been one of the party’s earliest adopters of what came to be known as the stop-Trump movement.

When he dropped out of the presidential primary race in September 2015, he said he was doing so to give the rest of the field a better chance to stop Trump, someone he portrayed as a threat to his party and nation.

The governor mostly kept his distance from Trump during the rest of the campaign, although he did speak in support of him at the Republican National Convention in July and appeared with him in Wisconsin, including at a campaign event a week before the election. Trump’s Wisconsin win, the first time a Republican presidential candidate has carried the state since 1984, was a key element in his national victory.

While state-level policy had been viewed as increasingly important with Congress and President Barack Obama gridlocked, that view could change with Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress starting next year.

Walker disagrees with that premature assessment. “There’s a real possibility that we could play a role as well, both in promoting and advocating for what they’re doing in Washington, but also helping them make the case that more of the power and responsibility should go to the states and the people,” he said.

Should he decide to run again for the White House, extra time might not be helpful for Walker. His signature achievement — a successful 2011 fight with public-sector unions that launched him into national prominence — is quickly fading in the rear-view mirror of history.

At the time of his exit from the presidential race, Walker’s advisers said part of his thinking was that he felt he was young enough to preserve his viability and run in the future.

For now, he’s ruled out taking a position in Trump’s administration and is expected to make a decision next year on whether he’ll seek a third term. His current one expires in January 2019.

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©2016 Bloomberg News

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