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The Daily 202: Democrats predict anti-Trump ‘tsunami’ in 2018 governor’s races

As a House freshman, Jay Inslee lost reelection in 1994 because of voter frustration with Bill Clinton’s first two years as president. Tom Foley, who represented an adjacent district, became the first speaker to lose reelection since the depths of the Civil War.

“I’ve personally experienced a 65-foot fall tsunami directed at a party whose president had caused a great backlash,” said Inslee, who returned to Congress four years later and is now in his second term as governor of Washington State. “So I know what blowback can look like, and I will tell you that the energy that now exists in the opposite direction is greater than existed in 1994.”

As the chairman-elect of the Democratic Governors Association, Inslee will quarterback his party’s efforts in next year’s gubernatorial contests. To say he’s bullish would be an understatement. “Democrats are going to crawl across broken glass on their knees to go vote in 2018, if the conditions exist as they do today,” Inslee said during an interview yesterday afternoon at the J.W. Marriott, before he headed to the White House for a black-tie gala hosted by President Trump.

Inslee was part of the lawsuit that resulted in the Ninth Circuit blocking Trump’s travel ban, and he has oodles of anecdotes about people getting politically involved for the first time since the president took office. The other day, for example, he saw nine grandmothers he knows riding the ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle wearing pink hats.

“I’ve never, ever within a factor of 10 received as much affirmative response from people in my 25 years in public life,” he said. “I would have loved for them to have been more involved in my campaigns, frankly, but they’re on that boat now. Because something has sparked. There’s some fuse that’s been lit here, that’s connected to something that’s very explosive. I’ve seen it most profoundly around the travel ban, but the fuse is definitely lit. The TNT is there.”

–No one can predict what the political environment will be a year-and-a-half from now, but historically the president’s party loses seats in his first midterm.

Even if Trump was a generic Republican, which he is most certainly not, the terrain was already going to be quite favorable for Democrats. They have just 16 governorships, a dozen fewer than when Barack Obama took office.

There are two governor’s races this year, in Virginia and New Jersey, and 36 next year. Republicans currently hold the governorship in 27 of those 38 states. Hillary Clinton won nine of the 27 states (including Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada and Vermont). In another five of the 27, Hillary Clinton lost in November but Barack Obama carried them twice: Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. Trump prevailed in just one of the 10 states Democrats need to defend next year: Pennsylvania.

— One reason Senate Republicans are playing so much offense in 2018 is because 2012 was such a bad cycle for them in red states. Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly are senators today because of self-inflicted wounds by Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. If Republicans had not coalesced behind such losers in places like Montana and North Dakota six years ago, they might have those seats too.

In the same vein, Democrats are on offense in governor’s races because Republicans capitalized so effectively on anti-Obama backlash during down-ballot races in 2010 and 2014. Those were the two best cycles for the GOP since Doc Hastings toppled Inslee in 1994. With the anger out there, Democrats are bullish that 2018 will represent a boomerang to the 2010 tea party wave.

— If Inslee is thinking about 1994, John Hickenlooper’s frame of reference right now is the 1960s. “I grew up in the ’60s,” Colorado’s Democratic governor said in a separate interview on Sunday. “I remember marching against the Vietnam War. I was at the first Earth Day . . . Those protests were wildly enthusiastic. People were rising up all over the country. But Richard Nixon won in 1968 and again in 1972. Those protests didn’t necessarily translate into election victories. So what’s got to happen now is that all of this energy has got to lead into political organizing. For every protest, there should be 100 organizing meetings.”

Hickenlooper said Trump will primarily be judged on his ability to restore vitality to manufacturing communities that have been hollowed out over the decades. “That’s the expectation people have, and it’s a tall order,” said the governor, who was a successful resturaunter before becoming mayor of Denver.

He predicted that Democrats running for governor in 2018 will talk much more about the economy than they have in recent cycles, especially in the industrial Midwest. “In 2018, I think we’ll see a better organized, more jobs-focused Democratic Party,” said Hickenlooper. “He’s got a lot of people paying attention, and that’s a good thing. . . . But it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of organizing to bring some of these states back.”

— This cycle’s governor’s races are even more important than usual because they may determine which party controls the U.S. House over the next decade. In big states such as Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia, a governor has veto power over redistricting maps. Because Republicans did so well in the 2010 midterms, they had more say over legislative maps, which helped lock in their strength.

“I talked to Nancy Pelosi the day after the election,” said Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “I said to Nancy, ‘I don’t care how much money you have. You cannot win the House if we don’t have lines that are fairly drawn, that are competitive. It just doesn’t matter.’ . . . We’ve got to win these governors races because if we don’t they’re going to draw the maps and you’re not going to see (Democrats win) back Congress for another 10 years.”

McAuliffe is leading a Democratic Governors Association effort called “Unrig the Map” that’s focused on redistricting. He notes that Democrats control every statewide office in Virginia, and have carried the state in the past three presidential elections, but Republicans dominate the House delegation seven seats to four seats because they drew the lines. Gerrymandering also locks in a major GOP advantage in the state legislature. “If we don’t win in Nov. 2017, I don’t have to tell you what will happen to Virginia,” said McAuliffe, who by law can only serve one term. “If Ralph (Northam) or Tom (Perriello) is not there, Democrats are out of Virginia for 10 years. Honestly. It is what it is. We’re done.”

The former DNC chairman lamented that the Koch political network and other conservative groups have focused so much more on state-level races than their progressive counterparts. “The party has to get their act together,” he said in an interview. “I tell people that you cannot just raise money in a presidential year and then just go sit home because you cannot win elections that way.”

McAuliffe, embracing his role as a goalie, is on track to veto more bills than any governor in the history of Virginia. “We have legislation worse than North Carolina that I have vetoed,” he said. “My strongest argument for Ralph is that if you have a Republican sitting there, like Eddie Gillespie or whoever, they’re going to have to sign this legislation. It is not hypothetical. It passes the chamber easily. I am the only thing stopping Virginia from becoming worse than North Carolina. Think of that.”

— Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, expressed confidence that GOP candidates can thrive in 2018, even if the president’s popularity stays relatively low. The key, in his view, is that most voters don’t see Trump as a conventional Republican. “While the president is obviously a Republican, probably even more so than ever before, people get that Donald Trump is unique to Donald Trump,” Walker said on Friday during a “202 Live” interview at The Post’s headquarters. “And while there are things we like, there are also things that I may not appreciate.”

Even then, he predicted that Trump might not be the down-ballot drag that conventional wisdom anticipates. “I’m actually an optimist,” said Walker. “I actually think good things are going to happen. I think that the (repeal and replacement of Obamacare) is actually going to be better . . . and people are going to see it. I actually think they’re going to do tax reform that brings American jobs back from overseas and stimulates the economy to get to three, maybe four, percent GDP growth.”

The governor, who is expected to announce he will seek a third term when Wisconsin’s legislative session ends, predicted that the midterms will turn more on local issues than national ones. “A Republican will win not because of public opinion about the president of the United States. A Republican will win because they have big, bold ideas that relate to people,” he said. “None of us running for governor in our respective states in 2018, even if things are going really well in Washington, are going to run on Washington because it’s against our nature.”