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GOP Governors Put in Awkward Spot      02/24 06:17

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- These should be heady times for the GOP as the nation's 
governors prepare to gather for their winter meeting in Washington, D.C. 
Republicans hold 33 governorships, compared with just 16 for Democrats, and the 
GOP has full control of the legislatures in two-thirds of the states.

   But there is a sense of unease for Republican governors in 
Democratic-leaning states. They criticize President Donald Trump gently, 
picking their spots to appease the Democratic and independent voters they need 
to remain in office. At the same time, they don't want to alienate Trump 
supporters.

   For some, the best strategy is to avoid mentioning Trump at all.

   Democrats sense an opening ahead of the 2018 elections and are taking any 
opportunity to link Republican governors to the president. Republicans will be 
defending 27 of the 38 governorships up for election this year and next. Nine 
of the GOP governors are in states Hillary Clinton carried last year.

   "I think what the Trump administration has done, it has really made every 
Republican governor out there --- especially a moderate Republican governor in 
a Democratic state --- it has made them very vulnerable," said Virginia Gov. 
Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat and chairman of the National Governors Association.

   Republican governors who face re-election next year in states that voted for 
Clinton are Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, Bruce 
Rauner of Illinois, Phil Scott of Vermont and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire. 
Four other states that voted for Clinton have governors who will be forced out 
by term limits: Chris Christie in New Jersey; Paul LePage in Maine; Susana 
Martinez in New Mexico; and Brian Sandoval in Nevada.

   Sandoval, vice chairman of the governors association, said he is comfortable 
being the face of moderate GOP governors across the country. He has urged 
caution on Trump's pledges to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law 
and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Sandoval said he believes he and 
other moderates can work productively with Trump and his Cabinet.

   "We're five weeks into the administration, so I think it's really premature 
to start drawing conclusions now, with regard to what the implication could be 
in future elections," he said.

   Heading into the upcoming governors' races, the Republican Governors' 
Association is better-funded, having raised $60.7 million in 2016, compared 
with $39 million by the Democratic Governors' Association. The RGA has tried to 
paint Democratic challengers as too liberal and out of touch with mainstream 
America.

   This weekend's bipartisan governors' gathering includes an audience with 
Trump and leading Republicans in Congress. Governors of both parties are 
concerned with a full range of proposals that could affect state budgets, 
including possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, reforms to Medicaid, 
immigration enforcement and spending for infrastructure.

   Republican governors in Democratic-leaning states are especially vulnerable 
if policies put forward by Trump and the GOP Congress are disruptive in the 
states.

   Baker, a moderate with high approval ratings in a state politically 
dominated by Democrats, has distanced himself from Trump since early in the 
presidential campaign. He said he left his presidential ballot blank.

   After the election, the Massachusetts governor promised to forge 
constructive ties between the state and the new administration. But he has not 
hesitated to criticize White House policies, including the travel ban aimed at 
seven majority-Muslim nations that sowed confusion in the U.S. and abroad. He 
publicly backed the state's attorney general, a Democrat, when her office filed 
a lawsuit to block Trump's action.

   During the women's march after the presidential inauguration, Baker was just 
blocks away as protesters flooded Boston Common. Defending his absence, he said 
he was working on time-sensitive matters and said it was not an intentional 
snub.

   In Maryland, Hogan --- who has enjoyed approval ratings higher than 70 
percent --- also said throughout the presidential campaign that he would not 
vote for Trump. On his presidential ballot, he wrote in the name of his father, 
a former congressman.

   Since the president took office, he has continually sidestepped questions 
about Trump. Even in a friendly interview on a Baltimore rock radio station, he 
made clear he was weary of the subject.

   "I'm focused on solving Maryland problems," Hogan said. "I have 31 different 
policy proposals and a real agenda to turn our state around, and the only 
questions we get (are) 'Why aren't you protesting Donald Trump?' and 'Why 
didn't you go to BWI (Airport) to do this or that?' I don't see that as my 
role."

   Democrats, who control the Legislature and enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage in voter 
registration, went against Hogan's wishes when they voted to expand the 
attorney general's powers in response to Trump. And they're not nearly as shy 
about mentioning the president.

   "The governor seems unwilling to stand up to Mr. Trump, and so that will 
fall to the Democrats," state Sen. Jim Rosapepe said.

   As with the other governors, Rauner in Illinois said he is focusing on his 
state --- or at least he's trying to. He went to great lengths not to stake a 
clear position on Trump during the campaign --- refusing to comment on the 
race, who he was voting for or even to say Trump's name. Since the election, he 
has continued to avoid taking a clear position on the administration's policies.

   His strategy is clearly intended to avoid alienating voters in Chicago, the 
suburbs and other urban areas who supported Hillary Clinton in November, or 
those in rural counties that went overwhelmingly for Trump. But avoidance also 
comes with some peril: Democrats, who control the Illinois Legislature, called 
the Republican governor cowardly for meeting with billionaire donors out of 
state while refugees were stranded at Chicago's O'Hare airport after the 
president's travel-banning executive order.

   Rauner already has a slim margin for error after a two-year budget stalemate 
has tanked his approval ratings.

   Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, the chairman of the Democratic Governors 
Association, senses a change after recent elections went overwhelmingly in the 
Republicans' favor.

   "Clearly, the wave was against Democrats in '10 and it was against Democrats 
to some extent in '14, but I suspect it's going to be against Republicans just 
as strongly," Malloy said. "Can you overcome that? Absolutely, you can overcome 
that, but you have to overcome that by separating yourself (from Trump)."


(KA)

 
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