SANTA FE, N.M. — A polarizing president electrifies the opposition party going into his first midterm election, raising the party’s hopes that it can reclaim governorships, ram through major policy change at the state level and redraw legislative lines in its favor for a decade to come.
It’s a scenario both political parties have seen before, most recently in 2010, when out-of-power Republicans rode the Tea Party-led wave against the Obama administration to smashing victories across the country.
This year, governors in both parties acknowledged at the National Governors Association conference here, it is Democrats who appear poised to make major gains as Republicans brace for a backlash against President Trump that could lead to grievous statehouse losses.
“It does feel very much like 2010 reversed to me right now,” said Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, the head of the Republican Governors Association. “There’s a lot more conviction about voting on the Democrat side than our side, which is a concern to us.”
While much of Washington was transfixed last week by the latest Trump-created uproar, this one over his widely criticized summit meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the nation’s governors gathered here for their annual summer conference to plot how best to exploit or mitigate a president who is as divisive as he is ubiquitous.
In a series of interviews, Republican and Democratic governors said opposition to Mr. Trump had galvanized liberal and many moderate voters, leading to a sizable intensity gap between the two parties.
And beyond Mr. Trump’s controversial behavior, the governors said the president’s policies on issues like trade had created an opening for Democrats in Republican-leaning farm belt states like Iowa and Kansas, where farmers are facing retaliatory tariffs.
Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who won the governorship on the strength of the 2010 Obama backlash, bluntly acknowledged he and other Republicans could be facing “a blue wave,” noting that “the wind nationally isn’t at our back.”
The president’s conduct and the fight for control of Congress have overshadowed the 36 governor’s races this year. But the state elections could prove even more consequential in reshaping policy and altering the long-term balance of power both in Washington and state capitals.
Just as Republicans pulled a host of moderate states significantly to the right after their success eight years ago, victorious Democrats could enact sweeping changes on labor, health care and energy to tug a number of centrist states to the left and expand their policy ambitions in liberal states — fulfilling the growing expectations of their progressive base.
Democrats would also be in position to protect their members of Congress when the House map is redrawn after the 2020 census. With 56 Democratic challengers outraising Republican incumbents in the last fund-raising period, senior leaders in both parties believe Democrats are likely to gain the 23 seats they need to take the chamber. Because state governments control redistricting, new Democratic governors could help cement the House gains, or at least block Republicans from repeating the post-2010 gerrymandering that helped entrench their power in Congress.
The November election could have “decadal significance” because of redistricting, said Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
Mr. Inslee is all too well acquainted with wave elections. A former member of Congress, he was defeated in the Republican insurrection of 1994. The current political environment, he said, is reminiscent of that uprising.
Should 2018 yield a large new class of Democratic governors, Mr. Inslee said, they would move quickly next year to shape policies that would put blue-tinged states even more sharply at odds with a Trump-led federal government.
“We’re seeing a clean-energy jobs message can be very effective, virtually, in every state,” Mr. Inslee said. He also cited gun-control and voting-rights laws as other areas where Democrats would take action. Across the country, he added, “You cannot overstate the anger, the concern and the desire to vote.”
In a private meeting on Friday morning, Democratic governors reviewed their political strategy for the midterms: Corey Platt, a strategist for the governors, laid out a map of 18 Republican-controlled states where Democrats could conceivably take power, including five important Midwestern battlegrounds and traditionally conservative-leaning states like Tennessee and Georgia.
Mr. Platt also highlighted several important races where the Republican Party’s rightward lurch had widened political openings for Democrats, people familiar with the presentation said. In Florida, the president’s support for Representative Ron DeSantis, a hard-line member of the House who appears frequently on Fox News, in a contested governor’s primary has badly undermined Republican chances there, Mr. Platt argued.
Mr. Platt also pointed to Adam Laxalt, Nevada’s attorney general and Republican nominee for governor, as a candidate who could be too conservative to win a state Hillary Clinton carried two years ago.
Mr. Laxalt is hindered by the refusal of Gov. Brian Sandoval — a more moderate Republican, who is departing — to endorse him. In a sign that the chill between the two has not thawed, Mr. Sandoval said in an interview here that he “won’t support a candidate that is going to undo anything that I put forward.”
As Democrats weighed how best to harness the anti-Trump energy, Republicans locked in competitive races acknowledged the headwinds they are facing and vowed to emphasize their own governing records and political identities to separate themselves from the president.
Deploying euphemisms about “Washington” or “national politics” so as not to offend the president and his supporters, Republican governors said they would seek to localize their races.
“There’s energy on the left, there’s anger on the left and there’s some signs of organization,” said Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, who is facing an unexpectedly competitive re-election bid. “So I think the role of the campaign is not only to communicate the message but to separate from Washington and differentiate what we’ve done over the last four years.”
Mr. Walker of Wisconsin argued that he would not fall victim this year because he enjoys a well-defined political persona.
“My style is much different than any other Republican in Washington,” he said.
Yet Mr. Trump remains hugely popular within the Republican Party, to a degree that even candidates in purple states are wary of seeking too much distance from him. And the president’s enduring bond with rank-and-file conservatives could make him a crucial ally for Republicans in red states, like South Carolina and Oklahoma, where Democrats are trying to break through.
Republicans also still have crucial structural advantages: The economy is roaring in many of the states where they hold power, the political committee led by Mr. Haslam has $87.5 million to spend on the midterms, and in state legislative elections, Republicans are shielded by gerrymandered district lines like those on the congressional level.
As a result, even if Democrats win governorships in places like Ohio and Florida, they are all but certain to face divided governments and formidable Republican opposition.
Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a moderate Democrat finishing his second term, said he expected the party to have to reach out to Republicans after the elections no matter how inviting the political environment appears to be — “especially in all these swing states.”
“They’ll bring a voice of moderation,” Mr. Hickenlooper said of potential Democratic governors, naming as an example Stacey Abrams, who is mounting a formidable bid for governor in traditionally red Georgia.
“I don’t think they’ll swing way far to the left.”
But if Republicans are likely to hold on to some measure of power in many states, there was no mistaking the deflated demeanor of a number of governors in Santa Fe.
There were fewer Republicans than Democrats in attendance at the event, once a highlight of nearly every governor’s calendar. And some who did show up were lame ducks. Party officials acknowledged that many governors had little appetite for facing questions about Mr. Trump.
Those who did were candid about the difficulties his divisive behavior and nationalist policies on issues like trade and immigration had created for the party.
“Every ad is about immigration or a border wall,” Mr. Haslam, who is leaving office next year, said with dismay about the Republican primary to succeed him. “The conversation has changed.”
Democrats, though, expressed excitement.
Mr. Hickenlooper said he had rarely seen such an inviting national environment for his party. Having overcome the Republican wave in 2010 to win the governorship, he said he saw a similar “rising tide” this year — this time, favoring his party.
“This is the only time in my lifetime when I’ve ever been aware of so many Republicans, moderate Republicans, who are throwing up their hands and in some cases writing checks to support Democratic candidates,” said Mr. Hickenlooper, whose state is an example of one that has moved gradually to the left. “I’ve just never seen this level of dissatisfaction.”
The scale of Democratic ambitions was on display Friday as Mr. Inslee campaigned at a local college with Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic nominee for New Mexico’s open governorship. They trumpeted Ms. Lujan Grisham’s clean-energy plans and proposals for new environmental regulations, a suite of policies she cast as “rejecting the federal government” and its rightward shift.
Should Ms. Lujan Grisham win the general election, she would end eight years of divided government under Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, and deliver New Mexico wholly into Democratic hands — a prospect that Ms. Lujan Grisham said could clear the way for significant expansions on several fronts, clean energy chief among them.
“We intend to catch up and then advance beyond all the other states,” she declared.
Her Republican opponent, Representative Steve Pearce, has urged voters to reject an all-Democratic government. “Susana has vetoed hundreds of millions of dollars in tax increases,” Mr. Pearce said in an interview, referring to Ms. Martinez. “A Democrat would sign the things that have been vetoed.”
But in a reflection of the perilous political environment, Mr. Pearce also stressed his willingness to clash with his own side — including Mr. Trump, whose demands for a border wall he has opposed.
“I’ll fight Republicans as quickly as Democrats,” Mr. Pearce said.
Ms. Lujan Grisham suggested voters were most focused on one fight in particular: against a Republican administration in Washington that she described as harming New Mexico, and the president atop it.
“People are not just disappointed – they are alarmed by his behavior,” she said of Mr. Trump.