WASHINGTON — After claiming governorships from Republicans in seven states last year, including in crucial presidential battlegrounds like Wisconsin and Michigan, Democratic governors should have good reason to celebrate.
But there was as much anxiety as optimism when the governors gathered for their annual fundraising retreat on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts last weekend and grappled with why a party that won with a pragmatic message in 2018 is now veering sharply to the left.
Some governors are alarmed that their party’s presidential candidates are embracing policies they see as unrealistic and politically risky. And they are especially concerned about proposals that would eliminate private health insurance.
“I don’t think that’s good policy or good politics,” said Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association.
“I think it scares people,” added Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico.
The comments represent a striking rebuke of the direction the Democratic primary race is headed, as progressive candidates have pulled the field to the left at a moment when President Donald Trump and Republicans are eager to paint them as extreme.
“We cannot become the party of the checklist,” said Raimondo, alluding to litmus tests on cultural flash points. She urged the 2020 hopefuls to resist proving their liberal credentials on every issue and instead focus on “economic security for everyday Americans.”
The governors’ angst offers cautionary signs for the party. They are often the best-known elected officials in their states and usually are the de facto head of their state parties, which means they wield considerable political clout. And with many of the governors having been on the ballot last year, they also possess a grasp of what the general electorate wants from Democrats.
Most of the officials have yet to support any White House contender and have largely avoided intervening in their party’s primary. But in the aftermath of last month’s debates, when a number of candidates, for instance, favored decriminalizing illegal border crossings and offering federal benefits for unauthorized migrants, the governors are taking their pleas public.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who won last year with a mantra of “fix the damn roads,” recalled the show-of-hands moments in the first presidential debates, which she said illustrated the party’s shift left but were so terse as to offer no context or explanation about the candidates’ positions.
“Raising hands and not really talking about the fundamentals is counterproductive to the average voter who really wants solutions,” she said.
Whitmer noted that at one event on Nantucket, Democratic strategist James Carville said the candidates should have responded to the raise-your-hand questions with a middle finger. “The American people deserve more, they deserve better,” Whitmer said.
The governors’ discomfort illustrates a larger tension among Democrats. Many party elites view 2018 as the obvious model for 2020 success. Democrats won governorships and claimed 40 House seats last year by emphasizing poll-tested, broadly popular issues and averting their gaze from Trump’s provocations. Why hand an unpopular, deeply vulnerable incumbent the fodder he craves? they ask.
Invoking the midterm elections, Raimondo said the party carried “a message that resounded throughout the country, and we think that’s a blueprint for next year.”
But to progressive activists and some leaders in the party’s liberal wing, vowing to protect the health care of individuals with preexisting conditions and other incremental proposals are vastly insufficient at a time of soaring economic inequality and racial divisiveness emanating from the White House.
No issue may better illustrate the Democratic schism than health care, which was central to their gains last year but which has cleaved the presidential primary field.
Progressive candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have called for “Medicare for All,” in which private health insurance would be eliminated and taxes would have to be raised; others, such as Joe Biden, want to build on the Affordable Care Act, and Sen. Kamala Harris has signed on to Medicare for All but voiced opposition to its tax increases.
While some Democratic governors have at least rhetorically backed single-payer systems, most have used their political capital to put in place and protect the expansions in the ACA while also enacting measures aimed at controlling insurance costs.
And they warn that openly pledging to end private health insurance will only hand ammunition to the Republicans.
Noting that many voters were already uneasy about losing their coverage, Whitmer said, “I don’t think feeding into that is a good idea.”
The three governors urged the presidential candidates to focus on immediate ways to improve health care access and lower costs.
They were just as emphatic about immigration, warning 2020 candidates that their support for decriminalizing illegal migration would allow Republicans to cast Democrats as the party of open borders. At the last debate, many of the leading candidates — including Warren and Sanders — raised their hands when asked if they would make unauthorized border crossing a civil rather than a criminal offense.
“That just scares too many people who don’t know anything about immigration,” said Grisham, who worked on the issue as a local official and in Congress before being elected governor. She said Democrats should lash Trump for “closing the border,” because it only prompts asylum-seeking migrants “to sneak around” instead of coming to points of entry.
Raimondo was similarly unequivocal on the issue. She argued that Democrats had to both enforce current immigration law and pursue an overhaul that would offer a path to citizenship for those living in the country illegally but not breaking any other laws.
“Come on, secure the borders, people need to be safe, people need to feel safe,” she said, while noting that she had taken steps to protect the “Dreamers” in her state, those children brought to the country illegally by their parents.
The broader risk for the party, they say, is that too many of the candidates are courting only a segment of the liberal base rather than the entirety of the more moderate Democratic coalition.
Raimondo and Grisham both urged the candidates not to become consumed by the affirmation or opprobrium of Twitter.
“A month or two before my primary I was getting crushed on social media,” Raimondo said, recalling the challenge she had from the left last year. “My friends were calling me, saying, ‘Gina you’re going down’ and then we won by 20 points.”
Grisham said she faced similar criticism online and still does today.
“If you looked at my social media right now you’d think, ‘She’d never win reelection,’” she said.
On Nantucket, where new governors like Whitmer, Tim Walz of Minnesota, Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Janet Mills of Maine circulated through a series of shellfish-laden brunches, dinners and receptions, it was not hard to encounter nervous Democrats, according to multiple attendees. But there were different levels of alarm, with the most angst-ridden attendees largely hailing from the party’s Clinton wing.
Keith Mason, a past treasurer of the Democratic Governors Association and a Georgia-based Democratic donor, said “the subtext” of the event was: “How can we get our presidential candidates back on track and do the things governors do?”
Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and one-time Democratic National Committee chairman, said that what is most jarring for the governors and their advisers is the dissonance between the issues that consume them daily (job creation, infrastructure and workforce development) and what they hear in the primary.
“If we’re all about this rhetoric of big ideas and not focused on getting results and building the biggest tent possible for the Democratic Party, we’re going to pay consequences for that,” said McAuliffe, who spoke at the opening night of the retreat.
Whitmer put it more diplomatically, but pointedly reminded the presidential contenders that “the road to the White House comes through the Midwest.” She said they should be mindful of how she and other governors in the region won last year.
“It’s important to have positions on a variety of issues,” she said. “But you’ve got to have solutions for things that matter.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.