(Bloomberg) -- Republican governors and their donors -- still reeling from GOP losses last week in New Jersey and Virginia -- are trying to distance themselves from their party’s problems and plot a 2018 strategy to protect their state-level dominance.
At the annual Republican Governors Association meeting in Austin, Texas, party officeholders downplayed those defeats and dismissed the political fallout of President Donald Trump’s historically low approval ratings and lack of legislative accomplishments. They brushed aside questions about the potential long-term consequences from growing sexual misconduct allegations that have engulfed Republican U.S. Senate nominee Roy Moore in Alabama.
"I think we’ll see Republican governors walking a tightrope in 2018 as they navigate a difficult election year," said Steve Grubbs, an Iowa-based Republican strategist and former state party chairman.
Thirty-six states will hold gubernatorial elections in 2018, with 26 of those now controlled by Republicans. In those races, which often have trickle-down effects on legislative and local elections, Republican candidates will have to decide just how closely to embrace Trump and distance themselves from an unpopular Washington.
"The Trump base is very strong, and alienating that base by pushing Trump away could cost a governor two to five points on election day," Grubbs said. "But there are also suburban voters who are bothered by the positioning of the White House and risk being lost on the other side."
Even if Trump’s popularity wasn’t an issue, Republicans are likely to face headwinds next year based on past trends. Midterm elections for a new president generally result in losses, sometimes big ones, and Trump currently has the lowest approval ratings of any president at this point in a first term.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the association’s chairman, is seeking a third term next November. He downplayed the role Trump will play and said he’s encouraging his colleagues to run their "own race."
Walker and Florida Governor Rick Scott, while meeting with reporters, called for Moore to exit the race before the Dec. 12 special election. Scott called his alleged actions "disgusting," while Walker dismissed suggestions that Moore might hurt the Republican brand.
“No more so than Democrats had to answer for Anthony Weiner or Eliot Spitzer," he said, pointing to other politicians who have had sex scandals.
Vice President Mike Pence, a former Indiana governor, gave his ex-colleagues a pep talk during a Wednesday afternoon appearance at the gathering. He told them they were "a group of extraordinary leaders of extraordinary accomplishment," while calling the governor’s association "the most effective political organization in the United States."
Next year’s balloting will test whether Democrats can still win in the Midwest, where recent presidential elections have often been decided and where Trump scored some of his most unexpected victories. Democrats are competing for governorships now held by Republicans in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
The stakes are especially high because the 2018 elections will determine who controls state governments for the redistricting procedures that will follow the 2020 Census. The outcome of that process will shape state and congressional boundaries for the next decade.
In last week’s elections, Democrats showed strength especially in suburban areas. The Virginia governor’s race, this year’s most closely watched, showcased how disapproval of Trump is motivating Democrats and independents.
Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie by 9 percentage points, boosted by strong support among women and young voters. Democrats also won races down the ballot in Virginia, where Trump won 45 percent of the vote in 2016.
When the new governors take office in January, the Republican total will drop by one to 33. The current total is tied for the GOP’s all-time high, set in 1922.
Even with the challenges ahead, Republicans start from a position of strength, at least at the state level. Besides their dominance of governorships, they 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.
Around the lobby bar and hallway corridors of the Austin convention hotel hosting the three-day meeting, most donors expressed support for Trump.
“People shouldn’t confuse style with substance,” said Alfred Eckert III, a New Yorker and former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. employee now working as an educational improvement entrepreneur. “He is remaking the Appeals Court and that’s probably more important for our country than anything else."
Eckert offered measured praise for Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, whose candidate recruitment and support for Moore has proven to be a headache for Republican congressional leaders.
“I think it’s good, when he picks safe Republican seats that are held by RINOs,” Eckert said, referencing to the “Republicans in name only” moniker sometimes given to more moderate members of the party.
David Cohn, an Republican Governors Association donor from Maryland, was an exception to the enthusiasm for the president. “Donald Trump is basically wrecking the Republican Party,” he said. “Donald Trump isn’t a Republican.”
Even as the shadow of Moore hangs over the party, several donors expressed concern about condemning him too quickly.
“It’s for the people of Alabama to decide because they’ve had many years of experience with the man,” said Amy Craig, an donor from Virginia. “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”
Longtime Republican megadonor Foster Friess, who is considering a primary challenge of Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming after Bannon encouraged him to think about running, said decisions about what to do about Moore should be left to the GOP.
“I think it’s distressing that a lot of people have hung him without all of the all due process taking place,” Friess said.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.