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Republican governors fear 2018 midterm wipeout after Virginia loss

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AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Republican governors sense a wave coming -- and they're terrified it could wipe them out in next year's elections.

The three dozen GOP governors gathering here this week for a Republican Governors Association meeting -- including some close allies of President Donald Trump -- said they were jarred by Democrats' easy victory in the Virginia governor's race last week.

"Just simply the intensity of the opposition -- I think that's what was reflected in the Virginia vote," said Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. "That should be a wake-up call to all of our supporters in the elections next year."

But the Republican governors haven't figured out what to do about an increasingly toxic national political environment that led to a surge in Democratic support in the Virginia suburbs last week. It carried Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam to a nine percentage point victory in what they'd expected to be a close race against Republican Ed Gillespie, the former RNC chairman and White House adviser to President George W. Bush.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Republican governors are now trying to answer those questions after Gillespie, whom he called "an exceptionally good candidate," was so soundly defeated.

"What is driving the turnout? Is it a specific issue? Is it a specific region? Is it a specific type of voter? What impact of Washington?" Walker said, without offering an answer.

Walker, the current chairman of the RGA, credited Democratic political groups with shifting the party's Obama-era focus on national races to the state level. He cited billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, labor unions and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder and backed by former President Barack Obama.

"My biggest fear is not who my opponent's going to be," Walker said. "It's how much money is going to come from this Obama-Holder group, and how much can I offset that?"

The stakes are high for Republican governors in 2018. The party is defending 26 governor's offices in next year's elections -- including some in blue states.

There are easy culprits for the GOP's struggles. Backlash against President Donald Trump has led to a spike in Democratic fundraising and energized the party's base. The allegations facing Alabama Senate nominee Roy Moore threaten to damage the party's national brand. And the GOP-controlled Congress has not yet delivered on any of its major legislative promises.

Vice President Mike Pence tried to mend the GOP's fences with a Wednesday afternoon speech in Austin, completely ignoring the challenging political landscape and promising that Congress would quickly deliver "middle class miracle" tax cuts.

But even Trump's closest allies seemed alarmed by the political environment facing Republicans in 2018.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott leads a pro-Trump super PAC and has long encouraged Republicans to embrace the President. But he is also considering a run against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018 and he demurred Wednesday when asked whether Trump will be an asset or liability on the campaign trail.

"We'll see what happens in 2018," Scott said.

"I don't know if I'm going to be a candidate. We'll worry about that next year," Scott said when asked if he would want Trump to campaign with him against Nelson next year.

Asked if Trump could help other Republicans on the 2018 ballot in 2018, Scott said, "You'd have to ask them."

Scott lashed out at the Republican-led Congress, saying that "DC needs to do exactly what they said they were going to do."

Scott was also critical of how Congress is handling tax reform, saying lawmakers should "quit having a grand bargain" and "do what you can get done today."

"These ideas that you've got to have this gigantic change never happens. These grand bargains never happen," Scott said.

To be sure, tax cuts are more popular with the Republican governors than the House and Senate efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act were. Those proposals ran into a buzzsaw of Republican opposition at the National Governors Association meeting in Rhode Island over the summer.

But none described them as the political panacea that Capitol Hill Republicans see in tax cuts -- a way to buoy a wavering base and an antidote to claims that the GOP hasn't passed any major legislation even with full control of the government.

Republican governors across the country have already cut taxes in recent years, Walker said.

"It's a pretty compelling argument that (Congress) should do the same thing," he said.

Still, shortly after Scott's critical comments in Texas, news broke in Washington that Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was opposed to the GOP's tax legislation -- one of just three votes Republicans can't afford to lose in order to secure 50 GOP votes and pass the legislation.

An hour after the Johnson news broke, Pence took the stage at the RGA in Austin and pledged that tax cuts would pass by the end of the year.

Pence began his speech by praising Trump, earning polite cheers from the audience of hundreds of lobbyists and governor's office staffers.

Then, in another moment that ignored the political realities facing Republicans, he heaped praise on Chris Christie, New Jersey's outgoing governor.

Christie is leaving office with approval ratings in the teens -- which make him the least popular governor in America. His lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, was soundly defeated last week by Democrat Phil Murphy in the race to replace him.

Ignoring the election results, Pence said he wanted to "pay a debt of gratitude and to commend the great leadership of Gov. Chris Christie."


By Eric Bradner CNN

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