NEW ORLEANS — As Democratic governors descended on the Ritz-Carlton Hotel here for their annual winter meeting this week, the city’s reputation for bacchanalia felt particularly fitting.
Democratic governors riding high on election results as 2024 looms
A group of women in festive outfits — headbands with bells and blinking lights, sparkling dresses and red and green sweaters — asked New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) to pose for a photo as he walked out of the elevator bank. Staff at the Democratic Governors Association rearranged the schedule at the last minute to accommodate a party for the governors and attendees to watch the United States take on the Netherlands in the first round of the knockout stage of the World Cup.
And on Saturday night, governors had plans to join in a second line parade during a blowout party at the Derbès Mansion featuring a six-piece band, more than 700 attendees — including staff, donors and lobbyists — and Mardi Gras beads fashioned with a DGA pendant.
The only moment of pause, it seemed, came when a handful of governors were asked at a Friday afternoon news conference who among their cadre was most likely to be the next Democratic president. The group just laughed as Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro (D-Pa.) jokingly pushed Gov. Roy Cooper (D-N.C.) in front of the lectern, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) pantomimed sneaking offstage right.
“Joe Biden,” Cooper said as the tittering subsided. “C’mon.”
The tableau underscored the dynamic in the Democratic Party following their better-than-expected showing in November’s midterm elections. For months, donors and party operatives had quietly — and then sometimes publicly — worried whether President Biden should seek a second term, and if there was a strong enough Democratic bench ready to take over if and when he steps aside.
But Biden’s current plan to run for reelection in 2024 — when he will be 82 years old — has postponed the political ambitions of the future “generation of leaders” to whom candidate Biden promised to be a “bridge.” Nowhere is that more apparent than among the crop of reelected and newly elected Democratic governors, many of whom outperformed Biden in the states that are critical to winning the White House.
“The bench is here, in my opinion,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) said in an interview as he adamantly rejected the idea of ever running for president himself. “I mean, there is something to say about the executive branch experience. And it’s not just the politics of running the government. I think there’s lots of good people in our party that are governors.”
No Democratic governor has said they plan to challenge Biden should he go through with a reelection effort, as many fully expect him to do. Instead, the governors — even the most ambitious ones — vow in both public and private to be full-throated supporters of Biden’s 2024 campaign.
At the same time, at least half a dozen governors would seriously consider launching a presidential bid should Biden change his mind — and some of the most prominent governors are not so shy about expanding their donor base and finding excuses to travel to key presidential states, according to conversations with more than two dozen governors, aides, donors and lobbyists at the meetings here. Vice President Harris, they say, would have far from a clear path to the nomination if Biden did not run — and Democrats expect a crowded primary if Biden bows out.
Whitmer, fresh off a dominant reelection, attracted significant buzz in New Orleans. Early Friday afternoon, as Whitmer whizzed by the hotel bar with her police detail, one labor leader leaned over and asked a fellow attendee if New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) had just passed them. When informed it was Whitmer, he said, “I really like her.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), the new chair of the DGA who also heads the National Governors Association, was spotted Friday night dining at Herbsaint restaurant with his wife, top aides and James Carville, a chief strategist of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Murphy has used his work at the DGA and NGA, as well as his PAC — chaired by his wife — to travel the country and continue to nurture political relationships.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), the outgoing DGA chair, is also seen as a potential presidential candidate. He is now serving his second term in a state that last elected a Democratic president in 2008 when it narrowly chose Barack Obama, and on Saturday morning, he played the role of elder statesman, moderating a breakfast panel of newly elected governors.
Democrats were also buzzing about the new faces in the group: Maryland Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) — an Army veteran and Rhodes Scholar set to become his state’s first Black governor — and Shapiro impressed Democrats in private meetings. And while Massachusetts Gov.-elect Maura Healy (D) — a lesbian set to become her state’s first female governor — did not travel to New Orleans, party operatives have also tapped her as a potential future leader.
Then there are those who did not make the trip: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who has brandished his national profile as a vociferous critic of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other MAGA Republicans. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), whose personal fortune would allow him to quickly stand up a presidential campaign, traveled to New Hampshire in June amid speculation of his presidential aspirations. And Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D), who was just reelected by 19 points with an economic-focused message, could also jump in a crowded primary.
The only real disappointment for Democratic governors in the November elections came in Nevada, where Republican challenger Joe Lombardo narrowly defeated incumbent Democrat Steve Sisolak.
As the governors and governor-elects discussed their successful campaigns, they also all previewed messages that could easily serve as stump speeches on a national stage.
“We offered solutions, and that’s really what the American people deserve,” Whitmer said during a Friday afternoon news conference. “They know that election denialism doesn’t help them pay their bills. They know that conspiracy theories will not make it any easier to put food on the table or gas in the car.”
In an interview, Shapiro cited Whitmer as one of the Democratic governors efforting “big things.”
“I’m someone who’s always believed that we need to stop looking to D.C. for all the answers and start looking to the states,” Shapiro said. “So it’s an exciting time to be a governor, and I think we have a deep bench and we’re going to do good things together.”
And during the news conference, Moore offered a bite-sized version of his origin story, explaining that “one of the earliest memories I have in my life was when I was three years old, and I watched my father dying in front of me” because he lacked sufficient health care.
“Or being that 11-year-old kid who had handcuffs on his wrist because we came up within communities that were over-policed,” Moore continued. “Or being the person who — it wasn’t until I was 14-years-old that my mother got her first job that gave her benefits.”
In an interview Saturday morning, Whitmer added that her party could learn lessons from their governors’ recent campaigns.
“Democratic governors had huge success in a midterm that everyone, you know, was expecting terrible outcomes. And I think it’s because we deliver, we want to get things done,” she said. “You know, inciting anger is a loser, getting things done is a winner and I think Democratic governors in large part really reflect what people want and need to see out of government.”
Evers, her neighbor to the west in Wisconsin, summed up the mood of the conference: “It’s a good time for Democratic governors.”