AUSTIN, Texas — For nearly a decade, meetings of the Republican Governors Association were buoyant, even giddy, affairs, as the party — lifted by enormous political donations and a backlash against the Obama administration — achieved overwhelming control of state governments.
But a sense of foreboding hung over the group’s gathering in Austin this past week, as President Trump’s unpopularity and Republicans’ unexpectedly drastic losses in elections earlier this month in Virginia, New Jersey and suburbs from Philadelphia to Seattle raised the specter of a political reckoning in 2018.
“I do think Virginia was a wake-up call,” said Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, who took over here as chairman of the governors association. “There’s a pretty strong message there. When Republicans lose white married women, that’s a strong message.”
In a series of closed-door meetings, governors tangled over how best to avoid being tainted by Mr. Trump, and debated the delicate task of steering Mr. Trump’s political activities away from states where he might be unhelpful. Several complained directly to Vice President Mike Pence, prodding him to ensure that the White House intervenes only in races in which its involvement is welcome.
A larger group of governors from agricultural and auto-producing states warned Mr. Pence that Mr. Trump’s proposed withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement could damage them badly.
Republicans have long anticipated that the midterm campaign will prove difficult. But the drubbing they suffered in Virginia, where they lost the governorship by nine percentage points, along with at least 15 state House seats threaded throughout the state’s suburbs, has the party’s governors worried that 2018 could be worse than feared.
Voters appear eager to punish Mr. Trump.
“Any time the titular head of the party is underwater, obviously there’s going to be issues there. You can’t just ignore that,” said Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who is facing re-election in a state that Mr. Trump lost by less than a percentage point.
The battle for Congress, already center stage, will draw only more attention if the embattled Roy S. Moore loses an Alabama Senate race in December, jeopardizing Republican control of the chamber. But the contests for governor are perhaps more consequential.
Next year’s statehouse races will reorder the country’s political map for a decade, because many of the 36 governors elected will have a strong hand in redrawing state legislative and congressional boundaries after the 2020 census.
Several candidates and strategists said the governors association had been pressing recruits to define themselves early and develop independent personal brands. But that is a more complicated task than it was during the Obama years, when Republican governors shared an easy template of railing against a Democratic administration and fiscal profligacy at the state level.
What Republicans agree on is that their candidates must avoid the contortions of Ed Gillespie, their Virginia nominee for governor, who embraced Mr. Trump’s divisive messages on immigration, crime and Confederate “heritage” but danced inartfully around whether he actually supported the president.
“You can’t be halfway in and halfway out,” said Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi, a conservative and admirer of Mr. Trump’s.
Mr. Haslam, a more centrist voice who did not vote for Mr. Trump, agreed. “If you try to wear somebody else’s clothes, they never fit,” he said.
But that consensus breaks down over whether to appear with Mr. Trump in their states.
Gov. Paul LePage of Maine, a fierce supporter of Mr. Trump’s, said Republicans should “absolutely” stump with the president in 2018. “He is the leader of our country,” Mr. LePage said. “He is the leader of our country, and we should respect our leader.”
Yet even one of Mr. Trump’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders declined to say whether he would welcome the president to campaign alongside him in 2018. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, who is expected to challenge Senator Bill Nelson next year, repeatedly ducked questions at a news conference about whether he believed Mr. Trump would be helpful to Republicans during the midterm elections.
In a visit to Florida in September, Mr. Trump publicly urged Mr. Scott, who describes the president as a personal friend, to oppose Mr. Nelson for the Senate seat.
“We’ll see what happens in 2018,” Mr. Scott said, insisting: “I don’t know if I’m going to be a candidate.”
Other Republican governors do not bother with the rhetorical dance, believing that an invitation to Mr. Trump is a political death wish. His approval rating is in the 30s in a swath of states that the party will be defending next year, and the last thing that governors in liberal-leaning or even moderate parts of the country want to do is make it easier for Democrats to link them to the president.
Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, who faces a 2018 re-election fight in one of the country’s bluest states, urged Republican candidates to distinguish themselves from “the mess in Washington,” and instead stress economic issues close to home. So far, Mr. Hogan said, Republicans are not running campaigns equal to the political environment.
© Parker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times Republicans agree that their candidates must avoid the contortions of Ed Gillespie, their Virginia nominee for governor, who tried to tiptoe around President Trump.“We’ve got to run some more effective campaigns,” he said, “that aren’t quite as negative and divisive.”
Asked whether it was safe to assume that he would keep Mr. Trump out of Maryland, Mr. Hogan chuckled and said: “That’s pretty safe.”
After Mr. Pence delivered public remarks, winning restrained applause from a lobbyist-heavy audience when he brought greetings from Mr. Trump, he used a private meeting with the governors on Wednesday to tell them that the White House stood ready to help their campaigns, according to Republican officials who were in the room and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private conversations.
Mr. Hogan and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, the departing head of the governors association, candidly told Mr. Pence that they hoped the administration would prove collaborative and respect the wishes of governors who want Mr. Trump to stay away. After Mr. Pence returned to Washington, the discussions turned more blunt. In a separate meeting, political strategists briefed the governors on the Virginia results in depth, outlining just how badly swamped Mr. Gillespie had been by Democratic turnout, two attendees said.
In that session, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a former chairman of the governors association, said the group should prepare to raise an unprecedented sum of money — the figure he floated was $130 million — to fund political rescue operations in the crucial final months of the 2018 campaign.
Such conversations mostly took place out of earshot of the news media. More than a dozen governors declined to be interviewed. One of the private sessions was devoted to “Disrupting the Mainstream Media.” And in their main public remarks, few Republicans seemed willing to acknowledge the forbidding political environment that appears to be developing.
Answering questions from reporters on Wednesday, Mr. Walker played down the significance of Republicans’ recent defeats in New Jersey and Virginia. He described both of them as Democratic states.
Mr. Pence, in his speech and even in his private comments, did not hint at the looming obstacles for Republicans in 2018 or mention how the administration would address the prospect that Mr. Moore, who has been accused of making sexual advances on teenagers, will win the Alabama Senate seat.
Privately, though, some of the governors acknowledged the gulf between their base voters and themselves when it comes to Mr. Trump. Voicing contempt for the president the way that Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, both retiring senators, have would only cause difficulties for them and their would-be Republican successors in primaries, where loyalty to Mr. Trump could become a litmus test.
While few would criticize Mr. Trump directly, Republicans in Austin expressed fear that the party was becoming defined as divisive, even nasty, turning off the swing voters who helped bring Republican governors to prominence throughout the Obama years.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican seeking a second term in 2018, said the party had to communicate in a tone “that’s respectful of diversity, that’s respectful of trying to find solutions in a civil manner.” Catering to fiery activists, he said, would be a recipe for ruin.
“If we don’t convey the right tone, we might energize a small percent of our base, but we still need to have independents,” said Mr. Hutchinson, who is facing a primary challenge from the right. “We still need to have those that are not traditional Republicans, that are joining in our coalition. You don’t want to turn those voters off.”
Courtesy: The New York Times