The Fifty

Sununu swipes at DeSantis, Dems rally to Biden: 5 takeaways from The Fifty: America’s Governors

Republicans shrug on Trump while Democratic governors commit themselves to defending abortion rights and addressing climate.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu answers a question from a reporter.

Democrats are smitten with President Joe Biden. But they say their party stumbled on messaging surrounding climate action.

Republicans can’t say who their party leader is. But they admit it could be time to move on from former President Donald Trump.

POLITICO convened six governors on Thursday to discuss everything from abortion to electric vehicles to Biden’s State of the Union address and the early contours of the 2024 presidential race for The Fifty: America’s Governors in Washington, D.C.

Here are five takeaways from the day:

Democrats throw down gauntlet on abortion

Worried about the prospect of a national abortion ban, and being surrounded by states that have restricted access to the procedure, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, all Democrats, forcefully pledged themselves to its defense.

“We’re an oasis,” Pritzker said. “People come to Illinois to exercise what are their fundamental rights that are being denied in other states, every state around us, and another ring of states around them.”

Prtizker argued for a federal law protecting abortion access, adding, “If it were me, I would write it into the U.S. Constitution.”

Cooper’s tenure as governor has almost entirely been about facing down a Republican majority in the legislature. And after the 2022 midterms, the GOP is just one seat away from a two-chamber supermajority.

In an environment where flipping just one Democrat in the state House could trump his veto pen, Republican lawmakers have floated restricting abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — around the time a fetus begins to show cardiac activity — or after the first trimester.

But Cooper said he’s not backing down.

“We have become a critical access point in the Southeast and we need to hold the line to protect women’s health,” he said.

Inslee railed against state governments pursuing “vigilante justice” by trying to track down women seeking abortions in Washington, calling them “a clear and present danger.” He insisted that abortion rights will remain a top election issue for Democrats until reproductive rights are secured through legislation.

“The vast, vast majority of Americans do not want politicians ordering women into forced pregnancies, and that’s what this is,” he said.

Inslee argued that abortion right supporters need to now focus on “increasing privacy protections” through stronger state laws, to prevent patients from being targeted via their medical or retail data, or other online activities

Biden clears the field — Democrats back President for a second term

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said Democratic efforts to bump New Hampshire out of its first-in-the-nation slot in the party’s primary calendar will only invite challengers to Biden.

“You think no Democrat is going to step up and come to New Hampshire and get all that free press, all that earned media, all that excitement? Of course they are,” Sununu said.

Despite Sununu’s best efforts to suggest division among Democrats over the presidential race, Democratic governors lined up to applaud Biden after his State of the Union address.

Pritzker, who is widely viewed as a presidential contender, swatted away a question about his own ambitions, saying he’s “pleased” to support Biden’s yet-to-be-announced reelection bid.

“President Biden has done a superior job,” Pritzker said. “So much progress has been made in a partisan environment.”

Cooper lauded Biden as energetic and engaged: “He met the moment.”

Inslee, of Washington, who competed against Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2020 said he was “ecstatic” about the president’s address, which “showed that he is quick on his feet,” and “euphoric” about the infrastructure and clean energy investment authorized by Congress during the past year.

Republicans don’t know who their leader is

Former President Donald Trump’s loosening grip on the Republican Party after its lackluster showing in the midterms was also teased at.

While some Republicans are ready to move on from Trump, they weren’t willing to say who they think the party’s next leader should be.

“President Trump’s very popular in North Dakota,” said the state’s Gov. Doug Burgum, before quickly adding “there are people that are wanting to look to the future as opposed to looking to the past.” The question of party leadership, he said, is “an open debate.”

Sununu sees a group of leaders — the party’s would-be presidential contenders, himself included — but said “you never pin leadership of a party on one individual, you really can’t.”

The governors were clearer on what they don’t want to see from their party going forward: The heckling some Republican lawmakers did during Biden’s State of the Union speech.

“The Republicans, frankly, were rude. There’s no doubt about it,” Sununu said, describing Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ response to Biden’s address as “very politically driven” and “unhelpful” in its suggestion that “all Democrats are crazy.”

Alexa Henning, Huckabee Sanders’ communications director, rejected Sununu’s criticisms. “That isn’t what she said,” Henning said, “so it’s actually Chris that assumes half the country is crazy.”

Sununu 2024, definitely maybe, sorta

Don’t call him a moderate. Sununu made it clear Thursday, as he mulls a 2024 presidential bid, that he’s as conservative — if not more conservative — than any Republican discussing a presidential bid.

“I’m ranked the most fiscally conservative governor in the country. I’m No. 1 in personal freedoms. Sorry, Ron, you’re No. 2,” Sununu said in a knock on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s considered a presidential frontrunner.

The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute ranked Sununu second-most fiscally conservative, behind Iowa’s GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds. DeSantis was ranked 20th, behind some Democrats, including Cooper.

“Am I more moderate on social issues? Yeah, maybe,” Sununu, who typically describes himself as “pro-choice,” said. “But I’ve gotta stand for management. I’m a manager. I’m a CEO.”

Sununu has a seemingly built-in advantage if he runs for president: New Hampshire remains the first primary for Republicans. But it can also be an albatross.

“If I didn’t win New Hampshire, I’d be done,” Sununu said, adding that the pressure would be immense even if he’s successful. “If I win New Hampshire, everyone’s going to say it wasn’t by enough.”

Democrats agree: The best climate message is jobs and economic opportunity

Democratic governors admitted the party has often tripped over itself in trying to convince independent and conservative voters on the need to tackle climate change and other policy action.

Cooper, of North Carolina, said he has no choice but to use pragmatic climate messaging: “You gotta do whatever it takes to get the job done,” he said, lamenting “my predecessor Republican governor didn’t allow people in his administration to even say the word [climate change],” he said.

It helps to have partners in that messaging: “We all agree that economic development and great paying jobs are good for North Carolina,” Cooper said, but now auto company CEOs are “falling all over themselves” to make electric vehicle investments.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, said he’s proud of working to convert the threat of climate change into economic opportunities, even as neighboring North Dakota looks to overturn Minnesota’s new clean energy targets through a lawsuit.

“Fighting against the ability to create more clean jobs and reduce carbon emissions, and suing your neighbor. I don’t think it looks very good,” Walz said.

Inslee, of Washington, said “clean energy jobs are moving so rapidly I can’t turn over a rock without finding some new company that’s hiring people,” offsetting tech layoffs in the state, which is home to big tech companies including Microsoft and Amazon.