Several Democratic gubernatorial candidates are running ads against their party's leader, President Barack Obama, and their nominee, Hillary Clinton—even as she appears headed for a landslide victory.
In fact, more than 97 percent of the gubernatorial TV ads mentioning the presidency are either anti-Obama, anti-Clinton or against them both, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data from January 2015 through Oct. 24 of this year. Of course, that also includes plenty of ads from Republicans and conservative political groups who are slamming Obama and Clinton.
What stands out, though, are the Democrats who are distancing themselves from the standard bearers of their own party. In Montana, for example, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock cites Obama, but his presidential name dropping is not an attempt to ride a coattail. It’s intended to help him jump as far from Obama as possible.
“A lot of politicians treat coal like it’s a political game. But not Steve Bullock,” says a Montana coal worker in one of Bullock’s re-election ads that has been airing this fall. “As governor, he listened to us and stood up to President Obama to defend our coal jobs.”
So why the snubs when Obama enjoys favorable ratings from a majority of Americans and polls show Clinton leading Republican nominee Donald Trump? The answer is rooted in the country’s fractured political geography. While the national map tilts in Democrats’ favor this year, many of the 12 races for governor are taking place in Republican strongholds, such as West Virginia, Missouri and Montana.
It’s part of a broader power imbalance that has state-level Democrats playing defense. Currently, Republicans hold 31 of the governors' mansions, while Democrats control only 18. (Alaska has an independent in office.)
"Even though the Democrats are deep in the hole, they control the majority of the governorships up this year and many are in red states,” said Kyle Kondik, who analyzes gubernatorial races for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “So in order to get elected, they’ve got to win some percentage of Trump voters.”
Like Bullock in Montana, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and West Virginia’s Jim Justice publicly distanced themselves from the president with their ads, despite belonging to his party.
By comparison, Trump is a ghost. Very few of the ads from either party go so far as to mention the Republican, either with praise or damnation.
To be sure, the messages in most gubernatorial race ads have nothing to do with the president or the White House race. Just over one out of every 10 broadcast TV ads about gubernatorial elections occurring this year mentions either Clinton, Trump or Obama, according to the Kantar Media/CMAG data. Instead, the ads typically focus on policies such as jobs, taxes, energy, crime and corruption.
Kantar Media/CMAG data, the media tracking company, monitors 211 TV markets around the country. It does not track local cable ads or messages used on the radio, the internet or for direct mail.
Few of the 2016 candidates’ campaigns returned requests for comment about why they ran such ads.
Yet by injecting the White House in these state-level campaigns, the candidates can quickly signal to voters clues about their alliances and positions with just a few words. This code-word messaging is not new, even about Obama. In 2014, a similar proportion of state election ads mentioned Obama or his signature health care law.
Interestingly, while some Democrats are willing to differentiate themselves from Clinton, no Republican candidates have dinged their nominee, Trump, in TV ads. And few of those Republicans have aligned themselves with him. Being anti-Obama and anti-Clinton does not equal being pro-Trump.
“Even in red states, a lot of Republicans are keeping their distance from Trump,” said Kondik of the UVA Center for Politics.
The Kantar Media/CMAG data show that only one gubernatorial candidate is running pro-Trump ads: West Virginia’s Republican nominee and state Senate President Bill Cole.
The Mountain State is forecast to be firmly in Trump’s corner. So much so that Cole is actively campaigning with Trump and using his name as much as possible — including three times in the narration of a single ad.
“Bill Cole stands with Donald Trump because Donald Trump stands up for our coal industry,” says the ad amid images of them campaigning together as if they were running mates. “Together, the Bill Cole-Donald Trump team will fight for working families, helping make West Virginia — and America — great again.”
Cole campaign consultant Kent Gates said that such messages are extremely important in a state whose economy is so dependent on coal. They help voters know that Cole is standing with Trump in the fight to get the Environmental Protection Agency out of the state’s way, he said.
Few Democrats are opting to spend their TV air time knocking Trump. The sole candidate still in the running who has aired anti-Trump ads is Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat seeking a second term who has tried to tar his Republican opponent Bill Bryant by associating him with Trump. (A Vermont candidate, Matt Dunne, who was knocked out in the Democratic primary also ran an anti-Trump ad.)
Bryant’s senior adviser Jason Roe said his candidate has already said he doesn’t support Trump. He noted that presidential candidates are irrelevant to voters when they choose their governor. “He’s using Trump as a bogeyman so he doesn’t have to face the facts on his record of failures in the last four years,” Roe said.
The use of Trump’s name in TV ads for governor did not appreciably change since this month’s release of the 2005 Access Hollywood video that prompted 11 women to come forward with allegations that Trump made unwanted physical sexual advances toward them. The clip — and Trump’s response to it — helped change national polls yet didn’t catalyze candidates to disavow him in their state race messaging.
In West Virginia, the power of Trump means that Cole’s Democratic opponent, Jim Justice, goes further than any other Democratic candidate for governor by running an ad that distances himself from both Obama and Clinton. The billionaire coal magnate and resort owner was registered as a Republican until three months before he announced his candidacy in 2015.
“Let’s get this straight: I’m a coal man,” Justice says in the ad. “I have never given money to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. In fact, I didn’t even vote for Obama.”
He later tacks on a diplomatic note that he’ll “find a way” to work with whoever is elected president.
“Being a Democrat who opposes Clinton and Obama lets Justice play both sides of the fence, appealing to Democrats on the basis of shared partisanship and also Republicans on the basis of shared policy priorities,” said Erin Cassese, a West Virginia University associate professor of political science.
In Washington, it’s a different story. Inslee started running an ad on Monday featuring Obama stumping for him, the boldest gubernatorial TV ad this election cycle to try to capitalize on the president.
Additionally, Democrat Sue Minter, who is seeking to replace Vermont’s departing Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, mentions Obama in a positive, yet more muted, way in one broadcast TV message. She touts her service on a White House task force on climate change, specifically mentioning the president’s name. A radio ad released Wednesday, though, goes further and features Obama endorsing her.
Namechecking the president is a logical move for her, according to Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College in Vermont.
“Obama did better in Vermont than in any other state in the continental U.S.,” Davis said. “It’s politically advantageous to associate yourself with Obama in Vermont.”
In other states with governors’ races, not so much. And Clinton fares even worse than Obama. It does not appear that any of the gubernatorial candidates or the political groups backing them has used TV ads to embrace Clinton — and that includes the Democrats.
This story is from The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.