‘Time to Be Bold’: Advice for Democrats from a Quietly Powerful Governor

Perhaps it’s because he’s a quintessential Midwesterner, but Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has flown a bit under the radar on the national political scene, despite having won two terms and enacting a raft of progressive bills with a paper-thin legislative majority.

But he might soon become a bit more familiar, having been newly tapped to lead the Democratic Governors Association, responsible for defending and growing the party’s share of chief executives in the states.

Today the map is almost equally split — 26 states run by Republicans and 24 states run by Democrats — and he’s got some potentially tough races next year, particularly efforts to hold governorships in North Carolina and Washington state. A close presidential race will also loom large over the 11 governors’ races taking place in 2024, but he pointed to Gov. Andy Beshear’s victory in Kentucky last month as evidence that Democrats can win even in difficult environments.

“This is going to be nationalized in some of these races,” Walz said in an interview with POLITICO Magazine. “But governors have a much better way, and especially good ones, of bringing it back down.”

Like many Democrats, Walz doesn’t think President Joe Biden is getting the credit he deserves on a relatively strong economy, but the campaign can still retool their message as needed.

“They may — I think — rework, refine, this message, but it doesn’t change the fact that Joe Biden invested in the middle class, just like Democratic governors did, and made life more affordable,” Walz said Saturday on the sidelines of the DGA’s winter meeting in Phoenix.

Regardless of what happens in 2024, the party boasts a deep bench going forward, and Walz believes the 2028 Democratic nominee could indeed be a sitting governor.

“I'm biased towards governors,” he said. “But they’re proven.”

We also asked him whether that could even include him.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elena Schneider: First, congratulations, Mr. Chairman. People often use the DGA chairmanship as a way to build a national fundraising network as they think about running for president, so should we read anything into your move here?

Tim Walz: Well, I’m flattered that you would say so. No, I just believe in the DGA. I want to give back. I’ve seen the effectiveness of it. They helped me in my race. But also, I’m a firm believer now that governors do make a difference. We saw it in Minnesota, we saw it in Michigan, we saw it in Colorado. We see these trifecta states improving folks’ lives, and so this is my way to give back. I believe in the organization. And I’m just honored to do it.

Schneider: But you’re not ruling anything out in the future?

Walz: I have a friend of mine who always said, “Don’t ever turn down a job you’ve never been offered.” So, my job is to focus on this, and to be honest, I’ve got 11 races next year and that is my focus.

Schneider: What are the most important governors’ races next year?

Walz: I think holding those races we have. I tried my hardest to get [Washington Gov.] Jay Inslee to stay again. He could be my governor forever. There, of course, and in North Carolina and Delaware, where we're term limited with [North Carolina Gov.] Roy Cooper and [Delaware Gov.] John Carney. I think there's a golden opportunity in New Hampshire [where GOP incumbent Chris Sununu is retiring]. I can tell you those four states are a priority, especially with our incumbent governors being term-limited.

Schneider: You mentioned North Carolina. In Democratic candidate Josh Stein’s launch video, he explicitly tied GOP Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson to former President Donald Trump. How much do you think Trump is going to play a role in governor's races in 2024?

Walz: They own him. He is going to play a role.

But look, the DGA does something different, and Andy Beshear did this. He didn’t spend a ton of time talking about President Trump. He talked about the things impacting people in their states. I think that’s the difference with governors.

We’re not naive. This is going to be nationalized in some of these races. But governors have a much better way, and especially good ones, of bringing it back down. Andy Beshear did that and he won because of that. He stayed focused on disaster relief, about recovering, caring for people, delivering on that, so they’re going to have to explain why they’re supportive of President Trump, but I think our candidates will be out there saying, “This is the difference it makes. We’re functional, not dysfunctional. We get things done,” and I think that’ll be the message.

Schneider: President Joe Biden didn’t campaign with Beshear in Kentucky. He didn’t show up in Virginia for those state legislative races. What kind of role do you think Biden is going to play?

Walz: I think it will depend on each place. Certainly, governors know this: President Biden has delivered on infrastructure, he’s delivered on the CHIPS Act, he continues to deliver across the board in Minnesota. We’re seeing it every day. Governors can message that, but I think we’ve always said this — each race is unique. There’ll be states where the president will be campaigning with our candidates and others he won’t.

Andy Beshear talked about it this morning, he said, “Look, I’ve disagreed with the president on some things, but I’m 100 percent supportive of him.” We need to message our own races. When you have good candidates in these races, when we get a good candidate out of North Carolina, we’ll run a good race, we will win that governor’s race. There may be some states that our candidates will help the president.

Schneider: Governors like Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania have job approval ratings that are 10, 15, 20 points better than Joe Biden. Can you explain that gap?

Walz: I think it’s not surprising to see governors do that, because we’re delivering every day. I think the constant drumbeat of dysfunction in D.C. gets attached to the president. But we all run into this. When we’re running against the generic Republican, our races are always really close, but there's no such thing [as a generic Republican]. These guys are weird. Once they start running, their weirdness shows up, and especially with the nominee on the other side. I don’t think it’s that surprising.

This is going to be a binary choice. Democracy, or what we saw with the former president. Projects, like roads getting built, or dysfunction. Pre-existing conditions being covered by health care, or having that ripped out. Those binary choices will start to become clear. They saw us act, how we acted during Covid, they saw us act on the recovery. It’ll work itself out.

Schneider: As somebody with experience as both a federal candidate and as a statewide candidate, is there any advice you’d give to the president or his team?

Walz: I think it’s hard for him and I think Joe Biden, especially, is a fairly humble guy. We have a saying in Minnesota: “If you do something good and talk about it, it no longer counts.” I think there was a slowness to talk about the things they did.

It’s one of our jobs to get out there and talk about it. I’ve talked to [White House infrastructure czar] Mitch Landrieu and the White House on infrastructure. Look, this is a golden age of infrastructure because of the president. Governors are the ones that are managing that — broadband expansion, removal of lead pipes. Put the signs up. Say where it came from.

I wouldn’t be so bullish on Joe Biden or be so excited about it, if I saw that he wasn’t delivering. I’ve watched him deliver. We, as governors, who lived through what President Trump did not do during Covid, I’m not going back there again. Tell the story. Put some signs up for building bridges. Let us know where the money came from.

Schneider: It’s no secret that people like Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Josh Shapiro, JB Pritzker, Wes Moore, Phil Murphy are potential presidential contenders one day. In 2028, do you think the Democratic presidential nominee will be a sitting governor?

Walz: Yes, I do. Potentially. Well, I shouldn’t say that. For me, personally, I think it would be a good choice for it to be one of them because I’ve seen them deliver. I’ve seen all these governors have to make hard decisions every day and they have to deliver. They’re executives, they’re counselors, at times, they’re budget managers. I’m biased towards governors, but they’re proven. They’ve done great.

Schneider: In the 2020 primary, though, governors didn’t do great. Is there something different about 2028?

Walz: I think our profiles all changed — and the importance of it — after COVID. I think people understood how important governors were. Even in things like name recognition, things shot up. I think it was delivering on these hard things. All those folks you mentioned, a lot of people already know because of the work they’ve done over the last four years.

Schneider: By most measures, the economy is doing very well right now. And at the same time, people don’t feel it — at least they don’t say they feel it, even as Biden has tried to talk about Bidenomics as a vehicle to sell it. What do you see as the messaging disconnect? 

Walz: The most powerful message from Joe Biden is this economy needs to be built from the bottom up, the middle out: investing in things like infrastructure, investing in affordability of college, investing in childcare, housing, those are all things governors did with the help of the president.

We just came back from a trade mission in Australia, and every other country in the world would give just about anything to have our economy — 5 percent growth in the third quarter, unemployment rates, things like that. The pandemic, broken supply chains and everything — we did see inflation. Now, we’re taming inflation, we’re bringing it down, but we don't have deflation. So some of those prices that went up didn’t come back down, but we’re paying $2.89 a gallon for gas in Minnesota again. Things are starting to stabilize. I think by next November, there’ll start to be more of a realization on that.

Schneider: Do you think Biden and his team need to rethink how they're talking about the economy?

Walz: Maybe. I think it’ll evolve. Every campaign changes as things go. I do think you’re going to start to see it sink in that people are moving in the other direction. For the first time, we saw consumer confidence up in November. I think the holiday season will make a difference. If we see a rate reduction [at the Federal Reserve], I think that’ll make a difference. But we’ve got a year.

Schneider: Less than a year.

Walz: I think they can retool their message. I think the acknowledgement is that people are paying higher for some things because of inflationary pressures, but we also need to talk about how real wages are up.

Who do they blame? You know the sitting president gets blamed for some of those things. So they may — I think — rework, refine, this message, but it doesn’t change the fact that Joe Biden invested in the middle class, just like Democratic governors did, and made life more affordable after some of the most challenging times that we’ve ever seen.

Schneider: Abortion is a hugely important issue in governors’ races. But Biden isn’t comfortable talking about it. Do you worry about a mismatch in the messenger with arguably the most important issue Democrats are running on?

Walz: No. His actions show that he is supportive of those rights. Look, this was never an easy issue for anybody. But this does contrast, once again, this idea of freedom versus their extreme policies on this, and they continue to grab that rail. They can’t let it go. And I think the president, you know, he’s, probably, personally torn. But all of his policies are right in line with that. People know that. And the big thing is that they see what the contrast is. I can’t say that enough about this binary choice that’s coming. It’s still not a binary choice. It’ll be a binary choice after February. And you’ll start to see that, so no, I don’t worry about that.

Schneider: You’ve managed to pass an enormous number of Democratic policy priorities, even with a narrow majority in your legislature. Do you have any advice for your former colleagues in Congress about how to do it?

Walz: Be bold. A one-vote majority is a majority. But here’s the thing: We pass things that are popular. They want to make the case — okay, go ahead and try, turn back reproductive rights, go ahead and try. Turn back paid family medical leave, go ahead and try. Turn back some of these initiatives we made around climate. These things are popular. This is the time to be bold.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Gov. Chris Sununu.