World / Politics

Gubernatorial wing seen as key to reclaiming White House

Can GOP governors save their ailing party?

by Dan Balz

The Washington Post

The Republican National Committee (RNC) task force report painted a stark portrait of a party divided between its struggling federal wing and its thriving gubernatorial wing. The GOP’s path to rehabilitation may indeed run through the states, but some of the report’s assertions about the governors’ successes are questionable at best.

Take this one, for starters. The report said: “Eight of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment in America have Republican governors.” Factually that’s an accurate statement. It is also a misleading statement.

The implicit message is that Republican governors know how to manage the economy. Well, what about states with the highest unemployment? Republicans dominate that group as well. Of the 10 states with the worst unemployment rates, seven are led by Republicans, two by Democrats and one by an independent.

Neither ranking provides an answer to the question of whether Republican economic policies would do more than the Democratic policies to boost the national economy.

Here’s another statement from the report: “America is changing demographically and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal the way GOP governors have done, the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction.”

The reality is that, over the years, some Republican governors have done a better job of appealing to minority voters than many of the party’s presidential nominees. But they are more likely to be the exception than the rule even among governors.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry won 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2010 re-election. Then Perry got hammered by Mitt Romney and others in the Republican presidential race for being soft on illegal immigrants.

Another sitting governor who can point to strong support from Hispanics is Florida’s Rick Scott. He won 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2010. But Florida is an outlier because Cuban-Americans consistently supported GOP candidates (until President Barack Obama narrowly carried them last November).

Running counter to those relatively good numbers among Hispanics is evidence questioning whether Republican governors do that much better among the fast-growing Hispanic population in states where their numbers are significant. One example is Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who has taken a hard line on immigration issues. In 2010, she captured just 28 percent of the Hispanic vote in her state. Last fall, Mitt Romney won 25 percent of Arizona’s Hispanics.

In 2010, voters in Nevada and New Mexico elected Republican governors who are Hispanic. There were no exit polls from New Mexico that year, so it’s unclear how well Gov. Susana Martinez did in the Latino community. In Nevada, Gov. Brian Sandoval won just 33 percent of the Latino vote, according to the exits. That’s only 4 percentage points better than Romney did last fall and was six points lower than President George W. Bush did in the state in 2004.

Republican governors who were elected in 2009 and 2010 attracted minimal support from African-Americans. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker captured 13 percent of the African-American vote, aided perhaps by the fact that he had been the Milwaukee County executive. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got 9 percent of the black vote. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett got just 8 percent. Scott in Florida got 6 percent. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley got only 4 percent.

Here is another statement from the RNC report: “We need to aggressively work to put more states in play where we have infrastructure advantages over the Democrats based on our foothold in the governorships.”

That is a good idea but there is not much evidence that holding the governorship makes that state more competitive in presidential elections. In last year’s campaign, Obama won all of the most competitive states that were in the hands of Republican governors: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Iowa and Wisconsin. The battleground state where he lost — North Carolina — was then in the hands of a Democratic governor (but now is held by the GOP). Over the years, the success of governors transferring their popularity to presidential candidates has been mixed to minimal.

There’s no question that Republican governors are more popular as a group than is the party’s congressional wing. But the approval ratings of individual Republican governors vary dramatically. New Jersey’s Christie, with an approval rating around 70 percent, scores the highest of any GOP governor in a major state. Martinez and Sandoval have strong approval ratings at this point and could improve on their 2010 performances with minority voters and others in their 2014 re-election campaigns.

Another group with solid ratings — around 50 percent or above — includes Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (who cannot run for a second term) and Kasich, who has rebounded after a tough first year in office. Walker, who survived a recall election last year, is at 50 percent in the most recent poll in the state. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who says Republicans should not be “the stupid party,” is at about that level as well. Walker and Jindal could be two of a number of governors who become presidential candidates in the future.

There are other governors who are on shakier ground. Texas’s Perry, South Carolina’s Haley and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad have approval ratings in the low-to-mid 40s. The numbers for Perry and Haley are notably unimpressive, given that they govern in deeply conservative states. At the bottom of the list of GOP governors are three from major states and who are up for re-election next year: Florida’s Scott, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. All are below 40 percent at this point.

Because most of these Republican governors have GOP majorities in their legislatures, they can do what their congressional colleagues can only talk about: they can enact the conservative agendas and test new policies, as GOP governors did in the 1990s on welfare and other issues. As a group, they are giving the country models of conservative governance: spending cuts, tax cuts (or avoiding tax increases), reining in public employee pensions and benefits, and business friendly regulatory policies.

GOP leaders say they have shown the success of those policies. But did Ohio’s unemployment rate drop below the national average because of Kasich’s conservative leadership or because Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, opposed by Romney and Republican leaders, gave the state economy a major boost?

Many of the most prominent Republican governors came into office as part of the backlash against Obama’s first years in office. They were beneficiaries of a strong Republican tide in 2009 and 2010 and of an electorate that was decidedly different than those typical of presidential election years.

As those prominent Republican governors prepare for re-election, those with national aspirations will be measured by different standards: Are they capable of attracting a broad-based coalition big enough to win over voters in purple and blue states in a presidential election.

Bush explicitly used his 1998 re-election campaign to show that he could attract Hispanic votes. By what standards will Republican governors judged as indications that they could be more successful leading a national ticket. Perry had a more enviable record of job creation than anyone in the GOP field in 2012 but flopped as a candidate.

GOP leaders are right to point to their governors as vehicles for rehabilitating the party for at least two reasons. Historically, governors have a better record of success in winning the presidency than senators. Second, the ranks of the Republican governors include some of the party’s brightest and most able politicians. But they are still largely untested nationally. Which of them will step up to meet the challenges their party now confronts?

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