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Politics / Analysis

Republican Future Lies With Governors

The solution to the party's 2012 woes may be in taking a cue from its ascendant state executives.

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns with Republican governors at Basalt Public High School, in Basalt, Colo., Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012. Pictured from left to right: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; Texas Gov. Rick Perry; Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead; Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin; New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez; Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

photo of Josh Kraushaar
November 14, 2012

Republicans will be doing a lot of soul-searching in the wake of Mitt Romney’s decisive defeat in the 2012 presidential election.

Many have already pointed the finger at the party base’s knee-jerk opposition to immigration reform for needlessly alienating Hispanics. Others blame the rickety mechanics of the Romney campaign, which could end up having turned out fewer voters than John McCain did four years ago. And another faction blames Romney for not being conservative enough, speaking in broad generalities about the economy rather than offering specific free-market policy prescriptions and government reforms.

All of these criticisms hold merit, to varying degrees, and will be hashed out in the months ahead. But as Republicans grasp for answers, they might be surprised that the solution is staring them right in the face. The party boasts an accomplished array of governors whose achievements present a clear-cut path for a future GOP governing agenda. If its congressional wing has been characterized by adherence to tea party dogma, its governors have shown a pragmatic streak, a zeal for fiscal discipline and pursuit of government reforms.


Looking for a governor who worked with Democrats to overhaul New Jersey’s bloated pension system and now is receiving fulsome praise across the aisle for his leadership in the wake of Hurricane Sandy? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s your guy.

Searching for an executive whose education reforms have revitalized the schools in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, giving a much-needed boost to students who had been left behind?  Look to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Turned off by the Republican Party’s rightward turn on social issues? Outgoing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels agrees. He called for a “social truce” within the party long before two Senate candidates, including home-state nominee Richard Mourdock, self-immolated with out-of-touch comments about rape and abortion. Daniels is no one’s idea of a milquetoast moderate.

Even Texas Gov. Rick Perry famously bragged at the Republican presidential debate this year that children of illegal immigrants were able to receive in-state tuition at Texas universities — a position that brought him endless grief with the national conservative grassroots, but did little damage to him back home.

On the demographic front, too, Republican governors are a world apart from their congressional brethren, and reflect the changing face of America even better than their Democratic counterparts. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is the Democrats’ only governor from a minority group, and he could be leaving office to join a second-term Obama Cabinet. Republicans boast four: Jindal, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

In 2013, there will be five women serving as governors, and four of them are Republicans (Martinez, Haley, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin). Only New Hampshire Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan is a Democrat.

The ascendant GOP governors provide a useful corrective to the many frenzied voices wondering in the wake of the 2012 bloodbath whether the Republican Party can survive without wholesale changes. The reality is that there’s a gaping chasm between the party’s congressional wing, suffused with traditionalism and resistant to change, and the more entrepreneurial executive wing, where many governors have been speaking the language of modernization and reform.  

Indeed, many GOP governors, through their actions back home, have already laid out a blueprint of sorts for a future Republican governing agenda. Many have argued that entitlement reforms are necessary, not just to squeeze millions of dollars out of budget deficits, but to preserve long-term investments in transportation, education, and public services. Several have focused on education policies like school choice and teacher accountability to give disadvantaged children a better opportunity to compete in the workforce after graduating.

Immigration divides the party’s gubernatorial ranks, but there is a sizable contingent (think Virginia’s Gov. Bob McDonnell) who support liberalized immigration laws, particularly those increasing visas for skilled immigrants and reducing the obstacles that prevent foreign-born entrepreneurs from entering the country to work.

But too often, congressional Republicans speak the language of austerity rather than of growth or reform when it comes to the budget.  There’s been little legislative activity on education reform, with many House Republicans suspicious of an active governmental role, even for programs like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top that are designed to enforce accountability and raise educational standards. And the voices critical of immigration reform are loudest on Capitol Hill, amply represented in the GOP ranks.

When moderate Democrats formed the Democratic Leadership Council in the mid-1980s to counterbalance the influence of the party’s liberal congressional wing, their ranks were populated with governors, including future president Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Republicans looked to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the wake of the 2000 election, facing the prospect of being shut out of the White House for a dozen years. It’s no coincidence: Governors get things done and have a pragmatic streak absent from the strident debates on Capitol Hill.

Now that Republicans find themselves in the presidential wilderness for another four years, they could learn some useful lessons from governors like Christie, Daniels, Jindal, and McDonnell, among others. There’s a good chance one of them could be eyeing a bigger prize come 2016. If not, their governing ideas will certainly be on center stage.

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