It’s not just Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell who are missing from the lineup at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Of the roughly 250 activists, thinkers, politicians, and media stars on the three-day program, only four are governors.
Along with its House majority, one of the GOP’s top bragging points is that 30 states are led by Republicans. The absence of this prominent group highlights one of the oddities of this year's CPAC. While it is heavy on conservative heroes, it is light on the governors who are less pure but traditionally have proven more capable of winning presidential elections.
The ranks of current governors include some of the brightest stars of the Republican Party and some of its most deft politicians – people who have won in states that, unlike carefully drawn congressional districts, are not guaranteed wins for conservatives and require outreach to many types of voters. The governors also embody a demographic diversity missing in other corners of the GOP.
The magnitude of the lost opportunity is clear in an ABC News list of 13 top Republicans we won’t see at CPAC. Three are former governors (Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, and Haley Barbour) and seven are sitting governors. Beyond Christie and McDonnell, the others now in office are Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was a late-breaking addition to the program on Friday.
The ABC list is by no means complete. For instance, where are John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Paul LePage of Maine, Rick Scott of Florida? Some of them are controversial and some are taking steps unpopular with conservatives, such as expanding Medicaid, but they notched wins in states that are challenging for their party.
Three of the four governors who did score CPAC slots– Haley, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas – are champions of conservative causes in conservative states (in fact Jindal announced a plan to eliminate Louisiana’s income tax on Thursday, a day before his CPAC speech). The fourth, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, has iconic status for winning a purple state, pushing through tremendously controversial cutbacks in union rights, and then surviving a recall election.
Of the four, Jindal appears headed for a likely 2016 presidential bid, and Perry, whose 2012 attempt landed with a thud, left the door open Thursday for another try despite mixed reviews of his speech. Walker, should he be reelected next year, is likely too polarizing to end up on a national ticket.
Three former governors also won speaking slots, and to some degree they embody the complications of being a governor. Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential nominee, was never a CPAC favorite, given his Massachusetts health law and onetime support of abortion and gay rights. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush raised conservative eyebrows when he said the 2012 candidates were wrong to reject a theoretical deal that included a 10:1 ratio of spending cuts and tax increases. The third, 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, made a habit of taking on fellow Republicans when she was governor of Alaska.
Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union which puts on CPAC, has been trying out an array of explanations for the exclusion of Christie and McDonnell. The pair, who lifted their party out of its 2008 doldrums with 2009 wins in New Jersey and Virginia, respectively, were popular speakers at past events. Cardenas said there wasn’t room for two prominent Virginians on the stage at CPAC – and the slot went to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative idol who is running for governor this year. With 250 people onstage, that sounds dubious, especially since two prominent speakers – Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio – are from the same state.
McDonnell recently signed off on a transportation deal that includes raising taxes, despite having signed a pledge never to raise taxes, but that appears to have occurred after invitations went out. The only place to see McDonnell at CPAC was early Friday at a Faith & Freedom Coalition breakfast – a side event that fit well with McDonnell’s conservative social views. “It’s sold out and we’ve got a waiting list,” coalition chairman Ralph Reed said Thursday, adding with a laugh, “Now we kinda wish we’d invited Chris Christie.”
Christie’s crime, so to speak, appears to be praising President Obama for his response to superstorm Sandy and scoring House Republicans for failing to deliver help in what he considered a timely manner. “Hopefully next year he's back on the right track and being a conservative," Cardenas said. "He's a popular figure, but everyone needs to live by the parameters of the movement."