Republican Governors Association Chair Up for Grabs

Republicans are preparing for the possibility that Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s Senate bid creates an opening at the top of the RGA, with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam as a possible alternative.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott talks to the media outside the West Wing of the White House on Sept. 29.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
Oct. 30, 2017, 8 p.m.

Rick Scott has a choice to make: Will he spend his final year as Florida’s governor running a powerhouse political organization, or run in a marquee Senate race that could determine the balance of power in Washington?

GOP governors will gather in Texas next month to elect the next chair of the Republican Governors Association, their chief fundraiser and figurehead. The position can be a springboard to national prominence and is especially important for the 2018 cycle, with so many competitive races across the country.

Scott, a former health care executive term-limited as governor of the third-largest state in population, is the top contender because of his position as vice chair of the group. But Scott’s likely campaign against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next year complicates that ascension and could mean somebody else takes the reins of the well-heeled organization through 2018, according to three sources familiar with RGA leadership discussions.

“Legally, it’s a challenge to raise and direct soft money for RGA, while at the same time running for federal office,” said former RGA Executive Director Phil Cox, cofounder of the bipartisan firm 50 State.

“I also expect it would be a nonstarter for the governors in cycle,” Cox added. “Those governors who are running in ‘18 are relying on the chairman to make sure the committee hits its fundraising goals, so they are unlikely to turn to somebody whose first, second, and third priority is to win a critically important and competitive U.S. Senate race.”

A Scott adviser who asked permission to speak anonymously said that “he hasn’t yet made a decision” and that “he has a lot of options in front of him in the future.”

Not everyone sees Scott’s options as mutually exclusive. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez praised Scott as an “amazing governor” who “is capable of multitasking” should he run for both Senate and RGA chair. And a party operative with knowledge of the chair-election process noted that Scott would still be able to attend RGA events and talk up candidates and the organization to donors, as long as he didn’t explicitly solicit contributions.

And there’s precedent for a chair stepping down partway through a term to seek political office: Then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry chaired the RGA in early 2011 before running for president. His vice chair, then-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, took the reins for the next year and a half.

“Any of the potential candidates would do a great job,” said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

But Scott’s public indecision creates uncertainty that the organization hasn’t experienced in recent years. Scott replaced former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, now ambassador to the United Nations, as vice chair earlier this year. Several of the organization’s recent leaders, including current chair Scott Walker of Wisconsin, have ascended from the vice chair post.

Martinez said she and her colleagues won’t decide on next year’s leadership until they meet a week after the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey.

“We have a lot of races that are coming up,” said Martinez, a former chair, “and the big focus is in making sure that we get as many governors that are great leaders.”

Stakes are high: Republicans control two-thirds of the 36 governorships on the ballot next year, and half lack an incumbent thanks to term limits or retirements. The RGA will be responsible for reelecting its incumbents and electing aspiring candidates through direct contributions, independent expenditures, and general promotion.

“They’re looking for someone who can provide good leadership to peers … and also somebody who is willing to put in the time to go to meetings, particularly with potential donors, and raise money,” said former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who briefly served as chair at the start of the George W. Bush administration.

Governors and staffers have recently called Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to gauge his interest in serving as chair again in the event Scott steps aside, according to a second strategist close to the RGA. The two-term governor chaired the organization in 2015 when it raised $45 million and wiped out its debt from the 2014 cycle.

“There’s a lot of people looking to Haslam. He’s a guy who people like. They think he’s a good leader,” said a third Republican strategist with RGA ties. “He’s someone who doesn’t offend or inflame, and he’s got a proven ability to bring in money.”

Haslam, the richest governor in America at a net worth of $2.5 billion, would also bring to the job lucrative family connections. His father, James Haslam, founded the gas-station chain Pilot Flying J. The governor’s older brother, James Haslam III, owns the Cleveland Browns.

Haslam, who by law must leave office in early 2019, has developed a reputation as a moderate in Tennessee and nationwide. Last October, he called on then-nominee Donald Trump to drop out of the race and defer to running mate Mike Pence “for the good of the nation and the Republican Party.”

Not many options remain on the group’s executive committee, which includes Haslam and Martinez. Most of its members—Doug Ducey of Arizona, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, Greg Abbott of Texas, and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas—are up for reelection next year.

“What makes 2018 unique is that with 36 races you have so many governors in cycle—and when you’re in cycle and your name’s on the ballot, you can’t serve as RGA chairman,” Cox said. “Even if it’s a noncompetitive race, it’s too difficult to balance both, as your job as chairman requires you to be raising money and be out of state frequently.”

The remaining member is Mary Fallin of Oklahoma. But she “has terrible job approval in her state,” the second operative noted, amid ongoing budget negotiations.

“Fallin is recognized as being talented and capable,” said the third Republican. But “you gotta have someone who’s really able to show strength.”

While the executive committee is the likely source of the next chair, any governor or governor-elect not seeking reelection in 2018 is a possible candidate.

The Democratic Governors Association’s leadership transition is more fait accompli than that of its Republican counterpart. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the current vice-chair who won his second four-year term in office last year, will likely replace outgoing chair Dannel Malloy of Connecticut in December.

Alex Rogers contributed to this article.
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