How Governors Could Be Key to GOP Resurgence

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John Raoux / AP; Darron Cummings / AP; Rogelio V. Solis / AP

From left: Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour

In four out of the past five presidential elections, Democrats have won the popular vote. That show of force at the national level has roughly coincided with the decline of Republican dominance of the big-state governorships. There is a significant and often overlooked cause and effect between these two phenomena, which, given the current political climate, should make Democrats even more worried than they already are about the November midterm elections. If Republicans can take advantage of the prevailing political winds to reassert control at the state level this year, that could in turn provide an opening for the GOP to win back the White House in 2012.

While the press tends to obsess over who has the majority of the House and Senate in Washington, it is the gubernatorial contests that can have as much or more impact on America's governance, policy and politics in the long run. Republicans still hold their share of big-state governors' mansions, but Democrats have in recent years controlled the top seats in key battleground states such as Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio. Now, the GOP has a very good chance to take over all of those states, while hanging on to many of the slots they already have.

Governors can be hugely influential in many ways. They can develop policies that affect the real lives of millions of Americans within their states, which then percolate up to the federal level. They play a major role in the redistricting process for Congress and the state legislatures. And, during a presidential contest, they can rally around one of their own party members with the kind of fundraising and machine-politics mobilization that is unmatched by any other individuals or organizations in the country.

The capacity of Democrats to drive a policy agenda from 2011 onward, and the re-election efforts of President Obama, will be severely crippled if, as is quite conceivable, Republicans end up controlling seven of the eight most populous states — and possibly a staggering 30 of the biggest 35. That would include snatching some megaseats held by the Democrats and adding them to the beachhead the GOP now holds in California, Florida and Texas.

After a years-long drought of new compelling policy ideas from either party at the national level, it is instructive to recall how many influential 1980s and 1990s reform programs on welfare, education, job training and economic development emerged from state capitals, several of them controlled by Republican chief executives. Back in the 1990s, when Republicans such as California's Pete Wilson, Illinois' Jim Edgar, Michigan's John Engler, Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson and Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge were in office, conservative policy ideas and Republican electoral prospects were in ascendancy.

By the end of Bill Clinton's second term, Democratic ideas and influence had begun to compete at the state and national levels. But a decade later, Republicans may be poised to turn that around. Many of their current and likely future governors possess the charisma, executive experience, communication skills and policy chops that the GOP's congressional leaders lack. January 2011 could dawn with Republicans dominating key governorships. And should the GOP perform well across the board in the midterms and win back one or both chambers of Congress, their state counterparts will be ready to implement conservative policy ideas to serve as models for Washington. At the same time, this new crop of governors could use their newly won momentum and juice to construct political operations for the 2012 elections just as Obama launches his re-election effort.

Mitt Romney, today considered the front-runner for the party's presidential nomination, is a former governor. But he's not the only Republican with a gubernatorial record champing at the bit to embrace the campaign theme that Obama is a failure as President because he went into the job without sufficient executive and private-sector experience and because he is a liberal at heart. And, while Romney so far has made many of the right moves in setting himself up for 2012, there remains among Republican wise men and women the nagging feeling that neither Romney nor any of the most conspicuous crop of candidates has what it takes to challenge Obama, no matter how weakened the President may be.

Behind the scenes, beyond the media, via phones and e-mail and cocktail-party chatter, the Republican cognoscenti are assessing the credentials of four men who, at one time or another, have talked about running for President. Each offers striking political and policy savvy gilded by the gubernatorial brush — although each has potential flaws as well.

Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, is whip-smart and has a proven broad appeal, but his last name and family history still present a towering obstacle: Bush fatigue has by no means disappeared, whatever setbacks have plagued the Obama Administration of late. Mitch Daniels of Indiana is likable and pragmatic, but may be hampered by his physical stature (Americans seem to favor tall candidates) and an overall dearth of pizzazz. Haley Barbour of Mississippi is magnetic and skillful, but his history as a lobbyist is out of step with the prevailing anti-Washington national mood. John Kasich, a longtime Congressman now running for governor of Ohio, is impressive, but still lacks the kind of intense focus required to run the presidential gauntlet.

Of course, no candidate is without liabilities, and all four could be truly formidable if Republicans enjoy a 2010 sweep and anger at Washington remains the animating spirit in American politics.

If the 2010 class of Republican governors supports one of its current or former colleagues and turns its attention, fundraising networks and get-out-the-vote operations to seeing that person elected, it doesn't guarantee Obama will lose the popular vote in 2012. But it will make it a heck of a lot harder for him to keep the majority on his side.

So, sure, pay attention to how President Obama navigates the rest of this year and gauge what happens in the congressional contests this November. But remember, too, that governors or former governors have won the White House in six of the past eight elections, and starting in 2011, there will be a hungry herd of Republican governors with presidential-level aspirations — and the qualifications to win the race.