The GOP's phony silver lining

No, GOP governors haven't stumbled on a magic formula for the national party

Published March 19, 2013 11:46AM (EDT)

The Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” of the 2012 election acknowledges some of the failures that resulted in the party losing the national popular vote for the fifth time in the last six races. It also ignores a major reason why the GOP’s base is shrinking. But one particular aspect of the report rings particularly false – an effort to find a silver lining in the party’s image problem:

At the federal level, much of what Republicans are doing is not working beyond the core constituencies that make up the Party. On the state level, however, it is a different story. Republicans hold governorships in 30 states with 315 electoral votes, the most governors either party has had in 12 years, and four short of the all-time GOP high of 34 governors who served in the 1920s.

The notion that the Republican Party is alive and well in America’s state capitals and that the national GOP need only learn from the examples of Chris Christie, Susana Martinez and Bob McDonnell to reverse its fortunes is commonly voiced on the right these days. But it’s built on some very flawed premises.

First, as conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru noted on Monday, there’s a fairly straightforward reason the GOP is so well-represented at the gubernatorial level: the wave election of 2010. This had very little to do with the individual Republican candidates who were on the ballot that year or any policy programs they offered. Instead, it represented a simple – if seismic – public reaction to dire economic conditions and complete Democratic control of the federal government (and in some cases, state governments too).

By their nature, midterm elections favor the out-of-power-party. Its voters tend to be more motivated to show up and swing voters are more likely to treat it as a protest vehicle for their frustrations. Generally, the real question in a midterm year is whether the damage for the ruling party will be severe or mild. And the conditions of 2010, when unemployment reached over 10 percent just two years after Democrats had gained control of the executive and legislative branches, virtually dictated that the ruling party would pay dearly up and down the ballot. Thus were Republicans able to make massive gains across-the-board – in Senate, House, gubernatorial, state legislative and local contests.

The stars were aligned for the GOP in ’10, but both parties have benefited from similar circumstances in the past – Democrats in 2006, 1982 and 1974 and the GOP in 1994 and 1966, to cite a few examples. So while 17 new Republicans won governorships in ’10 (and two more – Christie and McDonnell – did so under similar conditions in 2009), the results told us only that those candidates had the good sense to run in the right year.

Then there's the matter of how those governors are faring now. Christie is an unqualified success, politically speaking, although much of his popularity stems from his response to a natural disaster -- not necessarily his policy agenda. There are other popular members of the GOP gubernatorial class of '09/'10, but there are just as many who are in serious trouble heading into their 2014 reelection campaigns. Here's a sampling of recent job approval/disapproval ratings for each Republican governor first elected in '09 and '10 (note that I couldn't track down data from the last few months on South Dakota's Dennis Daugaard and Wyoming's Matt Mead):

Chris Christie, New Jersey: 74-22% (2/20)

Bill Haslam, Tennessee: 68-14% (1/13)

Susana Martinez, New Mexico: 64-25% (2/7)

Brian Sandoval, Nevada: 58-28% (11/5/12)

John Kasich, Ohio: 53-32% (2/28)

Bob McDonnell, Virginia: 48-35% (1/10)

Nikki Haley, South Carolina: 44-39% (2/20)

Sean Parnell, Alaska: 46-44% (2/7)

Terry Branstad, Iowa: 45-44% (2/6)

Scott Walker, Wisconsin: 48-49% (2/26)

Nathan Deal, Georgia: 36-41% (2/20)

Sam Brownback, Kansas: 37-52% (2/26)

Paul LePage, Maine: 39-55% (1/20)

Rick Snyder, Michigan: 37-54% (3/6)

Rick Scott, Florida: 33-57% (1/16)

Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania: 33-58% (3/12)

Mary Fallin, Oklahoma: 65-24% (1/8)*

*The Sooner Poll on Fallin measured her favorable/unfavorable score, and not her job approval rating

So that's six GOP governors who have logged upside-down approval scores in recent polling, and another four who aren't that far from being underwater. The GOP's gubernatorial crop will likely be thinned in next year's midterms, when the tide probably won't be as strongly anti-Democratic as it was in '10, and Republicans are in danger of losing governorships in some very big states. Scott in Florida, Corbett in Pennsylvania and Snyder in Michigan seem particularly vulnerable. Their struggles, in many cases, can be traced to pursuing policies that are in sync with the sensibilities now driving the national Republican Party.

It's also worth noting that Republican governors don't face the same pressure to meet the conservative movement's litmus tests that members of the House and Senate do. They don't have to address all of the polarizing issues that national politicians are forced to take positions on and they have much more room to pursue bipartisan deals that will attract positive headlines. Greg Marx explained why a while back:

National politics, though, don’t work the same way. The key players in national parties are not individual bosses, but “intense policy demanders” who put pressure on elected officials not to stray too far off script—a distinction that has real implications for the likelihood of bipartisan deals, and in how committed a party’s elected officials will be to a set of policy views.

For any currently popular Republican governor who wades into the 2016 waters, the game will change. Suddenly, he or she will be expected to sync up with the national party's consensus on most every issue -- and he or she will face the same basic problem Mitt Romney faced in 2012: an inability to carve out positions that might attract voters who aren't part of the GOP's existing (and diminishing) coalition. So until Republicans stop demanding that aspiring national candidates hew to Tea Party-ish conservatism, a batch of popular governors really won't do the party much good, at least when it comes to winning back the White House.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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