Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi warned against attacking President Obama.
November 20, 2009
A Tilt Away From Social Issues
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
LOST PINES, Tex. — After two bleak years, Republican governors gathered here on Thursday to assess their political future — and they liked what they saw. With 37 governors’ seats open in 2010, the party is looking to topple some big-name Democrats.
What was most striking about the Republican governors was not simply their sense of optimism — a sentiment that would draw no Democratic quarrel these days — but exactly how they saw their road back to power and unity. The talk here was of the health care plan being debated in Congress, increased spending under President Obama, the climbing deficit and concern among Americans about jobs and the education of their children.
“The focus should be on bread-and-butter, kitchen-table, quality-of-life issues,” said Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican who was this month elected governor of Virginia, a seat that had been held by a Democrat, and whose victory is being held up as a formula for Republican reconstruction. “I think that really helped us. We ended up with a two-to-one margin with independent voters because of our focus on the economic problems.”
Mr. McDonnell’s mantra was echoed throughout the day, and it was easy to forget that this gathering was taking place at a secluded resort in the hills just outside of Austin, the city where former President George W. Bush and his chief political lieutenant, Karl Rove, began their effort to remake the Republican Party 10 years ago. There was little talk of the divisive social and political issues that Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove embraced as a way to attract independent and moderate Democratic voters and build a lasting Republican majority.
Thus for all the discussion about what it would take to build on this month’s victories of Mr. McDonnell in Virginia and another Republican, Christopher J. Christie, in the gubernatorial race in New Jersey, there was barely a whisper about abortion, gay marriage or gun control. The question of terrorism — Mr. Rove’s defining theme for much of the Bush presidency — barely came up, even in the week when Republicans in other places were attacking Mr. Obama’s Justice Department for deciding to hold the trial of four 9/11 suspects in a federal court in New York.
At one point, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi warned the audience — a group of governors, their aides and lobbyists — against attacks on Mr. Obama, suggesting this was a path to defeat. (Mr. Barbour showed no hesitation about critically invoking the names of two other Democrats who are not blessed by Mr. Obama’s popularity, Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader.)
To a considerable extent, the tilting of these scales reflect the fact that governors tend to run different races than members of Congress, dealing with state and local concerns. Yet governors and Republican leaders said the tenor of the discussion also reflected the recognition that social issues no longer carried the punch they once might have.
No one here was about to rebuke Mr. Rove or Mr. Bush. Yet their names were mentioned so infrequently that it was hard not to conclude that the party has moved beyond two men into a still uncertain future.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a likely presidential candidate in 2012, said: “In my case, and I think it’s true in most areas that are politically competitive, what most people want to know about candidates and officeholders is this: ‘Will you keep my taxes reasonable, hopefully decreasing; can you help me get my kid to a school so he or she can get a decent education?’ ”
Indeed, as a political issue — and also as a policy issue — these governors were much more likely to be focused on what Democrats were trying to do with health care than on gay marriage. Mr. Barbour said that he thought that Democrats were making a major miscalculation in assuming that getting a health care bill through Congress would, ultimately, prove to be a political advantage.
“The Democrats seem to believe that cramming this down the American people’s throat will make them more popular,” Mr. Barbour said. “I think the American people will be livid if a political party on a partisan vote crams an enormous change down their throat.”
As Mr. Barbour noted, next year’s gubernatorial elections are particularly important because governors elected in 2010 will help oversee the redrawing of state and Congressional district lines, based on the results of the 2010 census. That would give them significant impact on the political makeup of Congress and many state houses. And there are reasons for Republicans to be bullish: 19 of the 37 seats that are being contested next year are held by Democrats.
Democrats face tough races in at least seven of those states, though Nick Ayres, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said he believed that number would increase. He said nine Democratic governors face electorates as restive as the one confronted by Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who lost to Mr. Christie.
Beyond that, he said, they would also have to cope with the same problem as R. Creigh Deeds, the Democrat who lost to Mr. McDonnell in Virginia.
“They are going to face Deeds’s problems, where they really have two options going into their re-election: Do they stand with Reid and Pelosi on issues like national health care and appease their base or do they stand with taxpayers in their states unhappy with this plan,” he said.
Still, however tough it may be to be a Democrat these days, it is tougher to be a governor, at the front lines of cutting services and raising taxes. While Republicans kept talking about the 9 or 10 Democratic seats they have in their sights, they were well aware of the fact that just as many Republican gubernatorial seats are equally vulnerable going into next year.