Sunday, November 09, 2008

Governors Assemble as GOP Searches for Next Leaders

By Nathan L. Gonzales

In the aftermath of a second consecutive drubbing at the polls, the Republican Party is in search of a leader. Politicians in Washington, D.C., aren’t particularly popular these days, so it’s only natural for the GOP to turn to its governors.

Conveniently, the Republican Governors Association will hold its annual conference next week, Nov. 12-14, in Miami. The RGA will announce a new chairman, highlight a number of governors from around the country and stake its claim as the future of the GOP.

“Our only ability to win back the hearts and votes of the American people is to develop solutions and solve problems,” RGA executive director Nick Ayers said. “And the only place to do that is at the state level with our governors.”

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is expected to be named chairman of the RGA for 2009, according to GOP sources. The former three-term Congressman will take the reigns from Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and serve a one-year term — in a year when just Virginia and New Jersey will elect governors.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) is expected to make the jump from RGA finance chairman to vice chairman in 2009. The former Republican National Committee chairman will then be the heir apparent to take over as chairman in 2010, a gigantic year for gubernatorial races.

Thirty-six states will elect governors in 2010, including big states such as California, Texas and New York, as well as important states such as Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. After Tuesday’s elections, Democrats hold 29 of 50 governorships, but they will be defending 20 of the 34 states up in 2010.

“Republican governors will step up as the future faces and leaders of the GOP nationally and offer pragmatic solutions to refresh the party’s image,” former RGA executive director Phil Musser said. “Governors will play central roles in the future of the party.”

Two of the last three Republican presidents were former governors and served two terms each.

Barbour, Perry, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will all deliver speeches open to the media next week. Pawlenty was on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) short list of potential running mates, while Sanford and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal received mention as well.

McCain’s actual choice, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is said to be undecided about attending the RGA conference. According to GOP sources, she is unlikely to make the cross-country trip to Miami after recently returning to Alaska. Her appearance would be a “bold stake in the ground,” according to one GOP strategist.

Two years ago, outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney used the annual RGA conference as an opportunity to raise money and lay a foundation for his 2008 presidential bid. Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are not expected to attend this year’s conference because they are not sitting governors.

Republican governors were not insulated from the most recent Democratic wave. Even though only 11 governorships were up in 2008, the GOP suffered a net loss of one governorship (Missouri) and fell short in two takeover opportunities that were tossups going into Election Day (North Carolina and Washington).

But like their Democratic counterpart, the RGA is ramping up for 2010. “No one will look at the infrastructure and say it’s to blame,” Musser said about the RGA. Even though Sanford is expected to take over, the staff brought in by former chairman Sonny Perdue (Ga.) and retained by Perry is expected to largely stay intact.

This story
first appeared on on November 7, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.