By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006; A06
MIAMI, Nov. 30 -- Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman warned a somber and diminished gathering of GOP governors that the party will face years in the political wilderness unless it corrects the mistakes that led to last month's election losses.
"If we shrug our shoulders and say, 'It was just a fluke, a perfect storm of factors out of our control,' then we will lose again in 2008," Mehlman told the Republican Governors Association at its annual meeting, as he prepares to step down from the RNC at the end of the year.
"If that is the approach we take, then we are destined to spend far more than one term in the minority," Mehlman added. "And we as a party will deserve it."
On Nov. 7, Democrats captured a majority of governorships, as well as control of the House and the Senate, for the first time since the Republican revolution of 1994. The remaining GOP governors will assume a higher national profile while their party is out of power in Washington and may find themselves having to help lead the way for Republican initiatives and a political comeback.
"You're the greatest and most innovative think tank in politics," Mehlman told the governors. "And now, more than ever, our party and our nation need you to do what you do best . . . to change government for changing times."
Mehlman acknowledged voter anger about the Iraq war and a spate of GOP corruption scandals, but he pointed to a broader culprit: the erosion of the core conservative principles of small government and personal responsibility. As Republicans built up their Washington power base, he noted, the center of gravity shifted away from the statehouses that had been the traditional laboratories for policy ideas. The result was a vacuum that delivered little of interest to voters, while devaluing the national Republican brand.
For their part, the governors pointed to vivid images of federal incompetence that had dragged the party down, including the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and Congress's inability to curb spending or tackle issues that voters care about, such as illegal immigration. And they decried the ethics scandals that hurt the party, such as when then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned from Congress in September after revelations that he had sent sexually suggestive electronic messages to underage male pages and that House Republican leaders had known about his behavior but had not responded aggressively.
Outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, trying to put the best face on the losses, compared the elections to a controlled forest fire. "We didn't burn down the overall infrastructure," said Huckabee, who is testing the waters for a possible 2008 presidential run, "but we sure did get rid of a lot of the unnecessary growth and brush that really choked us. It's an opportunity to rebuild." Huckabee's successor is a Democrat.
The good news, Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told the group, is that voters hold Democrats in only slightly higher esteem than they do Republicans, and that the GOP continues to score high marks on national security and issues involving traditional values.
Structurally, the party remains sound. As a result of strong fundraising and a superior GOP voter-identification and turnout operation, many vulnerable Republicans survived. Of the 22 House elections that were determined by margins of two percentage points or less, Republicans won 13, including at least 10 races determined by fewer than 5,000 votes. And although the GOP suffered heavy losses in New England congressional races, Republican governors were reelected in Rhode Island and Vermont, two of the country's most liberal states.
In Rhode Island, Gov. Donald Carcieri narrowly won reelection, while the more moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee was defeated. Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas easily won reelection, although the state sent Rep. Bernard Sanders (I), one of the most liberal members of the House, to the Senate.
In a trend more worrisome to the GOP, voters have grown skeptical that Republicans possess the fresh ideas needed to solve the country's problems. That is one reason many independent and Republican voters decided to take a chance on Democrats last month. "The message is, back to basics," Newhouse said.
Or, as Mehlman told the GOP governors, back to "good policy that makes good politics." He singled out an effort by outgoing Gov. Mitt Romney, another 2008 prospect, to expand health-care coverage to all Massachusetts residents. "That is the kind of innovation we need at the state level, and in Washington," Mehlman said.
Many speakers noted that 12 GOP House seats were lost as a result of ethics scandals, but Mehlman asserted that tightening the rules through legislation would not go far enough. He said the GOP must change its internal culture, which has protected its own. "Every single person in this room and in this party must be absolute and uncompromising in seeking out those who have done wrong, without regard to party or ideology," Mehlman said in his address.
The governors were scornful of Washington spending habits, in particular earmarks, or special provisions that lawmakers like to stuff into legislation to fund pet projects. Most states have strict rules that have forced governors from both parties to cut their budgets aggressively, including in high-priority areas such as low-income health-care coverage.
Romney, who is also being succeeded by a Democrat, bristled at the suggestion that the GOP had run off course. "Where we get in trouble is where we say one thing and do something else," he said. Gesturing at the dozen governors who had joined him at a news conference, he said: "You see governors getting the job done."