Republican Governors Meet, Glumly
After Election Losses, Many See Bleak Future for Party

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008

MIAMI, Nov. 12 -- Republican governors were the brightest spot in an otherwise dispiriting election last week for the GOP, but the chief executives gathered here Wednesday provided a gloomy assessment of their party's failures and a dark forecast for the future.

The Republican Party is ill situated to serve a changing America, they said. Members make excuses for corruption. The Bush administration and congressional leaders are fiscally irresponsible and have ceded the tax issue -- of all issues -- to the Democrats. Large swaths of the country are off limits to GOP candidates. Republicans have lost the technology advantage, and if they were part of a corporation, "heads would roll." It's going to be worse in 2010.

The Republican Governors Association, meeting at a sleek hotel on Biscayne Bay to survey the damage, itself is a thinned version of what it was in the heyday of GOP dominance of national politics. There will be 21 GOP governors come January, a loss of one, and only 16 of them made the trip.

They are convinced that their counterparts in Washington are incapable of finding a formula for resurgence and that the answer lies in the states.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- passed over by Sen. John McCain for the No. 2 spot on the presidential ticket and one of nine GOP governors who preside over states won by Barack Obama -- offered a summary of his party's predicament at the governors' opening lunch.

"We cannot be a majority governing party when we essentially cannot compete in the Northeast, we are losing our ability to compete in Great Lakes states, we cannot compete on the West Coast, we are increasingly in danger of competing in the mid-Atlantic states, and the Democrats are now winning some of the Western states," Pawlenty said. "That is not a formula for being a majority governing party in this nation."

As if that weren't enough, he ticked off a few more challenges.

"Similarly we cannot compete, and prevail, as a majority governing party if we have a significant deficit, as we do, with women, where we have a large deficit with Hispanics, where we have a large deficit with African American voters, where we have a large deficit with people of modest incomes and modest financial circumstances. Those are not factors that make up a formula for success going forward."

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, at 37 the youngest of the group, was more succinct: "They fired us with cause." He was referring to the loss of at least six senators and more than 20 House members, the first time since 1932 that the party has lost so many seats in consecutive elections.

A phrase heard repeatedly in the hallways was that the next Republican president -- and there are plenty who would like the job -- was in the room, or at least in the hotel. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate and the most well-known attendee, skipped the lunch to do a sit-down with CNN and was last seen surrounded three-deep by reporters and cameras before disappearing into an elevator.

She is scheduled to hold a news conference Thursday morning and then give an analysis in a session titled "Looking Towards the Future."

It is likely to be a more upbeat affair than the seminar she missed, "An In-Depth Evaluation of the 2008 Election Cycle."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who took over the Republican National Committee under similarly dim circumstances after President Bill Clinton's 1992 election, tried to temper the downbeat assessments with some history.

He pointed out that only once since World War II has a party won a third consecutive presidential term. He noted President Bush's unpopularity and the "financial system's cataclysm" and said, all things considered, he thought McCain "got a pretty good vote." He noted the dark days that followed Watergate. "I have looked down at the grave of the Republican Party, and this ain't it," he said.

Others noted that after Clinton's victory in 1992, Republicans took control of Congress in 1994.

That, however, was about it for happy talk.

Pollster and communications guru Frank Luntz detailed the party's problems with voters 18 to 29 years old and said Obama's campaign was far ahead of McCain's in using new media to reach those voters.

"He's got 10 million e-mail names," Luntz said of Obama. He then held up a BlackBerry and added: "Our candidate doesn't know how to use this."

Jindal, an Indian American and one of the party's brightest hopes for ethnic outreach, said Republicans have failed to inspire. "We should stand for the American dream," he said.

He blamed the administration and congressional leaders for cutting taxes without cutting spending and for not offering solutions besides "the other side's worse," and he said the party must "stop making excuses for corruption." He named Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who has been convicted of unlawfully accepting gifts but whose reelection race is very tight.

Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska was ready to take Jindal up on the challenge. "I think he ought to resign today," Heineman said of Stevens, and asked his fellow governors if they wanted to make a similar statement. "Do we have the courage to do that?"

There was silence at the table.

Criticism came from others as well. Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, a close McCain adviser, said, "Republicans are losing market share at an alarming rate," mentioning young voters and Hispanics as particular concerns. If there were such losses at a corporation, she said, "heads would roll."

Although some polling at the end of the campaign suggested Palin was a drag on the ticket, her fellow governors treated any question about her gingerly. They praised her for energizing the base, and moved quickly to extol Obama's speechmaking skills and his extraordinary fundraising advantage.

As for the way back, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said the governors have a chance to show how to apply Republican principles of fiscal conservatism and smaller government to practical problems. He said they should concentrate on "issues that really matter" to voters, such as education, energy, the environment and health care.

Pawlenty said that although Republicans idolize Ronald Reagan, some would balk at the compromises he made. "One of the things that gets glossed over is his pragmatism," he said. "He got stuff done, and he compromised to do it."

Research editor Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company