Energized Republican governors aim for majority

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

AUSTIN -- Republican governors wrapped up a two-day pep rally here on Thursday with an expression of confidence that the political winds have begun to shift in their direction, thanks to what they called a backlash among many voters against the policies of the Obama administration.

President Obama may be personally well liked, the Republican Governors Association heard here in its private and public sessions, but concern over several of his policies -- large amounts of new federal spending, his health-care and climate-change initiatives -- has created an atmosphere that GOP leaders say could lead to significant gains in next year's midterm elections.

What buoyed their spirits was the addition of two governors to their ranks -- Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey, both elected this month. Other governors hailed those victories as the beginning of a turnaround for a party that suffered drubbings in 2006 and 2008.

"Next year's going to be a good year for Republican governors . . . and I think next year's going to be a good year for Republicans in the Congress," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the RGA chairman, said Thursday.

Barbour compared conditions now with those in the 1994 election cycle, when Republicans began their comeback with victories in New Jersey and Virginia in 1993 and took control of the House and Senate the next year. "I was chair of the party 16 years ago when we were last similarly situated," he said. "This feels better this early than it did then."

Republicans acknowledge that events could change the political landscape before next November. They also say that they must offer more to voters than simply opposition to the president's program. But strategists said this is the first time in years they have heard something other than gloomy forecasts at gatherings such as this.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty credited the Obama administration with providing Republicans with an opening, saying the president and Democrats in Congress misinterpreted the result of the 2008 election as a mandate.

"When one party has total power, they are prone to overplay their hand. . . .," he said. "They did it in a real hurry, and they did it with boldness and a great deal of lack of wisdom and restraint. They've delivered us a new opportunity more rapidly than even the more optimistic amongst us expected."

The president's advisers and Democratic strategists have sharply challenged the Republicans' assertion that the victories in Virginia and New Jersey in any way reflected on Obama and his agenda.

"The fact is, Virginia and New Jersey were about two things: Virginia and New Jersey," Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, asserted in the Huffington Post. "These states have voted against the party in the White House for decades, and they did it again this November. There's nothing out of the ordinary here."

But Republican governors heard at a private session Wednesday that postelection polling for the party showed that reaction against the Obama agenda was an important influence on voters in both states -- particularly in Virginia.

"This is a guy that people like, but his policies are rightly dragging down their political capacity," Barbour told fellow governors Thursday. "We've got to stay on that. I think we've got a great, great, great chance."

While no one is predicting taking back the House or Senate, Republican governors predicted they would hold a majority of governorships by this time next year. There are 37 gubernatorial contests in 2010. With the addition of New Jersey and Virginia, Republicans hold 24 seats.

"Our goal for next year is to get appreciably above a majority," Barbour said.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas told the governors that two factors will shape campaign outcomes next year: intensity among the voters and the leanings of independents. Both appear favorable for Republicans right now.

"This is an election where our message is going to be broadly accepted," he predicted.

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