With the pickup in North Carolina, Republicans now hold 30 governorships, the most in decades for the Republicans. In a statement on the election, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, head of the Republican Governors Association, said: “There’s no doubt that the Republican Party’s strength comes from the states, and the RGA’s ability to expand our majority provides optimism for the future. In the states, Republican governors are providing the type of results-oriented leadership that is absent in Washington, D.C. They’ve eliminated massive budget deficits while reducing the tax burden, reformed entitlements and long-term fiscal liabilities and enacted the most comprehensive education reforms in a generation.”
If Mitt Romney had won every state in which there is a GOP governor (including Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Iowa) he would have won by a landslide. So why can GOP governors do what GOP presidential and senatorial candidates find so hard?
Let’s begin with how conservatives treat governors. Frankly, governors have a lot more room to maneuver and innovate. They don’t face a talk-show onslaught if they pursue a budget compromise with Democrats. In blue states (e.g. New Jersey) they are not forced to take hardline positions on hot-button social issues so long as they are nominally pro-life.
Then there are the mainstream media. The New York Times, MSNBC and the rest of the mainstream media, not to mention liberal pundits, don’t pay much attention to state politics unless a scandal breaks out. That also gives governors and their Democratic opponents less incentive to grandstand and more encouragement to get things done.
Unlike U.S. senators, governors are actually responsible for doing things, especially signing budgets and delivering basic services. There is a premium, therefore, on getting along with others and being a problem- solver. GOP governors who do this get reelected and GOP gubernatorial candidates have to assume that posture. This is popular with voters, unsurprisingly. Republican governors are forced to innovate on education, Medicaid, transportation and more to meet changing circumstances and deliver better services to their citizens in tough economic times.
Also take a look at the gubernatorial lineup. They sound and look like their constituents. Republicans have four women governors. They have two Indian Americans and two Hispanics (not counting territorial governors). It is a far more diverse group than the usual slew of GOP senatorial and presidential contenders. Many Republican governors in states with big urban populations have working-class appeal (New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Ohio’s John Kasich). Many have valuable life experiences apart from politics. There are business owners, health care and computer company executives, ranchers, and prosecutors. Having been successful in other fields they bring real-world experience and, fortunately, often lack lifetime politicians’ infatuation with power and popularity.
In some ways GOP governors are everything recent GOP presidential candidates are not. Yes, they enjoy less exacting coverage and their Democratic lawmakers are in many respects more reasonable than the Beltway Democrats. But they have figured out how to govern effectively as conservatives and they have learned to talk to diverse constituents in a direct, no-nonsense manner. They tend not to grandstand on issues they really can’t affect (constitutional doctrine on abortion, for example).
In all of this are some powerful lessons for both conservative media and national Republican candidates. Do more. Pontificate less. Reach out continually. Ignore ideologues. And lo and behold — you win elections.