Among the many surprises in the Republican presidential race this year has been the virtual silence of the governors. GOP chief executives so far have played no significant role in shaping the nomination campaign, either as candidates or through their powers of endorsement.
There are many reasons for this. Most of the governors are dealing with major budgetary problems, entailing legislative battles and painful cuts in spending. For them, presidential politics can wait. Many have also have been reluctant to get involved at this stage, given the fluidity of the GOP presidential field. They prefer to see which candidates prove their mettle on the campaign trail and in debates before taking a stand.
Several governors — including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, Michigan’s Rick Snyder and Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett — are in their first year in office and are more concerned with their own duties than a presidential campaign. Florida’s Rick Scott, also elected in 2010, has had such a difficult six months that Democrats now see him as a potential liability for the Republican presidential nominee in the battle for that state’s electoral votes next year.
Two prominent Republican governors — Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Mississippi’s Haley Barbour — considered running for the nomination but ultimately decided not to. New Jersey’s Chris Christie, whose blunt style has made him a hero among some Republicans, has rebuffed repeated efforts to draw him into the fray. None of the three has endorsed any of those running, nor do they appear eager to do so.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, after long denying any interest in the presidency, is suddenly thinking about running but has not made a decision. Perry is the current chairman of the Republican Governors Association, but it is not clear how much he could translate that post into the support of fellow governors if he does decide to run.
Not that the Republican race suffers from a lack of gubernatorial voices. Former governors seeking the nomination include Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, Gary Johnson of New Mexico and Buddy Roemer of Louisiana.
Romney is a former RGA chairman, and Pawlenty served as vice chair during the 2010 election cycle. Neither has been able to corral significant support from other governors. Romney has been endorsed by two governors, Dave Heineman of Nebraska and Butch Otter of Idaho, as well as one former governor, Colorado’s Bill Owens. Pawlenty has the support of former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, who first supported former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Perdue has close ties to Pawlenty’s campaign manager Nick Ayers.
One former governor, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, decided not to run this time. Another former governor, and 2008 vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin of Alaska, continues to be coy about her intentions, though time is running out for her.
There are signs that the governors may begin to weigh in, if only because of concerns about the support being generated by Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the favorite of tea party activists whose candidacy has shaken up the GOP race.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad told Politico’s Jonathan Martin last week that, while Bachmann was an exciting candidate, he did not think she had the kind of executive experience that governors have — qualities that Branstad and other governors believe the party should be looking for in a presidential nominee.
The role of governors in presidential campaigns has long been disputed, particularly their ability to affect the outcome of general election contests in their states. But their power to shape nomination battles is less in question.
In 1999, Republican governors got behind the candidacy of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and quickly helped make him the favorite for the nomination. That may be the exception, as governors are often divided in their choices for president, but when they join their voices, the rest of the party listens.
Notably, there has been no similar effort among governors past or present to get behind Romney, the nominal front-runner this year and someone who has had years to lobby and cajole his former colleagues into supporting him.
Governors can play another important role: providing a counterweight to the party’s congressional wing. GOP presidential candidates risk becoming too closely identified with policies advocated by conservative House Republicans that don’t necessarily enjoy widespread support around the country. Exhibit A is the Medicare plan of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Many of the governors are pursuing the same fiscal policies in their states — deep spending cuts with no tax increases — that their congressional colleagues are pushing in Washington. Nonetheless, given their broader statewide constituencies, they can speak with an authority that serves to temper the most extreme voices in the Republican caucus in the House.
Many governors will look to Barbour, a former party chairman who is seen as one of the party’s shrewdest strategists, for leadership. He has been in no particular hurry to weigh in. He knows better than most what can be gained or lost by inaction.
In two weeks, many Republican governors will meet in Salt Lake City during the annual summer meeting of the National Governors Association. That should be a time for taking stock and considering a plan of action, if the governors are willing to exercise the power they have to lead their party.