New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses the 21st annual Conference on Volunteering and Service, convened by Point of Light, June 21, 2013 at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty

GOP governors: We can save the party

Updated

Executive experience is the newest front in the GOP’s ongoing civil war.

Establishment Republicans are increasingly touting governors like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Susana Martinez, and John Kasich as the future of the party, praising their pragmatism and electability. You can probably throw former governor Jeb Bush into the mix. At the same time, tea partiers are coalescing around senators like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, whom they see as beacons of purity. The last few weeks have sharpened their differences: the Senate group played a critical role in forcing the government shutdown even as some Republican governors, most recently Kasich, accepted new Medicaid funding offered under the law.

A video put out by the Republican Governors’ Association says that GOP govs “are driving America’s comeback.” As Republican governors head to Arizona this week for their annual meeting, some are actively fishing for 2016 attention. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a potential presidential candidate himself, told ABC’s Jon Karl that the party’s next nominee should have experience running a state.

“I think it’s got to be an outsider,” Walker said. “I think both the presidential and the vice-presidential nominee should either be a former or current governor. People who have done successful things in their states. Who’ve taken on big reforms. Who are ready to move America forward.”

That declaration garnered an “I know you are, but what am I?” retort from Rand Paul on Fox News Monday. 

“I don’t know that a governor is necessarily an outsider,” Paul said. “A governor can be an insider as much as anybody else.”

Paul can expect to hear plenty of arguments along Walker’s lines at the Republican Governors Association speeches, just like generations of governors with presidential ambitions before them. You probably know many of the applause lines already: unlike those spendthrifts in Congress, governors balance their budgets! Unlike those Washington insiders with their 9% approval rating, governors know what middle America really thinks! And unlike those DC lawmakers with their petty procedural squabbles, governors get stuff done!

“If I was in the Senate right now, I’d kill myself,” Chris Christie, the most prominent gubernatorial 2016er, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last month when asked how he’d handle the recent shutdown as a legislator. He continued this line of attack on Monday on a Wall Street Journal panel, stating that “Everyone down here in D.C. has failed.”

Historically, governors have fared well compared to their Washington counterparts. Obama was only the third sitting senator to be elected president and the first since John F. Kennnedy in 1960, who in turn was the first since Warren Harding in 1920.

Research confirms that governors tend to perform better than active senators in both primaries and general elections. There are a variety of theories as to why: no long paper trail of controversial votes, greater freedom in setting their policy agenda at home, more individual credit when those policies succeed. One of the more interesting hypotheses is that governors simply have a greater investment in the outcome because they don’t have a potential lifetime job in Congress to fall back on if they lose. 

But for all the hype, governors can’t save the Republican party. Only Republicans can do that.

One of the main reasons governors are able to differentiate themselves from Congress at this point in the cycle is that they can pick and choose which controversial issues to address. Often they can keep their answers ambiguous enough to avoid firmly committing to one side which could alienate primary or general election voters. That Christie quote above about killing himself is a perfect example. It sounds like the straightest of straight talk, but in the same interview he never took a position on who to blame for the shutdown and why. 

Members of Congress have no such luxury – they have to vote for an actual piece of legislation on whatever hot-button issue party leaders put on the agenda. 

Christie’s advantage holds as long as he and fellow governors are able to maintain this strategic ambiguity. That’s not something a presidential candidate can maintain for long, especially given the intense attention the tea party has devoted to Congress.

Take Mitt Romney, who recommended earlier this year that Republicans “particularly need to hear from the governors from blue and purple states” in rebuilding their party. His appeal as a general election candidate was similar to Christie’s – he led a blue state, he passed major bipartisan legislation, and he had distance from the national party’s recent failures.

But 2012 presidential primary voters were largely unwilling to let their candidates, especially ones like Romney with a moderate past, stay out of what was happening on Congress. Early on, Romney and his fellow nominess were more or less forced to endorse Paul Ryan’s budget, which Democrats were eager to tie around the nominee. The one major dissenter, Newt Gingrich, was forced to backtrack almost immediately amid a fierce response from the right. Similarly, during the 2011 debt ceiling debate, Romney and the rest of the field decisively pledged not to raise tax revenue, even if Democrats offered 10 dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in taxes. 

Romney’s constant effort to meet primary voters’ demands got him the nomination, but hampered him throughout the race. He was stuck pitching an unworkable revenue-neutral tax plan, opening him to attack as studies indicated it would harm poor and middle class Americans. Obama happily pointed out that one version of Ryan’s plan would have reduced Romney’s tax rate to less than 1%. One of the reasons Romney’s staff settled around picking Ryan as VP, as reported in John Heilemann and Mark Helperin’s Double Down, is that “While the Ryan budget and Medicare plan were political cons, Romney was half pregnant with them anyway—so why not marry their most articulate defender?”

Romney’s loss could hardly be attributed to any one decision. But the base’s intense focus on lashing their candidates to the Congressional GOP consensus hurt his efforts to cast himself as a true outsider.

In 2016, it’s possible to imagine a similar dynamic for the eventual nominee on issues like immigration, the shutdown, and health care. 

Christie, for example, has joined several governors in accepting the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion in his state. It’s a popular move with their own constituents, and hundreds of thousands of people around the country have signed up for Medicaid benefits since the exchanges went up in October. But with Obamacare’s struggles dominating the base’s attention, will primary voters let them get away with anything short of a pledge to fully repeal the law and take away those benefits?

This brings us to the shutdown issue. For now, Christie and others can blame “Washington” for the shutdown, but what happens if activists demand that their candidates pledge, as Rubio, Cruz and Paul have done, to oppose any budget that funds Obamacare?

Immigration’s an even more treacherous issue for the nominees. Christie has sounded a moderate tone on the issue in New Jersey, but has yet to commit to any real specifics about what he would do as president. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to duck questions about whether he supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. There’s no way he can make it through an election without filling in the blanks there, and either anti-immigration voters or Hispanic voters will be disappointed when he does. 

Governors like Walker may be onto something when they accuse Republican lawmakers in Washington of dragging down the party’s brand. But the eventual nominee will stay only as far outside Washington as Republican voters allow.

Watch the GOP governors’ “Comeback” video:

GOP governors: We can save the party

Updated