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GOP governors push for 2010 party rebirth

Thrilled with twin victories this month, Republican governors are looking to lead a party-wide resurgence in 2010 and shape the GOP for years to come.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thrilled with twin victories this month, Republican governors are looking to lead a party-wide resurgence in 2010 and shape the GOP for years to come.

Republicans boast of a strong crop of gubernatorial candidates who could be future party leaders, $25 million in the bank a year before the elections and a difficult environment for Democrats, particularly in financially ailing swing-voting states like Ohio and Iowa.

"Next year's going to be a good year for Republican governors," predicted Haley Barbour, Mississippi's governor and chairman of the Republican Governors Association. "In states where there are Republican governors, people can see if conservative and Republican ideas, when actually implemented, work."

Yet, Republicans face a Democratic Party that holds more states and is led by a proven fundraiser in President Barack Obama. There's no certainty that the landscape will continue to tilt toward the GOP a year from now or that a party plagued by infighting and lacking a standard-bearer will find a winning message by then.

More than control of statehouses is at stake. Governors elected in 2010 will be instrumental in redrawing congressional and legislative districts. And they will lay the foundation in important states for the 2012 presidential race when Obama is expected to run for re-election.

Republican governors and gubernatorial candidates met this week outside of Austin to plot strategy. On hand were possible presidential candidates like Barbour and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota as well as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Mitch Daniels of Indiana. Govs.-elect Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey attended, as did the GOP's top recruits for 2010 races, including John Kasich, a former congressman, in Ohio and Attorney General Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania.

Mindful of polls showing voters fearful of the economy and angry at Washington for budget-busting spending, Republicans honed a message of fiscal discipline and job creation.

They also dissected victories in Democratic-held New Jersey and Virginia this month. The wins were due in no small part to the flight of independents toward the GOP as well as an emphasis on pocketbook issues and the candidates' aggressive use of the Internet to reach voters.

Republicans hope for big wins in 2010 and also that governors elected next fall will become a collective catalyst for a rebirth after disastrous back-to-back national elections in 2006 and 2008.

There's precedent for governors leading the charge in mending devastated parties, and for governorships being a training ground for a party's next crop of national leaders.

Republicans were wiped out in 1964 when Barry Goldwater carried only Southern states. But two years later, Republicans rebounded. The GOP made its biggest gains in gubernatorial races, picking up eight states in a class of 1966 that included such up-and-comers as Ronald Reagan in California. The GOP was soundly beaten again in 1976 but 1978 saw Republicans gain six states, and after the big Democratic wins in 1992, the GOP picked up 10 states in 1994.

Conversely, Democrats were demoralized after Reagan's presidential win in 1980. A resurgence began two years later when Democrats gained seven governorships, a class filled with state leaders who would shape Democratic politics for a generation, including Bill Clinton in Arkansas, Michael Dukakis in Massachusetts and Mario Cuomo in New York.

Now, Republicans control 22 states, and will take charge of New Jersey and Virginia in January.

Voters will choose 37 governors next November, and 21 seats are open. Most are competitive.

At this point, the environment points to Republican gains. "Our goal for next year is to get appreciably above a majority," Barbour said.

The GOP is expected to pick up Democratic-held seats in at least two states John McCain won last fall. In Tennessee, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen is retiring with no obvious successor. And in Kansas, Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson is stepping down after filling the post when Obama chose Kathleen Sebelius as his Health and Human Services secretary; Sen. Sam Brownback is the GOP candidate and is widely expected to win.

Elsewhere, Republicans are targeting Democratic Govs. Bill Ritter in Colorado, Chet Culver in Iowa, Ted Strickland in Ohio — three critical swing-voting states — and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts. They're also making aggressive plays for open Democratic-held seats in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, among others.

Democrats, conversely, are looking to pick up GOP-controlled seats in Arizona and Nevada, and Republican-held open seats in Florida, California, Minnesota, Vermont, Rhode Island and Hawaii.

Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, said gubernatorial candidates — unlike Senate and House candidates — have a chance to rebuild the GOP's image as a party that delivers more efficient and effective government.

"It's an opportunity for us to re-establish our party as the party of solutions that work," Goeas said.

Democrats scoff at the notion of governors leading a GOP rebound.

"This Republican Party lacks vision. This Republican Party wants to go back to what voters rejected," said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. "In the war of ideas, we will win."