New wave of governors invigorates GOP

As the Republican Governors Association gathers for its annual meeting this week in San Diego, RGA chief Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi has reason to be pleased with the new crop of governors that his group helped elect.

Republicans won 15 of the 25 open-seat races up for grabs in the midterm elections earlier this month.  Republicans also defeated incumbent Democratic governors who were seeking re-election in Ohio and Iowa.

The incoming group of GOP chief executives includes some familiar names and former members of Congress but also boasts several new stars to help reshape the look, if not the ideology, of the Republican Party.

But no matter how fresh-faced or charismatic the new GOP governors may be, they face the same problems as their Democratic predecessors: tax revenues that are below 2008 levels, staggering state employee retiree costs, and high demand for government services, especially because state Medicaid caseloads have jumped by six million people since the recession began.

The governors are significant not only because of the decisions they’ll make on Medicaid and other policies, but because they could install a political apparatus in their states that will help turn out voters for the GOP presidential candidate in 2012.

It’s widely acknowledged among political professionals that having Democrat Ted Strickland in the governor’s office in swing state Ohio in 2008 helped shift it toward President Barack Obama, after George W. Bush won the state in both 2000 and 2004.

Republican governors in key primary states like Iowa and South Carolina could also have sway over who the party puts up as its standard bearer in 2012.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed out the potential influence of the new Republican leaders last week. In remarks reported by Roll Call, Pelosi said Obama will need to be “perfect” to win a second term because the Democrats lost governorships in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and other states which Obama had carried in 2008.

Here’s a look at three groups of rising GOP gubernatorial stars:

The business executives
Three of the new governors, Paul LePage of Maine, Rick Snyder of Michigan, and Rick Scott of Florida, are businessmen who have pledged to use their private-sector savvy to foster job creation.

Snyder earned his fortune as president of Gateway Computers and as a venture capitalist.

Scott made his millions as head of Columbia/HCA and founder of Solantic, a chain of urgent medical care centers in Florida. Scott stunned political observers when he won the state's Republican primary and later the general election despite blistering ad campaigns that reminded voters of the record $1.7 billion Medicare fraud fine paid by Columbia/HCA after Scott's departure from the company in 1997.

While Snyder and Scott are Fortune 500 boardroom veterans, LePage is the furthest imaginable thing from a country club Republican.

LePage narrowly defeated independent (and former Democrat) Eliot Cutler, with Democrat Libby Mitchell finishing a distant third.

The first Republican elected governor of Maine in 20 years, LePage is the mayor of Waterville and general manager of Marden’s, a chain of discount stores.

One of 18 children, LePage left home at age 11 to escape his abusive father and lived on the streets of Lewiston, Maine.

“You can take the person off the streets, but you can't take the street out of the person,” LePage said in an interview with Maine Public Radio. “If you're on your own from 11 years on, there's a little bit of that that stays.”

His hardscrabble childhood may give LePage more credibility to reform welfare. “Our system is designed so that the case worker is coaching people on welfare on how to stay totally on welfare,” he said in a campaign video. “I will tell you this: I am the only candidate who was born in the system who escaped it.”

Blunt and sometimes hot-tempered, LePage caused a stir during the campaign by telling voters, “You're going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page saying ‘Governor LePage tells Obama to go to hell.’”

All three men inherit dire economic problems. Michigan has suffered from a double-digit unemployment rate since November of 2008 and has seen more than half a million jobs vanish over the past four years. Florida has the second highest foreclosure rate of any state and has nearly 12 percent unemployment. Maine’s jobless rate is below the national average but its labor force is shrinking as people stop looking for work or leave the state.

A Great Lakes trio
Republican governors won three Great Lakes states that Obama won in 2008: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. All three will have legislatures under GOP control to work with.

In Pennsylvania, governor-elect Tom Corbett ran on much the same platform other GOP gubernatorial candidates did across the nation: don’t raise taxes and shrink the size of government.

“He and (New Jersey Gov.) Chris Christie are close,” said political analyst Terry Madonna at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “Christie campaigned for him and Corbett is taking his cue from what Christie is doing in New Jersey.”

Madonna said Corbett has taken a “no-new-tax pledge,” that includes a promise not to impose a severance tax on the huge deposits of natural gas in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation. Even Republican leaders in the state senate would impose a tax on that gas.

In Wisconsin, new Republican governor Scott Walker won partly due to his crusade against a federal stimulus project, an $810 million train from Madison to Milwaukee. He mocked the train and Obama in an irreverent TV ad that labeled the project a “boondoggle.”

In Ohio, the new face in the governor's mansion is an old face: former House Budget Committee chairman and Fox News TV host John Kasich.

Kasich, who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, later worked as a managing director for Lehman Brothers, which failed in 2008.

Kasich said during the campaign he’d “create a very robust, pro-business, pro-small business, entrepreneurial atmosphere” including by ending Ohio's estate and personal income taxes.

A trio to boost ethnic diversity
Exit poll interviews from the Nov. 2 election showed that the voters who lifted Republican candidates to victory were predominantly conservative, male, white, and over age 45.  But if demography is electoral destiny, then Republicans will need to find ways to attract voters who are female, non-white, and under age 45.

The election of three new governors — a woman of Indian ancestry in South Carolina, a Latino in Nevada, and the nation’s first female Hispanic governor in New Mexico — may help Republicans do that.

By this point, South Carolina Governor-elect Nikki Haley, 38, needs no introduction to national audiences. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley successfully weathered a flurry of news stories about allegations – which she emphatically denied — that she’d had extramarital affairs.

Two other successful Republican gubernatorial candidates — Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Suzana Martinez in New Mexico — add to the diversity of the GOP bench.

But the evidence from Nov. 2 was that Republican candidates with Spanish surnames didn’t run stronger among Latino voters than did their Democratic rivals with non-Latino surnames.

Exit poll data showed that Sandoval won only one-third of Latino voters in Nevada in his race against Democrat Rory Reid.

In New Mexico, where Martinez beat Democrat Diane Denish, no exit poll was conducted. But an analysis of Census data and election returns shows a negative correlation between a county’s Latino population and its vote for Martinez. The higher Latino percentage of a county’s population, the worse Martinez tended to do.

Martinez got a nasty surprise last week when the administration of outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson said the budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year would be 73 percent higher than the previous estimate done by the state legislature’s finance committee.

"Closing that gap is going to be extremely difficult; in tackling that challenge, Governor-elect Martinez believes we must protect critical government services, such as classroom spending and basic health care for those most in need," said spokesman Danny Diaz.