Republican Governors Meeting a Rehearsal for 2016

by | November 20, 2014 AT 10:55 AM

By Thomas Fitzgerald

One veteran of many Republican Governors Association meetings called it "the peacock parade."

Heads turned as at least a half-dozen governors considered potential 2016 presidential candidates swept with their entourages through the colonnaded walks and polished palazzos of a luxury oceanside resort here Wednesday -- including, of course, the outgoing chairman of the association, Gov. Christie.

"You can see them all profiling," said Charles Breslin, a Philadelphia business consultant who has advised governors and their staffs on health-care issues and is attending the conference. "It's a rehearsal."

The GOP governors were celebrating a net gain of two seats, and four victories in deeply Democratic states, in the Nov. 4 midterm election, amid increasing talk among strategists and donors that the party's best chance to win back the White House may be to nominate one of them -- a governor.

The thinking: State chief executives have to deliver, have to work across party lines, and are not mired in the ideological morass of Washington. Naturally, the governors here for the RGA meetings were eager to fan that notion, if not declare their intentions.

"We're better at it," Christie said, citing President Obama's scant experience as a state legislator and U.S. senator before entering the Oval Office.

"The American people are done with that experiment, of having somebody come out of a legislative body who's never run anything before," Christie said during a news briefing with two colleagues and two newly elected governors.

Christie, who raised a record $106 million as chairman of the RGA and campaigned in many states for Republicans, has built up chits among his colleagues and made priceless contacts with donors that could help his expected campaign. He said again he would decide early next year.

Others in the "peacock parade" have plenty to brag about. John Kasich of Ohio was reelected this month by 32 percentage points after a rocky start to his first term. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who survived a recall election in 2012 spurred by anger over legislation that removed collective-bargaining rights from public-employee unions, won comfortably. Both wins were in swing states.

The ranks of those mentioned as potential presidential timber also include Indiana's Mike Pence; Michigan's Rick Snyder, who accepted Medicaid expansion and helped negotiate bankruptcy reorganization for Detroit; and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal. Former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas are actively considering presidential campaigns.

At various points in the proceedings Wednesday, the GOP governors reinforced their bona fides. Kasich, for instance, agreed Obama would be wrong to change U.S. immigration policy by executive order -- but criticized House Republicans for threatening a government shutdown over the issue.

In an earlier life, as House budget chairman, Kasich helped negotiate the 1997 balanced-budget deal with President Bill Clinton. "If we don't get to the negotiation table, nothing gets fixed," Kasich said Wednesday.

But any real pitching at this point is going on in private. The RGA brings together several hundred of the party's biggest donors for face time with policymakers, in panel discussions, "governors' parlors," and informal encounters in the hallways of the Boca Raton Resort & Beach Club. Attendees also can go deep-sea fishing, catamaran sailing, paddle-boarding, or golfing with governors and top staff.

It's not cool to appear to be running for president while possibly running for president. Christie said he was not seeking to nail down support from fellow governors, nor even sounding them out on the prospect.

"You can't possibly expect people to commit to you until you commit," he said. "So I wouldn't be as presumptuous to say to people, 'Well, if I decide to run, will you support me?' "

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who was helped in a tight reelection race by $20 million from the RGA and many visits from Christie, declined to answer when reporters pressed him on whether he would endorse or encourage the New Jersey governor's presidential hopes.

Indiana's Pence said all the conversations he had had at the RGA meetings centered on the common challenges of governing. "I'm a small-town guy from southern Indiana who grew up with a cornfield in my backyard," he said. "I'm very humbled to even be mentioned in the company of men and women in this country who are talked about for the highest office in the land."

It took the Texan in town to call it what it was. "I think the campaign has engaged," Gov. Rick Perry said.

Indeed, plenty of people here are talking about the prospects, especially of "purple state" governors, as compared with some of the GOP's other potential candidates -- conservative warriors such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

"The 'establishment' is not an elite -- it's the largest single voting bloc within the Republican Party," said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. He described this group as "conservative, but not 'movement' conservatives, looking for reasonable governing experience and gravitas in a candidate."

Those voters could give governors a leg up in the nomination battle -- but could also be critical in a general election against the expected Democratic nominee. Olsen calculates a Republican running against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016 would need to run 21/2 percentage points ahead of Mitt Romney's 2012 performance in order to win narrowly in the Electoral College.

In their latest races, Republicans Walker of Wisconsin and Snyder of Michigan both ran 61/2 percentage points ahead of Romney's pace, and the party's winners in deep-blue Illinois and Maryland ran 10 points ahead of that pace -- the kinds of numbers that give Republican operatives hope.

"The party is blessed with a wealth of candidates, but I'd bet on a governor being the nominee," said GOP media strategist Michael Hudome, who worked on John McCain's 2008 presidential race. "I think Washington is still a bit of a toxic word."

Also toxic for some, it seems, is taking a hard stance on Obama's planned executive order on immigration. Christie declined to do so.

Was it awkward, he and the others were asked, to be working at the two days of meetings with colleagues who might become rivals in 2016?

"Competition is competition," Christie said. "None of us is afraid of that or we wouldn't be sitting here."

Question after question, directed mostly to Christie and Pence, dealt with presidential politics. At one point, the upset winner in deep-blue Maryland, Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, interrupted.

"I just want to put everybody at ease here at the table," Hogan said. "I have no intention of running for president."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer