"He's like fog," former Senator Bob Dole once said of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. "Get up in the morning, there's Haley, a cloud hanging over somewhere." So it was last summer when Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina resigned as head of the Republican Governors Association: Within an hour, Barbour had become the new chairman.
Barbour's new role may have been unexpected, but to many Republicans the move seemed inspired. This November, 37 gubernatorial seats are up for grabs, and Barbour has a knack for turning isolated local elections into well-orchestrated national crusades. As head of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997, he helped fashion Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, a nationwide messaging campaign for a House majority. Now, under Barbour's direction, the Republican Governors Association is pursuing a broad strategy that aims beyond the statehouses. The association's website asserts that "Republicans won't win back the U.S. Senate, House or Presidency until first reclaiming a majority of governorships for the GOP."
And that is Barbour's mission. The 37 gubernatorial elections are fairly evenly split, with Republicans defending 18 seats and Democrats 19. But of those 19 states, 11 will have no Democratic incumbent on the ballot in November (12 if Wyoming's Dave Freudenthal decides not to challenge his state's term limit law). In these races in particular, the Republicans think that they can capitalize on a public that seems to be turning against the president and several of his signature initiatives.
It was Tip O'Neill who famously said that all politics is local. But not for the GOP in the governors' races, at least not in 2010. "If you say all politics is local," insists former House majority leader Dick Armey, "you miss our base." Like RGA chair Barbour, Armey was instrumental in the 1994 Contract with America. Today, Armey heads FreedomWorks, an organization closely associated with the Tea Party Movement. The FreedomWorks website lists numerous federal issues that Armey believes should be at the forefront of all political discussions. Some of them are framed positively--a chief goal is a balanced budget--but most are assertions of what the federal government should not do: it should not own auto companies, pick winners and losers in the financial industry, or kill jobs by passing cap-and-trade legislation. The site also includes pages for individual states, but each one bears the same message: "Let's work together to fight for less government, lower taxes, and more freedom in [name of state]!"
There's a problem with this campaign rhetoric: it will lose its power as soon as governors enter office and start juggling the tasks of taxing and spending that are part of the job. Take Florida Governor Charlie Crist, once the heavily favored Republican nominee for Senate in the Sunshine State. Crist has suffered tremendously because of his support for President Obama's economic stimulus package, which provided up to $16 billion to the state--an amount about equal to the $16 billion in budget deficits facing Florida between 2009 and 2011. His challenger going into the August primary, Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, has leveraged attacks on Crist's support for the stimulus (which Rubio calls "horrifying") into an 18-point advantage over the sitting governor. While Crist is left defending his gratitude for federal dollars that have prevented service cuts and tax increases, Rubio is free to wax philosophic about government, telling The New York Times Magazine, "We are not debating stimulus bills or tax codes. We are debating the essence of what government should be and what role it should play."