The Republican Governors Association is holding its annual convention in Austin, Texas, this week, and the mood is decidedly upbeat.
Just one year ago, the GOP was demoralized when Democrats captured the White House and ran up big margins in Congress. But today, thanks to recent victories in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans are suddenly feeling good again. And they are looking to use those wins to spur a rebound for the party in 2010.
The conference has two new star attractions this year: Virginia Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell and New Jersey Gov.-elect Chris Christie. The election of these two men gave the party something it hadn't had in a while — a reason to cheer.
One Republican official said that going into 2009, the party had hoped to win either New Jersey or Virginia. At the conference on Wednesday, Christie himself highlighted the obstacles he had to overcome — including a wealthy incumbent who had never lost an election and had President Obama's backing in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 700,000.
Harnessing GOP Base, Taking Tips From Obama
"I had a student at a high school, two days after that campaign, lay out that entire litany and say, 'How did you win?' " Christie recounted for the GOP attendees. "I said, 'I absolutely have no idea.' "
Joking aside, Christie said he won because he focused on incumbent Jon Corzine's record and on a pledge to bring jobs to the state by helping businesses compete.
Seated next to Christie was McDonnell, who credited his win in Virginia, in part, to his appeal to independent voters — but also to a decision very early on in his campaign to learn from President Obama's election success.
"By looking at President Obama's campaign last year, he did a phenomenal job last year using social media, Twitter, text messaging," McDonnell said.
Republican pollster Glen Bolger said there's something else that Republicans capitalized on this year and that they expect to harness next year: renewed Republican enthusiasm. Bolger says that in his polling, Republican voters expressed far more intense interest in this year's off-year elections than did Democrats.
"We found 54 percent of the Republicans rating their interest as a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, Bolger said, versus 34 percent of Democrats. "That 20-point gap is the biggest I've ever seen since I started asking the question 16 years ago."
Conservative/Moderate Split Within The GOP?
A lot of that enthusiasm comes from the very conservative, ideological wing of the Republican Party — those who are part of the so-called Tea Party movement, and those who have been most critical of the president at heath care town halls and at rallies.
Some analysts say that the battle within the GOP could result in conservatives forcing out more moderate candidates who can appeal to the independent voters that Republicans need in big battleground states.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the GOP governors conference, says that's not a concern. He says New Jersey's Christie is moderate by national GOP standards, but he still got 94 percent of the total Republican vote, according to exit polls. As for Virginia, exit polls there showed that the very conservative McDonnell got votes from the overwhelming majority of moderate Republicans.
"I mean, to me these two elections stand for the proposition that Republicans will stick together if you've got good candidates — whether it's a moderate or a conservative candidate," Barbour says.
Barbour was chairman of the National Republican Party the last time it bounced back from a defeat like the one it suffered in 2008. The year was 1994, and the GOP captured control of both the House and Senate. Barbour is not predicting a replay of that, but he says he very much likes the party's prospects next year.