The Challenges Of Electing Republican Governors

A record number of governors' seats are up for grabs this year. Two dozen of those seats are open and not contested by an incumbent. NPR's Michele Norris talks to Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. On Thursday, we'll hear from the Democratic Governors Association.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A record number of governors seats are up for grabs this year - 37, to be exact. Two dozen of those seats are open and not contested by an incumbent. Tomorrow, we'll hear from the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association about the challenges ahead.

Today, though, we hear from Nick Ayers. He's the 27-year-old executive director of the Republican Governors Association. I asked Nick Ayers about the significance and the stakes of having so many gubernatorial elections all at one time.

Mr. NICK AYERS (Executive Director, Republican Governors Association): More than half of America's chief executive officers, when we wake up after Election Day, are going to be brand new. And when you think about the impact that's going to have on the political foundation of this country, it's an incredible opportunity.

I think we can get right now, we have 24 Republican governors. My goal is to get us to at least 30. I think if we do that, largely our gains will be in influential swing states like Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada. If we get to 30 or 30-plus Republican governors, I see it very difficult for this president to get re-elected because of the contrast of ideas and policies in those states.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about how much of a referendum this is on the current administration. Gubernatorial races are usually focused on state issues.

Mr. AYERS: Sure.

NORRIS: National politics sometimes creeps in. But in this year and in this case, how much of these races are focused on the job that the Obama administration is doing, as opposed to what the Republican Party actually stands for?

Mr. AYERS: Normally, I would say governor's races are about local and state issues. This year, I think it's totally different because the problems that our country is facing are the same ones that people in states are faced with - which is, we have a government that has grown too large, that taxes too much, that provides too many services. And that debate is happening here in Washington; and that debate is happening in virtually every state house in America.

NORRIS: To the extent that you're viewing this race as a referendum on the Obama administration, I'm curious about what you're actually hearing at the state level because state party officials will say - and say often - that there's a little bit of confusion about what the Republican Party stands for. Does the Tea Party movement represent the moral firmament of the party, or is the party better represented by the kind of innovative conservatism that you saw, perhaps, in governors like Jim Engler in Michigan or Terry Branstad in Iowa, who's now seeking election again in that state?

There's a lot of confusion. And if you focus too much on Barack Obama, do you fail to define what the party stands for to your own voters?

Mr. AYERS: Sure. I would say this is not a referendum on Barack Obama. I would say that a lot of people will be coming out to cast a vote on whether or not they agree with his policies. And so I think that's an important distinction that the RGA has made. It's an important distinction that our candidates have made. They're going to be campaigning against his policies, which are disastrous for states.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about the RNC and the current leadership. Does the RNC Chairman Michael Steele's presence in a state like Ohio or Wisconsin or Michigan help or hurt the candidates in those races?

Mr. AYERS: That's up to those candidates.

NORRIS: I'm asking for your opinion.

Mr. AYERS: Yeah. Look, I think my advice has been to raise money, strengthen state parties, and focus on voter turnout.

NORRIS: But the chairman, does he help or hurt the candidate?

Mr. AYERS: You know, it's an individual decision. I think it's different in every state, you know.

NORRIS: Would you advise them to extend an invitation?

Mr. AYERS: I would advise them...

NORRIS: Or to run away?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AYERS: I would advise them to - look, the reality is in August, you shouldn't be focused on still connecting with your base. If your base is not with you, you've got a personal problem, not an RNC problem.

NORRIS: Nick Ayers, I'm going to ask you to engage in a little exercise. One sentence - the Republican mission, what the party stands for, in one sentence.

Mr. AYERS: Showing that on the topics that Americans are most concerned with -conservative policy, conservative fiscal policy - is better than what the Democrats have offered the last two years.

NORRIS: Thank you very much.

Mr. AYERS: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's Nick Ayers. He's the executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

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