Republican Governors Perform Election Post Mortem

Republican governors met in Miami Thursday for a post-election conference. They heard from several presidential hopefuls. But just as importantly, they discussed how to learn from the party's election losses and move forward.

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Congress wasn't the only political institution that changed hands in the midterm elections. Democrats also gained control of six governorships formerly held by Republicans, giving Democrats the majority for the first time in more than a decade.

NPR's Greg Allen joined Republican governors yesterday when they gathered in Miami to begin planning a way back.

GREG ALLEN: There's a different look the Republican Governors Association than when they last met. For one thing, there are fewer governors from the Northeast. Maryland, New York and New Hampshire are three places where Democrats will now be occupying governor's mansions. There was just one Republican governor from the Northeast at yesterday's meeting, Vermont's Jim Douglas. He concedes that it's lonely now being a Republican in New England, but consoles himself by taking the long view.

Governor JIM DOUGLAS (Republican, Vermont): Political success goes in cycles. Think of 1964 when the Johnson landslide was felt in Vermont, as well as other parts of the country. In 1974, after Watergate, it was a very tough time for a lot of our states in the Republican Party nationally, but we rebounded in each case. So this was a downdraft this year, but I have no doubt that at some point in the future we'll rebound once again.

ALLEN: Douglas and 17 other governors and governors-elect gathered at a Miami golf resort for their annual conference, the first since the November 7th buzz saw that chewed up many of their Republican compatriots. Through all the plenary sessions and speeches, there was really just one topic: what went wrong and how the Republicans recover. Political consultant Kurt Anderson summed it up.

Mr. KURT ANDERSON (Political Consultant): The brand has got some trouble right now. I think as a party were really well served by facing up to that and acknowledging it and addressing it rather than, you know, pretending it's not there.

ALLEN: Topping the list of problems: an unpopular war in Iraq and congressional scandals. The head of the national party, outgoing chairman Ken Mehlman, first tried consoling governors by telling them it could have been a lot worse. Because of a last-minute get-out-the-vote effort, Mehlman said Republicans won a majority of the very close races. But he agreed it's time the party did some soul-searching. Republicans, he said, have strayed too far from the ideals of Ronald Reagan and supplanted Democrats as the new party of big government.

Mr. KEN MEHLMAN (Chairman, Republican National Committee): We as Republicans don't believe that, but if you think about it, sometimes over the past few years we behaved as we do. What did that lead to? That mentality leads to defeat.

ALLEN: And that, says Haley Barbour, Mississippi governor and former head of the RNC, maybe kind of a twisted silver lining. Republicans did it to themselves.

Governor HALEY BARBOUR (Republican, Mississippi): You should not misread this election as the country voting for liberalism. Americans don't like long wars. Americans don't like corruption and scandal, and they particularly don't like corruption and scandal for people who have held themselves out to be the people who want to change Washington.

ALLEN: Okay, so there's a problem, but is it a problem with the whole Republican Party or just in Washington? Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who didn't seek re-election this year, and as a likely presidential candidate, said don't blame the governors for the party's election night failures.

Governor MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Massachusetts): I don't think the Republican brand has changed very dramatically. I think we've been hurt by the fact that we've been fighting a war on terror, and it has been disappointing.

ALLEN: Governors, Romney said, controls spending, balance their budgets, and are coming up with innovative solutions in education and healthcare. When asked if he agreed that Republicans may have lost their way…

Gov. ROMNEY: It depends on where you're looking. If you're looking in the state capitals represented here, you're not seeing a party that's lost this way.

ALLEN: Romney wasn't the only potential '08 presidential candidate in Miami. Outgoing Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was also there, and even a non-governor. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain flew in last night just so he could a reception for 18 of his favorite Republican governors.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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