Republican Governors Search For Party Rebound

A week after the GOP's worst electoral loss in decades, Republican governors are gathering in Miami this week for some serious soul-searching.

Not only did Barack Obama rewrite the electoral map, but congressional Democrats also picked up more than 20 house seats in their second straight election — a feat not accomplished since the 1930s.

So, if ever a gathering needed a Pollyanna, this week's meeting of the Republican Governors Association is it. And Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour filled that role.

"I have looked down in the grave for the Republican Party, and this ain't it," he said.

Barbour recalled the post-Watergate era, when at one point during the 1976 campaign, sitting president Gerald Ford trailed Democrat Jimmy Carter by 32 points.

"I have seen a lot worse, folks," Barbour said. "I can remember when Mary Louise Smith, the party chairman, literally appointed a committee about whether we should change the name of the party."

Within the Republican Party, governors have more reason to be happy than most. No sitting Republican governors were defeated on Election Day.

Some Republican governors, like Indiana's Mitch Daniels and Utah's Jon Huntsman, won by wide margins. And it's among governors that Republicans see some rising stars — people like Louisiana's Bobby Jindal.

At the conference Wednesday in downtown Miami, two main narratives emerged to explain the party's problems. Jindal picked up one of the story lines — that the party has strayed from its principles.

"When the Republican Party is no longer the party of fiscal conservatism, when we start defending spending that we would have rightfully criticized on the other side — whether it's earmarks or growth in discretionary spending or new programs that we never would have tolerated if the other side had proposed it — then clearly, I would argue that we've lost our way, we've lost the reason that we stand as fiscal conservatives."

By getting back to basics — cutting taxes and spending and innovating in areas like education and health care — Jindal and other pragmatists say, the party can rebuild its brand and restore voter trust.

But there's another school of thought — that the GOP is staring into the abyss. That has to do with technology and demographics.

In a presentation to the governors, Republican consultant and pollster Frank Luntz laid out some stark facts. John McCain won just 32 percent of the youth vote — the lowest margin in history, according to Luntz.

Young people increasingly communicate and get their information over the internet. The Obama campaign understood that and compiled a list of 10 million names and e-mail addresses.

"It makes him and his supporters the most powerful special interest group in all of America," Luntz said of the president-elect. "And 3 million of those people have donated to the campaign. We've never had that situation, where so many people are so active and so engaged, and they can be reached by the stroke of a key."

Luntz later added that "our candidate doesn't know how to use" a BlackBerry.

That paradigm shift is the narrative that Utah's Gov. Huntsman says Republicans must embrace. Otherwise, he says, a party that has trouble reaching Hispanics, women and African-Americans is doomed to permanent minority status.

"And if we're not able to identify the changing demographic in this country and the needs of that changing demographic in terms of the issues that really matter — education and health care and quality of life and jobs — then we're going to lose, and we're going to keep losing big-time," Huntsman said.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty agreed that the party's base conservative voters are important but are no longer enough. The challenge, he said, is to modernize the party of Ronald Reagan.

"He's one of my heroes," Pawlenty said. "But Ronald Reagan was president a long time ago. A lot's happened since then. So the challenge for us is, how do you take those principles from the late '70s and '80s and apply them to the circumstances and issue and opportunities of our time?"

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