WASHINGTON – If Republicans on Capitol Hill see the federal government shutdown as politically perilous, one faction of the party sees a silver lining: governors.
As partisan gridlock grips Washington and sends approval ratings for both Republicans and Democrats spiraling southward, some governors are using the shutdown as an opportunity to distance themselves from the national party – or at least to reassert their claim to the Republican brand.
The shutdown “is an example of the dysfunction in D.C.,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, told reporters Wednesday. “As governors, we have outsourced the Republican brand to D.C., and it’s time to stop that.”
The RGA on Thursday rolled out the first in a series of what it described as a major digital advertising campaign that will promote their members’ work in the states. On Thursday morning, advertisements for the initiative, dubbed “American Comeback,” were splashed across the top of the Drudge Report and other conservative websites. The RGA will highlight interviews with Republican governors, including those seeking re-election in competitive states next year.
The first round of governors interviewed – Jindal, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker – stuck to a familiar theme: Washington is blocking progress in the states.
“The problem that I have with Washington is, they put the wind at our face, not the wind at our back,” Kasich said. Martinez added: “The answers are not in Washington. The Republican governors are driving America’s comeback.”
“I think the American people are looking at what’s happening in D.C. and saying leaders across the board aren’t doing what they were elected to do,” Jindal told reporters at the RGA’s headquarters, just a block from the White House.
Implicit in Jindal’s interest in taking control of the party brand is a rebuke of Capitol Hill Republicans. A CNN poll released this week showed that only 32 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of the Republican Party, the GOP’s lowest rating since the height of the House impeachment debate over President Bill Clinton in December 1998.
But Jindal refused to criticize Republican tactics on Capitol Hill. “Not here to micromanage what’s going on on the Hill or second-guess tactics,” Jindal said. “The reality is, the nature of the job of serving in Congress is different.”
Separating Republican governors from their counterparts in Washington could serve two of them – Jindal and New Jersey’s Chris Christie – especially well. Jindal, who is term-limited out of office after 2015, and Christie, who is expected to cruise to an easy re-election win later this month, are contemplating presidential bids in 2016. They face a field of rivals dominated by Capitol Hill Republicans, such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Christie is notably absent from the first round of “American Comeback” videos. But, RGA officials said, they intend to feature every Republican governor at one time or another during the course of the campaign.
“If you want to see conservative principles applied, not just talked about but applied, you only need to look at state capitals,” Jindal said.
As RGA chairman, Jindal must raise tens of millions of dollars to protect a number of potentially vulnerable governors first elected in 2010, and up for re-election next year.
The RGA expects to spend the bulk of its money next year in Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all states with GOP incumbents; the party spent a combined $40 million on those four states in 2010, and polls show three of the four governors are vulnerable: Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Florida’s Rick Scott and Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett. Kasich’s approval rating, which suffered early in his tenure, has rebounded in recent months.
Republican governors in four blue states - Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa and Wisconsin - have yet to draw top-tier challengers. The RGA also hopes to go on offense in Arkansas and Massachusetts, where Democrats are term-limited next year, and in Illinois, Connecticut and Colorado, against three incumbents they see as vulnerable.
Jindal didn’t mention Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who polls show is deeply unpopular, until prompted by a reporter.
As head of the RGA, Jindal exposes himself to some of the wealthiest donors in the party. Several Democratic and Republican governors have used their party committees as springboards to develop their donor bases and launch national campaigns, including Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Clinton. Ronald Reagan was chairman of the RGA from 1968 to 1970, six years before he launched his first bid for the presidency.