Tired of being cast as members of the "party of no," Republican governors facing re-election next year are emphasizing their work to steer their states through tough economic times and trying to avoid the stigma of Washington gridlock.
To that end, the 2014 elections could serve as a test case for the public's appetite for tax cuts championed by GOP governors, the curbing of benefits for public-sector unions and restrictions on women's access to health care. Many of the biggest fights for Republican incumbents will come in places like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — states all carried by President Barack Obama last year.
"We're going to run on our record. I'm very proud of that," said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. "We said we were going to do these things and we've done them largely. Isn't that what you should want?"
More than two dozen governors gathered in Arizona for the four-day meeting, through Friday, of the Republican Governors Association, offering their work in state capitals as a stark contrast to D.C.'s dysfunction. Many governors readily expressed disappointment with last month's 16-day partial government shutdown — a standoff for which many Americans blamed Republicans — and the botched rollout of the president's health care overhaul.
"Government at the national level doesn't seem to work anymore," said Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who served a dozen years in Congress before taking office this year.
Democrats, however, note that many of the nation's 30 Republican governors arrived during the tea party's rise in the 2010 congressional elections and say there is little separating the GOP chief executives from their congressional counterparts.
Democrats contend that many tax cuts have benefited corporate interests and the wealthy and come at the expense of education spending. Others point to efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, limiting women's access to reproductive health care services, and high-profile fights in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio to curb collective bargaining rights.
"They love to say that they're different than the obstructionists in Congress," said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. "They're drinking the same beer from a different bottle."
Republicans will be defending 22 of the 36 governor's seats up for re-election next year and many GOP leaders view 2014 as an opportunity to bolster the party's image. "Too often in D.C. we're defined as the 'party of no.' Too often we're defined by what we're against," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the governors association's outgoing chairman. "We need to do a better job as a party of defining what we're for."
Many GOP governors were quick to separate themselves from their Republican colleagues in Congress following the shutdown. Asked if Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a leading critic of the so-called Obamacare law, might become a face of the party, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad offered a quick retort.
"The Texan we ought to be proud of is Gov. (Rick) Perry," Branstad said in an interview, citing a recent Time magazine cover headlined "The United States of Texas." Branstad said Perry was successfully luring people to the Lone Star State. "Why? Because Texas has low taxes, low cost of living and they're attracting high-paying jobs."
To a certain degree, some of these governors can steal a page from Obama's playbook for a series of battleground states. Obama frequently made the case that the economy was rebounding in Florida, Ohio, Iowa and elsewhere, pointing to job growth and falling unemployment rates. Now these Republican governors can do the same.
In Ohio, the unemployment rate is slightly more than 7 percent after exceeding 10 percent when Gov. John Kasich was elected. In Michigan, the jobless rate topped 12 percent when Snyder swept into power and has since dropped to 9 percent.
But the economic promises can cut both ways. In Wisconsin, for example, Gov. Scott Walker pledged to create 250,000 private-sector jobs, but he remains far off pace from reaching that goal — a point that Democrats intend to hammer throughout 2014.
Looming over the meetings are 2016 presidential aspirations. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who will take the reins of the Republican Governors Association on Thursday, won a decisive re-election this month, positioning himself for a possible White House bid. Others like Kasich, Jindal, Perry and Walker might explore national campaigns in the next two years.
Party leaders caution that the GOP needs to take one election at a time: 2014 could set the tone for recapturing the White House. But first things first.
Said former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, "You worry about 2016 after 2014 is over."
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