Since the November elections, Republicans have focused considerable attention on their governors, a far more promising group than the leaders and members of this unproductive, unpopular Congress and probably their best hope for finding a 2016 presidential winner.
Two may be emerging as natural rivals, Chris Christie, the boisterous, assertive recently re-elected governor of New Jersey, and Scott Walker, the low-key, buttoned-up solidly conservative governor of Wisconsin.
“Christie is moderate in policy, but immoderate in temperament,” noted Marc Thiessen, co-author of Walker’s recent book, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.” “Walker is moderate in temperament, but immoderate in policy.
“The question is: Which is a better model for the GOP nationally?”
That contrast has been evident as Christie sought to ride his overwhelming re-election and Walker pushed his book as a potential platform before what polls suggest could be a difficult 2014 re-election race.
The potential Republican field teems with contrasts: Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., acknowledge interest in running, while Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., barely concede there’ll be a race. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s interest in a second bid is unsurprising, while New Hampshire and Iowa forays by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., seem mystifying.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., angers tea party types by accepting some Democratic ideas in a compromise budget plan, while Cruz, Paul and Rubio woo them by opposing it.
Though a new Iowa poll shows Ryan with the highest favorability rating, there seems a consensus among top Republicans for nominating a governor. Four of the last six presidents have been governors, and no GOP senator has won since Warren Harding in 1920.
Christie has generated the most speculation. Elected twice in a solidly blue state, he has done well among minority and women voters Republicans have had difficulty winning.
But he might face serious problems in a national race: a bumptious, often overbearing manner and an ideology that, while fuzzy on contentious issues like immigration and abortion, seems too centrist for the GOP’s dominant conservatives.
He’s already encountered trouble reconciling his centrist New Jersey approach with the need to woo those conservatives, inciting criticism by abandoning his pre-election support for lower in-state tuition for students entering the country illegally. And he had difficulty explaining when local Democrats questioned why one of his appointees limited access to the George Washington Bridge from a town whose mayor had refused to endorse Christie.
Walker, meanwhile, is downplaying his conservative social policy views and stressing his successes at eliminating Wisconsin’s budget deficit and curbing government employee unions. At a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, he avoided direct answers to abortion and immigration questions.
“I’m pro-life ... but I don’t focus on it, I don’t obsess over it,” he said, glossing over the fact he signed bills requiring women to undergo ultrasounds before abortions and requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
And while favoring “legal immigration,” he said, “I don’t get caught up in the bills or legislation here because it’s not what I was elected to do. I was elected to govern a state.”
Conservatives like his social views, anti-union efforts and rejection of Medicaid funds under the Obama health plan. But Walker’s economic record could be a handicap (especially compared with Perry’s): Wisconsin failed to add the 250,000 jobs he promised, gaining 24,305 last year, 34th among the 50 states according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Still, Walker may be better positioned than the other conservative governors, assuming he wins re-election. He seems unthreatening, comes from a purple swing state and may benefit from proximity in Iowa’s crucial caucuses.
Ohio’s John Kasich could face a GOP backlash because he decided to help his re-election by accepting the Medicaid funds, efforts by Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Kansas’ Sam Brownback to make reputations as conservative reformers have sapped their home-state popularity, and Perry faces a real challenge overcoming lingering damage from his 2012 campaign.
When the real action starts, outspoken senatorial conservatives Paul and Cruz could generate support among Iowa’s evangelical conservatives. But an expected large conservative field could help Christie. And a neighboring candidate with outspoken conservative views and a nonconfrontational manner might do best of all.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.