Republicans' Bench Strength Waits in State Capitols

Donald Lambro

1/30/2013 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Ever since President Obama won re-election, the news media and their pundits want us to think the Republican Party is in steep decline.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Obama won only 51.1 percent of the popular vote, hardly a strong vote of confidence in his presidency -- though he managed to turn out just enough voters in a handful of swing states to win 332 electoral votes.

But dig a little deeper into last year's elections and the nation's electoral infrastructure, and a far different political reality emerges: Republicans are much stronger than they are routinely portrayed in the national media.

While Obama carried just 26 states (hardly a re-election score to write home about), Mitt Romney carried 24. At the congressional district level, Obama won 207 districts, but Romney carried 228.

This suggests that the GOP has a significant amount of ground support nationally that could lead to future House and Senate victories.

Elsewhere, Democrats are becoming an endangered species among the nation's governorships, suggesting that voters are increasingly turning to the GOP to fix problems closest to home. And at the state legislative level, Republicans remain a power to be reckoned with, too. Their governors and state legislatures are now in control of nearly half the states.

The GOP now holds 30 of the nation's 50 governorships, and many are in some of the bluest, most Democratic-leaning states in the country: Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, Chris Christie in New Jersey, John Kasich in Ohio, Rick Snyder in Michigan, Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

These are states Democrats usually carry in presidential elections, but voters have been increasingly turning to the Republicans to deal with severe unemployment, higher taxes and deepening debt.

The number of GOP governors is now at the highest level (held by either party) in at least a dozen years. And in a number of cases, they have turned their states around.

In Ohio, for example, Kasich has turned an $8 billion budget deficit into a projected $1 billion surplus. When he was elected in 2010, Ohio's unemployment rate was 10.9 percent. He has aggressively courted big businesses to come into Ohio, and the state's jobless rate is now at 6.7 percent, well below the nearly 8 percent national average.

In heavily Democratic New Jersey, Christie's latest job approval polls have him tied with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the highest rating of any governor in the country.

A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that 74 percent of the state's voters approve of the job he's doing, with a very impressive 68 percent saying he deserves re-election this November. Christie leads all of his potential Democratic opponents by 2-to-1 or more.

Since his come-from-behind election in 2009, Christie has cut an out-of-control budget, capped property tax hikes, and won wide praise from voters for the way he has handled the state's response to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy.

But the GOP's expanding infrastructure is broader than just its muscular gubernatorial leaders because in 24 states -- virtually half the country -- Republicans control both the governorships and the state legislatures.

What all of this means is the Republicans are building a significantly larger farm team from which future candidates will be groomed and available for higher office. A growing number of governors means a deeper field of presidential aspirants. A broader army of state legislators means more experienced candidates for the House and Senate.

The Republicans were clearly outmaneuvered by the Obama campaign, which focused its electoral strategy on a relatively small number of blue battleground states -- a valuable lesson for a future GOP nominee.

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner sent a stern warning to his party's rank and file that Obama's inaugural address convinced him that Obama and the Democrats are plotting to "annihilate" the GOP in the 2013-14 election cycle.

"Given what we heard yesterday about the president's vision for his second term, it's pretty clear to me -- should be clear to all of you -- that he knows he can't do any of that as long as the House is controlled by Republicans," Boehner told the Ripon Society last Tuesday.

"So we're expecting over the next 22 months to be the focus of this administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party ... to just shove us onto the dustbin of history," he said.

But that's not going to happen in this midterm election cycle because the GOP base remains quite strong, and its political structure at the state level is broader than it's been in many years.

"Democrats in 2014 will have to run as members of the party led by Barack Obama. That could be a hard sell in the 24 states and 228 congressional districts that he failed to carry in November," writes veteran election analyst Michael Barone.

Nevertheless, Obama, freed from the constraints of having to seek the voters' approval, is betting Americans are ready for an unprecedented expansion of government, inserting itself into every nook and cranny of our lives.

"One thing is clear from the president's speech: The era of liberalism is back," says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Indeed it is -- big time. More controls over the right to own firearms; more regulations on business, large and small; deeper cuts in the nation's defense; and a line of trillion-dollar budget deficits as far as the eye can see.

But virtually every poll that has been taken finds that the voters believe our government borrows too much, spends too much and wastes a lot of our hard-earned tax dollars. And a majority of voters still say America is on the wrong track.

These issues aren't going away. If anything, they will get worse, and Obama and his party will not be able to escape the blame.