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Republicans at a crossroads

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By James Hohmann
For POLITICO.com

LAS VEGAS — Republican governors are torn between essentially staying the course in the wake of Mitt Romney's loss and a more proactive strategy aimed at radically shaking up their party in an effort to reach out to young and minority voters.

Some governors believe that Romney's loss two weeks ago to President Barack Obama was just that — a loss by a single candidate who ran a defensive campaign pummeled by negative ads and lacking in vision. They advocate sticking to a tried-and-true formula of running their own races and hewing to local instead of national dynamics.

But other Republicans here attending the Republican Governors Association conference last week believe a more dramatic Republican makeover is in order. They argue that they and the party must reach out to young and minority voters, especially Latinos, in order to win in 2014 and beyond.

Most of the nine Republican governors who face 2014 reelection battles in states Obama just carried are confident that they won't face the same fate as Romney two years from now — that is, defeat.

With a victory in North Carolina this month, the GOP will hold 30 total statehouses — one more than before the election. By virtue of their 2010 gains, Republicans enter the 2014 midterm elections defending 22 governorships compared to 13 for the Democrats. Some Republican incumbents, like Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, look especially vulnerable.

"Any time you've got more of your own people up, just mathematically you worry about it," said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the term-limited, outgoing RGA chairman whose state was heavily contested but won by Obama in 2012. "But even throughout this Obama wave of election and reelection, Republican governors continue to gain seats because of a record of results and the messaging of the candidates."

But McDonnell — a prominent Romney surrogate — was candid in his assessment of what the party needs in order to win in the future. And he bluntly rejected suggestions like the one made by Romney in the GOP primaries that illegal immigrants could "self-deport" as a means of solving the country's immigration problem.

"We have to realize: We're not going to deport 12 million people," he said. "It's just not going to happen."

Some Republican governors said Obama's victory was the result of his negative attacks on Romney and didn't necessarily demand a wholesale revamp of the Republican Party.

"It is a credit to the community organizer in chief," said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who will likely run for reelection in 2014 in a state Obama won by 6 percentage points. "[Democrats] certainly didn't win it on the issues or on his record. They did an effective job of smearing [Romney].

"Every campaign is different, and I learned this a long time ago: You don't run the last one," Branstad added.

But other GOP governors attending the RGA meeting here argued that it will require much more than smarter talking points and more aggressive campaigning to win future races. They are formulating more ambitious post-Romney strategies that include localizing their races, improving get-out-the-vote operations and trying to woo crossover voters.

Incoming RGA Chairman Bobby Jindal, who issued a scathing critique of Romney's comments in a post-election conference call that Obama won because of "gifts" to his constituencies, slammed the GOP nominee again on "Fox News Sunday," saying that he "absolutely" disagreed with Romney's comments.

"We as a Republican Party have to campaign for every single vote," Jindal said. "We don't start winning majorities … by insulting our voters."

Jindal also said Republicans needed to stop saying "stupid things," referring to comments by GOP Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana about rape and abortion that turned off female voters.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned that the GOP is in "a death spiral with Hispanic voters because of rhetoric around immigration." He criticized Romney for making excuses about why he lost, including the assertion last week that Obama won because he gave "gifts" to young people, minorities and Latinos.

"We're in a big hole," Graham said. "We're not getting out of it by comments like that. When you're in a hole, stop digging. He keeps digging."

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker — also a possible 2016 contender — said the reason Romney lost was that the president effectively branded Romney before the GOP nominee could introduce himself.

Walker then noted his own success in a state that Republicans claimed was competitive on the presidential level until the very end, despite the fact that Obama won Wisconsin by 7 percentage points.

The governor noted that he won more votes in this year's June recall race than his initial 2010 election and that Republicans retook control of the state Legislature this month even as Romney lost.

Walker argued that when he ran for Milwaukee County executive, he carried overwhelmingly Hispanic wards in the urban areas because school choice was the most important issue to them.

"I don't think there's a monolithic Democratic Latino voter," Walker said. "It's clouded by the immigration issue, but we've got to reach out and then make the case to every community in every part of this country that we've got a message of freedom and prosperity that works."

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who is of Mexican descent and running for reelection in 2014, implored Republicans to play ball on immigration reform, figuring out a way to deal with the millions of immigrants illegally in the country. 

"We need to embrace them not just at election time," she said of Hispanics. "We have to make them part of the solution, and the way you do that is by listening to them."

Privately, several Republicans involved in 2014 races say that Obama's reelection helps Republican governors facing their first reelection battles. The president's party historically loses seats during his second midterm election both at the state level and in Congress. Political scientists call it the "six-year itch."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich — who is up for reelection in 2014 — emphasized the GOP's need to improve its ground game and to get more Republicans to vote early in a state that Obama won by 1.9 percentage points.

"In our state, you can early vote for 35 days. So if Democrats are voting for 35 days, and we're voting for one day basically, who wins that? So our people have to become more comfortable with the process," he said.

Kasich's public standing has improved since a voter referendum in November 2011 overturned the signature achievement of his first year, limitations on collective bargaining rights for public employees.

"The debate [in 2012] was about who gets credit for the good things happening in Ohio," he said. "That is such a sea change from where we had been, which is who gets the blame for what's happening in Ohio."

Running for reelection in 2014 as well, Florida Gov. Rick Scott — whose state Obama won — has been one of Obama's harshest critics, but he's modulated his tone dramatically in recent days. Scott now says that the president's reelection means that the GOP needs to deal with the federal health care law and consider exchanges they'd previously rejected.

"The election is over," Scott said in a speech Friday in Washington. "We may not be happy with the current occupant of the White House, but the question is what are we going to do about it?"

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who has positioned himself as a moderate, is still in a celebratory mood. Romney lost the state in which he grew up and where his father was governor by 9 points, but Republicans kept control of the Michigan Legislature.

Snyder also won five of the six ballot measures on which he weighed in — including beating back a constitutional amendment pushed hard by labor unions that would have strengthened collective bargaining rights. The one setback was the rejection by voters of a law he had shepherded that gave emergency power to the state to take over troubled cities. 

Snyder called the ballot measure victories a mandate to keep up what he describes as "the reinvention" of the state. He said his 2014 reelection will be on an independent track from the national debate, and he described his relationship with the Obama administration as generally constructive.

"We don't fight or blame," he said.

Some governors have kept a very low profile in the wake of the election. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval — the son of Mexican immigrants — has carefully avoided doing anything that might chip away at his strong approval rating or closely identify him with a damaged GOP in a state Obama just won by 6.6 percentage points. Sandoval is up for reelection in 2014.

He skipped all public sessions of the RGA, for example, despite being the host governor. And his staff refused to make him available for an interview, in person or on the phone, citing a trip to D.C. to accept an award from Governing Magazine.

Haley Barbour, an elder Republican statesman, called for meaningful immigration reform and called for a "proctology exam" on the failed GOP ground game.

But, he cautioned, "This is not some collapse on our side or some runaway for the other side. This wasn't a terrible election for Republicans up and down."

To Barbour, the biggest takeaway from 2012 is that negative campaigning still works, as seen in the Bain-themed attacks on Romney.

"An attack unanswered is an attack admitted," he said.

Maine GOP Gov. Paul LePage said he has not decided whether to run for reelection in 2014. The unpopular Republican in a solidly blue state said he pays little mind to what's going on at the national level.

"[Obama] carried it in '08, too. I don't see Obama as a threat at all," he said. "When I ran for governor, I had my wife go out and buy me a little scrub brush. Now I have a wire brush."

Jonathan Martin and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

James Hohmann is a reporter for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.
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