Thursday, July 02, 2009

What Barbour Helming RGA Means

Visit the Republican Governors Association web site and you will be greeted with a short but significant message from The Hon. Haley Barbour (R-MS). Gov. Barbour recently took over as chairman of the RGA following Gov. Mark Sanford’s (R-SC) resignation from the RGA post following his disclosure of adultery. The slogan of Haley’s message is “The GOP Comeback Begins Now.” Any Democrat laughing at that now could well be crying later.

“When I was chairman of the Republican Party back in the ‘90’s it was the Republican governors who led the comeback of our party, of our getting back into the majority. And I believe it will be the same way this time,” says Gov. Barbour in the clip. From anybody else this is talk. From Haley it is the walk.

When Haley took over as chairman of the Republican National Committee in January 1993 the GOP was in disarray. Bill Clinton was the 42nd President of the United States, having just defeated President George H.W. Bush in an upset. Democrats were the majority in the House by 258 to 176, in the Senate by 56 to 44 and they controlled 31 of the 50 governorships. Two years later Haley presided over Republican majorities in Congress and among the nation’s governors.

From 1993 to 1994 Haley’s RNC raised and spent close to $105 million. Haley Barbour was the driving force in achieving that remarkable accomplishment. It is certain he will bring the same expertise and performance to the RGA.

A review of the RNC’s performance under Haley discloses the impact Haley has on political party fundraising. In 1993 the RNC, during Haley’s first year as chairman there, raised $42 million. In 1994 the RNC raised $72 million, followed by $61 million in 1995. Off years, or odd years, tend to be tougher years to raise funds for political committees because the only elections are in a few states where there are state legislative and gubernatorial contests. The significant comparison is 1993 and 1995, both off year election cycles (since even years include a presidential election which has more fundraising variables than a non-presidential even year). Haley’s RNC raised 45 percent more in 1995 than 1993.

In 2008 the RGA raised $27 million. Assuming Haley will match the RGA’s '08 performance in ’09 and reproduce the results he had at the RNC in his second year as chairman, the RGA could have $36 million for the 2010 election cycle when 36 governorships are up, although a smaller number of those (less than twenty) will be competitive.

Haley arrives at the RGA with the committee on solid financial footing with more than $10 million raised to date. This is thanks to Gov. Sanford, who should have paid as much attention to his wife as he did on RGA fundraising. There will be significant RGA expenditures in New Jersey and Virginia this year. In many ways this scenario is a reprise of 1993.

In New Jersey there is an unpopular Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, who faces a strong Republican challenger in former Bush U.S. Attorney Chris Christie. Similarly, in 1993 the Republican challenger was Christie Todd Whitman who defeated Gov. Jim Florio mainly over taxes increases. While Corzine is not nearly as unpopular as Florio was, he is currently trailing Christie and has a favorable to unfavorable rating of 31:54.

Likewise, Virginia’s gubernatorial contest is for an open seat, as it was in 1993. Recent polling has the Democrat, Creigh Deeds, leading the Republican, Robert McDonnell in the contest by 47 to 41 percent. In 1993, the Republican George Allen trailed the Democrat Mary Sue Terry early in the contest. Allen prevailed on the Election Day with a great deal of assistance from Haley’s RNC.

The NJ and VA contests at this time are a toss-up featuring strong Republican candidates that make two pick-ups for GOP possible – again like 1993. When Haley says “it was the Republican governors who led the comeback of our party, of our getting back into the majority,” this is what he is talking about.

It is more likely than not that RGA funding will go to competitive races, rather than ideologically pure candidates. This is a good thing for the future relevance of the GOP and a much different approach than signaled by current RNC Chairman Michael Steele. Steel’s comments over the passage of President Obama’s stimulus package signaled that Republicans who supported that measure would jeopardize RNC support in their re-election campaigns.

Haley’s ascension to the RGA helm signals that the adults are back in charge. This is bad news for Steele, as his role will diminish by the mere fact of Haley’s proximity within RNC headquarters in Washington DC. Ironically, the litmus test coalition within the GOP will not feel intimidated by Haley’s presence at the RGA because he is a pro-life, Southern Republican with whom they feel comfortable. But to the point of this blog, Haley is more campaign pragmatist than ideologue and will seek ballot box wins rather than moral victories. Haley recently demonstrated this pragmatism while in Des Moines, IA, saying, “Party building is about addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division.”

Democrats should not be shaking in their boots at the return of Haley Barbour to a GOP leadership position. However, they would do well to take notice and not underestimate the best politician in the GOP ranks. Haley doesn’t play ideological favorites when mounting a comeback for a Republican Party in disarray.

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