- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

MIAMI — Some Republican governors meeting here wonder whether their party can realistically hope to regain majorities in Congress, the governors mansions and state legislatures, given that the unpopular Bush administration’s lease on the management of government has two more years to run.

Republican governors, whose numbers went from a high of 32 in 1998 to 28 last year, generally agree that the reasons they are down to 22 after last month’s elections are the Iraq war and the general tarnishing of their party’s brand image.

“The war in Iraq hurt even at the gubernatorial level, even at the state level,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said, agreeing with a point Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman made in a speech to the Republican Governors Association annual meeting that concluded over the weekend.

“National issues, especially the war in Iraq, had a profound impact on state races including campaigns for governor,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. “Immigration was another powerful issue.”

Mr. Barbour said he and other members of the Republican Governors Association were told in a closed meeting that polling showed that 20 percent of people who voted in the governors’ races said Iraq was a major issue in their vote.

“Now, that’s just hard to believe, that people would think about foreign policy and national-security issues and say that’s what affects whom I vote for governor,” Mr. Barbour said. “Because the governor has nothing to do with it. Yet people felt so strongly about the war, it colored their decisions about whom to vote for governor.”

Governors said that in closed conference sessions, they heard reports from Republican pollsters and managers of state legislative campaigns who said their legislative candidates would go door to door, knock and say, “I’m running for the statehouse.” The voter who answered the door would say, “Well, great, what are you going to do about Iraq?” The candidate would reply, “Well, I’m running for the statehouse and we don’t have anything to do with that.”

But the voter would simply repeat, “Well, what are you going to do about Iraq?”

The devastation of the midterm elections was beyond what many Republican governors had expected. Mr. Barbour said he didn’t realize till he heard Mr. Mehlman say it in his speech that there is now only one Republican, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, among the 22 newly elected House members who hail from New England.

Some Republican strategists attending the conference said privately that they suspect it is, as one of them put it, “silly” to think about taking back the House and Senate and winning a majority of governorships with the Bush administration still in power.

“It goes back to that larger theme of trust,” says South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a limited-government conservative who won re-election on Nov. 7. “And once that trust is broken — for whatever reasons, and a lot of it was very innocent — I mean, the people didn’t expect anything better from Clinton. He was viewed as a scoundrel from the start.”

Mr. Sanford said, “It’s more difficult for [President] Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney, given the high standing they held, and now there’s this angst about Iraq — and I think the economy is going to weaken.”

Mr. Barbour sees the Democrats playing at least as big a role as the Bush administration in determining whether a Republican comeback is possible.

“It depends on what happens the next two years,” he said. “The Democrats have offered nothing, and if they do what they offered — nothing — then the Republicans might come back in two years.”

Yet Republican governors say that the war was not the only cause of the midterm meltdown.

“Republicans need to stop spending like Democrats because ultimately the people will elect the real thing if there is no difference,” Mr. Perry said.

Recalling the year when Republicans gained the congressional majority that was wiped out Nov. 7, Mr. Barbour said that in 1994, “Republicans got elected by a majority who wanted a different domestic policy. In this election, the Democrats got elected because they weren’t the Republicans. It was the war, but also scandal and corruption.”

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