In barely more than a year, the fortunes of the GOP have gone from looking awful to looking up. The media was proclaiming the death of the GOP in January of 2009, but now pundits are wondering if the Republicans might not take back the House and Senate in 2010. The congressional elections are coming up quick, and right behind them is a monumental presidential election. Who will the Republicans choose to face off against the “transformational” Barack Obama? The top tier of the Republican Party has looked pretty grim. So I searched through a traditional breeding ground of presidential contenders, the Republican governors. I found some diamonds in the rough, as well as some fool’s gold.
To determine which governors have the basic chops to be president, I started by screening out the oldsters, then governors from the territories, then one-termers, and then those from small-population states. (Nothing against small states—I live in Rhode Island—but our governor oversees fewer people than many mayors.) My screening process left me with five governors who may have what it takes to run and win against Barack Obama in 2012. These five have all been reelected, are young enough to mount a serious campaign (read: not John McCain), and have governed a significant number of people. The five governors are:
Mitch Daniels – Indiana
The name Mitch Daniels has been on the tip of many a conservative tongue for the past few months. Daniels has done an extraordinary job of turning around the economy of Indiana, and his constituents rewarded him with their votes in 2008. That was a hard-won victory with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. Daniels is a Princeton grad who went on to get a law degree from Georgetown. He spent 15 years working at Eli Lilly. (Fact: That’s more private sector experience than President Obama’s entire team of economic advisors, combined.) Daniels was director of the OMB under the Bush administration; that can’t be considered all good news, but he would certainly have the chops to hammer Obama on the exploding budget in a debate. Until recently, Daniels remained steadfast in his opposition to running for president, but many conservatives have been imploring him to run, and he has shown signs of interest.
Tim Pawlenty – Minnesota
Tim Pawlenty’s name has been bandied about since the 2008 presidential campaign, when he was seen as a front-runner for selection as John McCain’s running mate. It is almost certain Governor Pawlenty will run for president. He has not been shy about visits to New Hampshire and Iowa to shake hands with the nation’s first primary voters. Pawlenty graduated from the University of Minnesota and went on to become a lawyer. He spent time in the private sector and worked as a criminal prosecutor, too. He was an Eagan City Council member and a representative in the Minnesota House for 10 years, of which he served four as majority leader. Governor Pawlenty has been successful on many counts. For starters, getting elected in the politically rough-and-tumble state of Minnesota is no easy task. In his words, “being a Republican in Minnesota is like being a polar bear in Miami.” Mr. Pawlenty has balanced budgets, implemented tort reform and welfare reform, and improved the state’s educational system. Mr. Pawlenty’s biggest asset going into this race is that he has no major attachments to the Bush administration or Washington, D.C. He can effectively run as an “outsider.” One downside in Mr. Pawlenty’s record is his former position as chairman of the Governors’ Ethanol Coalition. Ethanol is a major boondoggle, and to have a president thoroughly convinced that ethanol is a good idea would be dangerous for America. Another downside for Pawlenty was his support for a stimulus bill—just not the stimulus bill. Any conservative worth his weight would have seen that a stimulus of any kind is just more wealth redistribution.
Haley Barbour – Mississippi
The governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, has surfaced only recently as a name on many people’s radar as a possible candidate. Haley Barbour is a famous politician and his stints as director of the White House Office of Political Affairs under the Reagan administration and chairman of the Republican National Committee make him the insider candidate among these names. Barbour has a tremendous amount of experience, and his knowledge of beltway politics is copious. He founded one of America’s top lobbying firms, Barbour Griffith & Rogers. In a year like this, that alone should be enough to sink his chances of becoming president, but Barbour is enthusiastic and driven in a way that might appeal to many voters. Another downside to Mr. Barbour’s chances is that he hails from Mississippi, not a swing state. A candidate who can bring along a swing state that Barack Obama won in 2008 will instantly have an edge over the others, Mr. Barbour doesn’t have that edge.
Dave Heineman – Nebraska
Dave Heineman was the dark horse that turned up in my governors screening. I haven’t heard anyone mention Governor Heineman as a contender for president in 2012, so I’ll be the first. Mr. Heineman is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the Army’s Airborne and Ranger schools. He was elected state treasurer and lieutenant governor, and reelected governor after taking the post upon the departure of former Nebraska governor Mike Johanns. Heineman has negotiated multiple trade agreements for Nebraska and was the director of Nebraska’s Homeland Security. Heineman has a history of success in cutting taxes and making departments run more efficiently. Mr. Heineman has no real name recognition beyond Nebraska so he lags the other four names on this list in that regard. Also, Nebraska is not a swing state, and is the smallest on the list, only barely getting in above my population cut off line.
Rick Perry – Texas
As the governor of the nation’s second most populous state, Perry is probably the most qualified of the five governors listed to lead the domestic policy of the United States. His successes in diversifying Texas’s energy mix and leadership in tort reform, as well as his strong Second Amendment credentials, prove his dedication to conservative principles and his ability to implement a conservative agenda. However, Perry has been unequivocal about not entering the race for president in 2012. He has no plans to run, and hasn’t even flinched when asked about it (like Mitch Daniels has). The downside for Mr. Perry is that he’s a Texas governor who used to be a cheerleader, too much like George W. Bush for many in the nation, I presume. I can only imagine Barack Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, putting together photo collages of Perry and Bush wearing cheerleading outfits, then standing on the steps of the Texas statehouse in the same spots. That type of imagery alone could sink Perry’s bid, qualified or not.
In all, if the race were held today Daniels and Pawlenty would likely end up battling it out, but given some national exposure Heineman may grow a serious following, especially among the anti-abortion wing of the GOP. Heineman recently signed a bill into law in Nebraska redefining the rules for abortion. My guess is that Haley Barbour will not be successful if he runs. His insider and lobbyist baggage are too heavy to haul through a campaign. Perry is a strong conservative, but I think the rest of the country just isn’t ready for another Texan.