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RGA’s Ayers Responds to 538 Readers

Some readers said my recent interview with Republican Governors Association executive director Nick Ayers left them wanting more. To his credit, Mr. Ayers read your reactions and contacted me to say he’d happily do a follow-up. As you’ll see, I asked him to expand on some of the topics we covered the first time, added some questions suggested by readers, and asked a few new ones of my own.

Fivethirtyeight: I’m not going to ask you to criticize any of the Republican governors, but I would like to ask you to assess the impact of their decisions on the party and the GOP brand. Starting with Sarah Palin, do you think she’s of more value to the GOP as a governor or as a former governor who potentially morphs into a conservative movement leader or media personality?

Nick Ayers: I’m not entirely an objective person to ask, because running the governors association my personal preference is that she stay governor, for selfish reasons. She was a great ally of the RGA and to her colleagues around the country.

Saying that, when I try to look at it objectively I can absolutely see a scenario in which she is able to be more effective for our candidates and the conservative cause. She was facing so much head wind in Alaska as it related to local politics and people spinning her agenda for purely political reasons, that in her own outside-the-box thinking she felt like she could make a bigger impact putting that behind her and playing a larger national role.

I think it’s entirely up to her. I think it’s too early to say which direction she wants to go. If she wants to play a large role, she’s going to be able to irrespective of the mainstream media’s disdain for her.

538: Turning to Mark Sanford, he joins a growing list of socially-conservative Republicans who look hypocritical because of their own marital infidelities. How much damage do episodes like Sanford’s inflict on the Republican brand, and specifically the Republican boasts about being the so-called “family values” party?

NA: What Mark said in all the years I’ve known him, is that the party is exactly that—it’s a brand. It’s no different than John Deere or Caterpillar or Chik-fil-A. Those are the three examples he would give. He would go on to say that when people were buying those brands they knew what they were getting, and they knew it was worth paying the price for the quality they got in return.

There’s no question that under [Sanford’s] analogy, his actions have inflicted pain upon the brand. And those are his words, not mine. Saying that, because he’s a friend and because I serve the Republican governors, I’ve adopted the policy of our new chairman, Haley Barbour, and I’m not going to talk about people’s personal problems—other than to say it was a huge disappointment for us, both professionally in his capacity as a Republican governor, and personally, because a lot of us were dear friends and still are.

That said, my job is to focus on governors’ races. We’ve got two this year and 37 next year and I don’t think Sanford’s poor decision will affect one vote in Virginia and New Jersey. And that’s the good news. These governors’ races this year, the one in New Jersey is going to be about Jon Corzine’s record. It’s one of complete failure and one of breaking promises. And in the race in Virginia, it’s really going to come down to whose policies most closely align with Virginia’s, and I’m overwhelming positive and optimistic that that’s Bob McDonnell. He’s for more energy that’s cheaper. Craigh Deeds won’t talk about an energy policy. He wants to punt and say it’s a federal issue. People expect governors to make decisions, and that’s not what Craigh Deeds is doing. He says he’s not taking any tax increases off the table. Bob McDonnell’s plan is to run an effective government with low taxes. No one believes that raising taxes in a recession or these economic times is a good idea.

I could go down the list of why I think Bob is more closely aligned with voters than Creigh, but the point is that these two races are going to come down to our candidates, and in New Jersey to Gov. Corzine’s record. And that’s not something that Sanford’s poor decision-making will affect.

538: I presume fiscal responsibility is a subject Republican governors will raise this year and next year as a counter-narrative to the Obama Administration’s policies. But many states are in financial trouble, too. So how should Republican governors or gubernatorial candidates discuss fiscal issues during the current economic recession?

NA:I can’t speak for all of them. The thing about governors is that, unlike congressmen or senators, they don’t caucus. They don’t have to come to a consensus. What Jan Brewer is doing in Arizona may be different than what Haley Barbour does in Mississippi.

One of the reasons that I’m so optimistic and confident that the comeback for the party begins with our governors’ races next year is that I don’t think the Republican Party can be rebuilt based on a slogan or a mantra created out of DC. It’s going to have to be built based on a number of different ideas and solutions that come from within the states. And what our governors propose that work for the people in the Northeast—in states like Connecticut and Vermont, where we have Republican governors—might look very differently than what Sonny Perdue and Bob Reilly propose to do in Georgia and Alabama.

So I don’t think that there’s any one issue set on how to handle the economic times in the right way. I think it’s about getting principled conservative leaders elected, and being clear about how they will handle situations in their respective states and trusting them to do that.

538: Without identifying the seven states where you think Democratic incumbents are vulnerable in 2010, I’m wondering if you would comment specifically on two states, New York and Massachusetts, where black Democratic incumbents are lagging in popularity in very blue states that in the recent past boasted Republican governors. What kind of Republican candidates can win back those states?

NA: I think I owe your readers a more clear response than the last interview, and I’m comfortable talking about it, even in some detail.

You mention the Northeast, but I’ve got to tell you, just in general we are more bullish than usual in several states in the Northeast. Because you have a history of Democratic legislatures and/or governors in the Northeast there are policies of high taxes and high debt that have resulted in astounding job loss and economic decline. So whether it’s Maine, Pennsylvania, New York or Massachusetts, we feel like if we recruit the right candidate we can make Democrats compete in some places that are traditionally blue.

My belief is that a well-run governor’s race isn’t overtly partisan as much as it is about hiring the right CEO. And that’s especially true of the Northeast, where there’s more big business and people are very familiar with the roles of CEOs. We think if we can field better candidates who fit the job description of CEO and deal with a budget situation, that we’ll have a great opportunity in places like New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and even Maine.

A great example of that is a candidate who announced last week, Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. He’s a CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, has done a lot of nonprofit work in the healthcare, and is a brilliant business man and someone who I believe can cut beyond party and racial lines and say, “I’m willing to bring my experience from the private sector to help solve Massachusetts’ budget issues.” I think Charlie is the kind of ideal candidate that we’ve been looking for. We spent five months recruiting him, so we were very excited to see him get in the race there.

538: Let’s shift the regional focus a bit. You’re a southern white guy working for a southern white guy, Haley Barbour, in a party that’s retrenched significantly in the past two cycles to its southern, white base of support. How is the RGA working to combat the image that the Republicans are becoming a homogenized minority?

NA: I think my last answer deals with that, but look, I don’t discriminate against southern white guys. They’re an important part of the party, and we want to keep them and we want every one of them supporting us.

Saying that, we recognize that to build the coalition we need and win in the states we need, we need a lot more focus than just southern white guys, which is why we’ve spent a lot of time in our recruiting efforts in the Great Lakes, the Midwest and the Northeast. It would have been easier for us to say RGA’s stated goal is to hold our strength in the middle, really from Texas all the way to South Carolina, and we want to pickup Tennessee and hold Florida. But we haven’t said that. It is important that we hold those states and pickup Tennessee, but to us it’s more important that we expand our party’s boundaries in the West and Great Lakes and Northeast.

And I think the kind of candidates who we recruit will have more impact than even the enormous amount of money that folks like Gov. Barbour have raised. We’re 17 months out, and we’re not conceding any ground anywhere in America, and it’s because folks like Haley Barbour recognize that we need to expand our party’s boundaries. And I think we’ll do that in the 2009 and 2010 elections.

538: The minority party nationally tends to struggle with fundraising. For the 2010 cycle, how do you plan to stay competitive on the money front with the Democrats?

NA: I’m probably most proud of our financial focus. In the June 30 disclosures, when we had to disclose and the DGA (Democratic Governors Association) had to disclose. We outraised them, and we had $20.4 million cash on hand while they had just $12.5 million.

For the last two-and-a-half years, RGA has been operating on a four-year plan. Recognizing that our great opportunities would come in 2010, we wanted to avoid the temptation of splurging in the ’07, ‘08 and ’09 campaigns. So we have been very disciplined in our approaches to how we raise and spend money. Look, there’s no question with the DGA that right now, with both chambers of Congress and a supermajority of Democratic governors, you would have to assume their fundraising would improve. But I can only say that in the last two years I’ve been here—with folks like Haley Barbour, Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry, who signed onto this four-year plan—we’ve outraised them every reporting period for the past two-and-a-half years and have significantly more cash on hand.

538: If you win both the New Jersey and Virginia races this autumn, you and Gov. Barbour will rightly be able to point to those wins as signaling the start of the GOP comeback. I know it’s a hypothetical, but should you *lose* both, will the RGA have to rethink its strategy or messaging for 2010?

NA: It’s tough to predict hypotheticals. All I can tell you is Gov. Barbour, all of our governors, and our whole RGA staff wake up every day doing all we can to work toward victory in those states. Ultimately, it’s the voters in those states who will make that determination.

Since we began focusing on New Jersey and Virginia, we’ve said it was our responsibility to bring parity to these races from a resource perspective, and put our candidates in a position to win. That’s the most the national committee can effectively do. We’re not in charge of the candidates; we’re not running the actual campaigns. So I believe that a well-run national committee brings parity to the race from a resources perspective and puts candidates in a position to win. It’s not much different than a good crew chief for a NASCAR team: At the end of the day the driver’s going to drive that car across the finish line, but the pit crew and crew chief can put him in a position to win or not.

I don’t think anyone can make an argument that we haven’t effectively put our candidates in a position to win and bring a parity of resources to these races. And we’re going to continue to do that through Election Day. But ultimately it will come down to the campaigns that Jon Corzine and Chris Christie and Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell run.

538: Last question: Is there an up-and-coming young Republican politician—I don’t know, perhaps a county executive or state legislator—whom most of our readers have probably never heard of, but we ought to keep an eye on because he or she has the potential to become the next Bobby Jindal or Tim Pawlenty?

NA:Oh, boy. We have so many great candidates. Most are in primaries, and I’m respectful of the primary process. So the names I’m giving aren’t a reflection on their in-state competition. They’re just folks we think have gotten off to a good start in their primaries.

You’ve got to look at Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. You’ve got to look at a Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, who I believe got about a third of a million more votes in 2008 than John McCain did, which is just incredible. You’ve got a guy named Josh Penry in Colorado who has created some enthusiasm there. He’s very young—only 32—and he’s running for governor. Newt Gingrich sent me an email last week just because he wanted to make sure Scott Walker was on our radar screen. He’s running for governor in Wisconsin, and Newt wanted to say how impressed he was with Scott.

Those are just four of the 40 or so great candidates we’ve got running for governor in 2010. And that’s what’s really exciting about the opportunity the RGA has. We’re blessed with the 22 governors that we have now. But what we’re really working toward is recruiting and electing the next generation of leaders for our party.