It was a time when strident partisans had alienated the American mainstream, giving the Grand Old Party a reputation as a bastion of extremism. Voters blanched, spurning Republican candidates and handing Democrats an unexpectedly strong showing in the midterm elections.
Around the country, Republicans of more moderate inclinations felt singed by the backlash. Thus began a discussion of ways to move the GOP toward more politically palatable politics.
Sound familiar? It should.
But that effort at course correction occurred a quarter century ago. After congressional Republicans impeached Bill Clinton over an extramarital affair, voters expressed their disapproval at that partisan overreach by increasing Democratic ranks in the House in the 1998 elections.
Those concerned Republicans were mainly moderate or mainstream-conservative governors who rallied around one of their own, George W. Bush of Texas, to pull their party back from the fringes. One of the leaders of the group was Paul Cellucci, the governor of Massachusetts. Others included Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan, Terry Branstad, past and future governor of Iowa, and Judd Gregg, a former governor of New Hampshire who was then a senator.
Boosted by his fellow governors, George W. secured the GOP nomination. Then came Florida. Election deniers, take notice: Bush won the presidency once Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee and winner of the popular vote, exhausted his legal challenges to Bush’s razor-thin Florida margin and conceded, since Bush’s Sunshine State triumph had given him an Electoral College victory.
Bush began his first term as a results-oriented Republican, working with Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts on important education legislation. Then unanticipated events intervened. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Vice President Richard Cheney, a hard-core neocon, seized the steering wheel and drove the administration into an unnecessary, falsely premised war with Iraq.
Thus it can’t accurately be said that the Republican governors’ effort ended well. And yet their impulse to move their party in a more moderate and constructive direction was the right one.
It’s a course current GOP governors should consider. Indeed, at the weekend Republican Governors Association confab in Orlando, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie won hearty applause for a speech that blamed Donald Trump for the GOP’s disappointing results in the last three elections.
Still, Mark Holman, a longtime GOP politico and chief of staff to Tom Ridge during his days as Pennsylvania governor, says that today’s situation doesn’t yet lend itself to action similar to the collective endorsements and campaign aid that his boss and others undertook a quarter century ago.
“Bush was in a really strong place to bring the governors together back then,” Holman said. At the present moment, “we have too many governors that are interested in running” in 2024.
Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is one obvious figure. Problem: As something of a lone wolf, a grandstander, and a cultural warrior, he is not popular with his political peers. Christie himself wants to run again, but his 2016 campaign was underwhelming. Another possible candidate is former Vice President Mike Pence, who showed courage and principle in rejecting Trump’s demands that he help execute the then-president’s illegal scheme to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. Still, Pence wasn’t considered a gubernatorial standout during his time running Indiana. John Kasich was far more impressive — and was part of turning Ohio from a swing state into a reliably Republican one. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, has a certain cachet, while Larry Hogan of Maryland has proved himself able and independent.
Although overshadowed by DeSantis, Texas’s Greg Abbott is skilled at using cultural issues to overshadow governing failures, while Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin has displayed a talent for presenting himself as the implacable foe of imaginary educational threats. New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu has proved himself an able and popular governor, though he’s prochoice while most of the GOP isn’t.
Meanwhile, keep your eye on Asa Hutchinson, the former US senator from, and now outgoing governor of, Arkansas, who has signaled strong interest in running. Conservative without being a gratuitous cultural warrior, Hutchinson is positive, personable, and noncombative. Which is to say, a refreshing conservative in the Trump era.
Any one of those figures would be preferable to Trump as the 2024 GOP presidential nominee. And any one would benefit mightily if, at some critical point, the Republican governors rallied round their candidacy.