No Sunshine State

06.21.12

GOP Governors Conflicted by Mitt Romney’s Bad News Messaging

Falling unemployment rate? Eighty thousand job listings? Keep it under your hat, governors. Could off-message Republicans’ upbeat news derail the party’s plan to take the White House?

Florida’s economy might be improving, but Gov. Rick Scott needs to stop talking about it.

At least until Nov. 6.

That’s the urgent message Mitt Romney’s campaign apparently tried to impart on Scott, according to a news report Thursday, a reflection of the broader tension between the Republican presidential candidate’s indictment of economic malaise under the Obama administration and the political imperative for GOP governors in key swing states to take some credit for shrinking unemployment numbers.

As Bloomberg reported Thursday, Scott was asked to “say that the state’s jobless rate could improve faster under a Romney presidency.” The move comes after a flurry of press releases, campaign emails, and even television ads from Scott and GOP-leaning groups touting a comeback in the Sunshine State.

“Last week, Florida’s economic recovery reached an important milestone as our unemployment rate dropped to 8.6 percent—our lowest since 2008,” read a recent email distributed by Rick Scott’s reelection campaign. “With 9,200 jobs created last month, a total of 99,600 private-sector jobs have been added since my first day in office. I’m also happy to report that our unemployment rate has declined for 11 consecutive months.”

Seasoned political observers say Scott’s doing what any sane governor would do. But what’s good for his long-term political future is not necessarily helpful to Mitt Romney as he works to carry the state, a must-win for any Republican presidential contender.

“He’s pointing to an upturn in the economy because he wants to improve his own low ranking,” said Larry Sabato, election analyst and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, referring to Scott’s dubious distinction as among the least popular governors in America. “This is happening in Virginia and in Ohio, too, because those states have considerably lower unemployment rates than the national average.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican who recently survived a ferocious recall push by Democrats and organized labor, told reporters at a breakfast last week that if voters see Republican governors as turning things around, they’ll inevitably give President Obama some credit, too.

Romney’s appeal is maximized by widespread fear about the economy—fear that fades each time a Republican governor gets a local news headline for an improving jobs picture.

“If you look at not only Wisconsin, but a number of key swing states, there’s Republican governors in those states who have put in place aggressive policies that have helped turn the economy around,” he said. “And so, oddity of oddities, one of the beneficiaries of that might be the president.”

Spokesmen for Romney and Scott both denied the report, but it squares with what has become something of a trend of GOP executives contradicting Romney’s gloomy message on the economy, intent on boosting their own popularity and taking credit for job growth as they look ahead to tough reelection battles in narrowly divided states.

“We have a website called Ohio Means Jobs, and there’s probably about 80,000 jobs listed on there where there are openings,” Republican Gov. John Kasich told college students at a campaign event with Romney last month, shortly before Romney began decrying a jobless recovery. This time, Romney’s campaign apparently decided it had no choice but to respond and urge Governor Scott to tone it down.

“The Romney guys want to snuff it out as quickly as possible,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant and top adviser to John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. “When you’re in this trail-of-tears tour that he’s going on, telling everybody how terrible everything this, and then people look around and see it’s not where they want it to be, but it’s certainly a lot better than it was, it makes it hard for Romney to be credible on his message.”

Romney’s campaign, selling the former private-equity titan as the businessman uniquely qualified to create jobs and address lingering unemployment, can’t be blamed for trying to herd the governors back in line. His appeal is maximized by widespread fear about the economy—fear that fades each time a Republican governor gets a local news headline for an improving jobs picture.

“Their view of the world that they have to sell is that we are in a terrible economic crisis that can only be fixed by the election of Mitt Romney,” said Sabato. “Mixed messages are not welcome at this juncture in the campaign, from now until November.”