Under the Radar

The Secret GOP Swing State Election Romp

Forget about the battle for control of the Senate and ugly congressional fights—the real story this cycle is a handful of moderate Republican governors cruising to reelection.

Elena Scotti/The Daily Beast

With the 2014 midterms days away, Republicans are struggling to pick up seats in states ranging from red to purple, while Democrats are fighting to hold on to the Senate. These wars of attrition are desperate affairs, with nervous candidates begging for cash and jittery operatives looking for any edge and eager to go ugly.

But away from the glare of the cameras, a handful of Republican governors are cruising to victory in swing states that will be crucial to winning the presidency in 2016. But their successful playbook seems to be attracting little attention and even less analysis from a party that just can’t quit playing to the base.

Even a quick glance offers a clear and simple lesson: When you seize the center, you romp to reelection, especially in swing states.

Just take a look at Nevada, Ohio, New Mexico, and Iowa, where Govs. Brian Sandoval, John Kasich, Susana Martinez, and Terry Branstad are beating their opponents by an average of 20 points.

Yes, all politics is local. But you’d be a fool to overlook the obvious. And in each of these coveted swing states, where millions will be spent courting voters over the next two years, Main Street Republican governors have crafted a winning record by avoiding the ideological extremes of their Tea Party cohort.

They are reformers, not reactionaries. They believe in fiscal responsibility and strengthening the middle class, but they take a more inclusive approach to social issues, embracing and often embodying the essential diversity of their states. Most fundamentally, as chief executives they believe in governing, not the kind of Kool-Aid-chugging grandstanding that leads to government shutdowns and playing chicken with the fiscal cliff.

Sandoval should already be a national Republican star. The telegenic former state attorney general and federal judge is Hispanic and hugely popular in Nevada. He’s focused on education reform and achieved measurable results through plans inspired by former Florida governor and possible 2016 candidate Jeb Bush. Sandoval has sidestepped tax hikes in closing a budget deficit, streamlined government bureaucracy, and gotten a bipartisan vote in the legislature to give tax breaks to Tesla in exchange for long-term investment in the state. He also has backed Medicaid expansion and a state-run exchange under Obamacare. And under this pro-choice Republican’s leadership (yes, you read that right), the state GOP dropped its platform opposition to abortion and gay rights. His pro-choice stand is the reason Sandoval is conveniently overlooked in national Republican conversations, but can they really afford to ignore a massively popular, energetic, and effective Mexican-American chief executive who is coasting to reelection in Harry Reid’s home state by 25 points?

Ohio is the essential Midwest battleground for any presidential campaign. And while other Midwest governors elected in the Tea Party wave are desperately fighting for re-election like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or going down to humiliating defeat like Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, Ohio’s Kasich has built strong support after an initially narrow win in 2010. A former House Budget chairman and Fox News alumnus, Kasich was a libertarian leaning fiscal conservative before it was cool. But in the Buckeye State, he’s been a moderating force, focusing on the economy and the embattled middle class, boasting an impressive job-creation record since the Great Recession started. Conservatives love that he’s cut business and income taxes while ending the estate tax and reforming collective bargaining. But he’s stood up to attempts to roll back environmental regulations, backed the Common Core education reforms, and proposed higher severance taxes on fracking. Most controversial to conservatives, he expanded Medicaid, allowing the state access to federal funds that are part of Obamacare, admitting to the AP that opposition to the law “was really either political or ideological. I don’t think that holds water against real flesh and blood, and real improvements in people’s lives.” By setting an example of principled independence, advancing what was once known as “compassionate conservatism,” Kasich has created a rare Rust Belt success story. No wonder he’s beating Democratic nominee Ed Fitzgerald by 23 points.

Over in Iowa, Branstad is aiming for a record sixth term in office in his second stint as governor. In a state with a deeply divided GOP, Branstad has always served as a bulwark against Wingnuts like Rep. Steve King, an essential executive quality in educated Iowa, where independents outnumber Democrats or Republicans. The Tea Party never loved him, and Branstad’s decision to expand Medicaid did nothing to heal those wounds. Nonetheless, he cut property taxes and balanced the budget. And while Republican Senate nominee Joni Ernst is in a tick-tight race against Democrat Bruce Braley, Branstad is lapping Democratic nominee Jack Hatch by 23 points, according to the most recent NBC/Marist poll. Branstad’s example should give courage to center-right Republicans competing in the state’s pivotal presidential caucuses.

New Mexico’s Martinez is the closest thing to a GOP star in this list of Main Street Republican governors. She is a money-raiser much in demand on the national campaign trail as the first female Hispanic governor in U.S. history. But the former district attorney has established a strong record in a swing state that has trended Democrat in recent years, cutting taxes and bureaucratic perks like the state’s luxury jet and banning lobbyists from contracts with state agencies. She’s anti-abortion, which helps account for her higher national GOP profile than, say, Sandoval. But she decided not to combat her state’s decision to legalize medical marijuana and same-sex marriage, though she personally opposes both. And like all the other governors on this list, she expanded Medicaid in conjunction with Obamacare. New Mexico’s recovery from the great recession has been comparatively sluggish, and Martinez has the smallest lead of any of these centrist Republican governors—15 points, according to the most recent Albuquerque Journal poll. But that’s even more than the dozen-point margin the state’s popular Democratic senator, Tom Udall, is leading his GOP opponent by this year.

Remember that all these swing-state centrist Republican reelection cakewalks are occurring in an anti-incumbent year, at a time when more conservative gubernatorial colleagues first elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 are fighting for their political lives. It’s not a coincidence.

All these popular GOP incumbents have chosen to focus on economic issues rather than social issues, rebuilding the big tent by reaching out to win over new converts rather than simply playing to the base. And their support for expanding Medicaid stands in sharp contrast to the GOP House, which obsessively voted to defund Obamacare more than 40 times.

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As governors, they have to be more interested in solving problems than scoring political points. And as the dust clears from this election, their success should present an actionable agenda for reform Republicans serious about showing they can govern again.