Eyes on the White House, GOP governors audition for 2016

Governors think of themselves as doers, not mired in partisan gridlock like Washington. As the 2016 presidential election approaches, GOP governors are jockeying for their party’s nomination.

Cliff Owen/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) takes a cell phone photo with NGA staffer Lily Kersh of Little Rock, Ark., during the National Governor's Association Winter Meeting in Washington, Saturday.

When governors gather, as they did this weekend in Washington, two topics are inevitable: One is the gridlock in Washington vs. innovation and accomplishment in the states; the other, closely related, is who among the governors will be on the next presidential ticket.

With Congress at near-record-low approval ratings, the case against Capitol Hill gridlock got plenty of mention at the 2014 National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington, running through Feb. 24. 

“As a Congress, they can’t find an agenda of their own,” says Gov. John Dalrymple (R) of North Dakota. “We need to help them.”

As Washington convulses over changing a Senate rule, governors are deep into how to build roads, find jobs, keep the National Guard fit to help out with extreme weather events, promote energy development, curb the “epidemic” of prescription drug abuse, and find a health-care model that works.

Governors are getting high scrutiny this cycle, in part, because Washington politicians can claim so little record of accomplishment. And with Hillary Clinton still strongly favored on the Democratic side, much of the speculation on which governors are up or down in the presidential sweepstakes is on the Republican side, where the 2016 race is still wide open.

Here are some of the GOP gubernatorial prospects for the 2016 race:

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. As the new chair of the Republican Governors Association, Governor Christie had a prime platform this weekend to shine on a national stage. Instead, still under fire over reports that his aides shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge last fall in retaliation for a political slight, he skipped the press conferences, bowed out of a black-tie dinner at the White House on Sunday, and gave a pass to the White House meeting with governors on Monday.

Still, many of his GOP colleagues publicly defended him. "I’m a great admirer of Governor Christie and I think he’s done a great job for the RGA," says Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) of Nevada. Moreover, he has raised some $18 million for Republican governors since taking over as RGA chair in late November, a new high for RGA fundraising, according to a CNN report. Christie's approval ratings may be tanking in the polls, but apparently not yet with donors.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Like Christie, Governor Walker, another early GOP prospect for 2016, arrived at the NGA meeting under scrutiny over illegal campaign activities of former aides. While Walker is not the target of the investigation, the release of some 28,000 documents related to the case last week took the focus off what could otherwise have been a victory lap for the governor, who clashed with state employee unions over collective bargaining rights and survived a recall election in 2012 – the first governor to do so. He is up for reelection in 2014.

Unlike Christie, Walker fielded questions on this issue in Washington at the NGA conference and with news media. "If you look at the facts out there, this is old news," he told "Fox News Sunday." "This is about a case that was closed last March. A Democratic district attorney in Milwaukee County spent multiple years looking at all this information."

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.  As the governor of a key swing state, Governor Kasich is a natural for a shortlist for 2016, especially if he survives his reelection bid this fall. His record on fiscal restraint, both as governor and a key House lawmaker, gave him a national reputation among conservatives. Meanwhile, his move as governor to expand Medicaid eligibility to tens of thousands of people with addiction and mental illness disorders, against the views of many conservatives in his own party, appealed to independents. He leads Democratic rival Ed Fitzgerald by 5 percentage points, but polls 12 points behind Hillary Clinton in a presidential matchup, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.

Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. The former two-term Florida governor has been reluctant to encourage speculation that he is open to a presidential run. While he has a strong record of education reform, outreach to Hispanic voters, and emergency management during hurricanes, even his mother has expressed doubts on whether a Bush should run again for the presidency. That's why 2016 could be a critical year for Bush.

"It’s probably the only year he could run," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "If Hillary is the Democratic nominee, the dynasty issue disappears. It will simply be a choice between dynasties." John King, on CNN's "Inside Politics" on Sunday, reported hearing from Republican fundraisers that Bush "is starting to ask some serious questions" about a run in 2016.

Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana. A leader of the influential Republican Study Committee while a member of the House, Pence is still popular with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party but distancing himself from Congress. "I was in Congress for 12 years, I've been governor just over 12 months, and I’m absolutely convinced that the cure for what ails our country is going to come from our state capitals more than from Congress," he says. Indiana created 42,000 net new jobs in 2013, he says.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. After 14 years as Texas governor, Perry is not running for reelection, but still expresses a lively interest in Iowa, where he finished No. 5 in 2012, and in another run for the presidency. A key selling point is the record he claims as governor for creating jobs. “Why are 1,000 people a day moving to the state of Texas if it’s such a terrible place?," Perry said, in a recent exchange with Gov. Patrick Quinn (D) of Illinois on CNN's "Crossfire."

Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada. Governor Sandoval, a former state attorney general and federal judge, is the first Hispanic to win statewide office in Nevada. He is running unopposed for governor in a key battleground state.

Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico. The first Latina governor, winning in a blue state, and likely to win reelection, Martinez has already appeared on insider shortlists for 2016 as a vice presidential prospect.

"I wouldn't be shocked if they ended up picking two governors for the ticket, with Susana Martinez as vice president," says Mr. Sabato.

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