For most Republicans, losing 21 seats in the House, seven seats in the Senate and the leadership of the free world isn't cause for celebration. But most Republicans aren't governors. When the GOP state executives met in Miami in mid-November for the annual Republican Governors Association conference, newspaper reporters used words like "glum" and "weary" to describe the mood. Apparently, they weren't watching TV. Between meetings, a crush of eager politicians swarmed the CNN, MSNBC and Fox cameras to explain how the GOP should "right its ship"—in their humble opinions. "Governors are going to be a natural group that can help the Republican Party get back on its feet," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, 37, tells NEWSWEEK. "And not just me, but Republican governors all over this country."
In the coming years, plenty of well-paid professionals will provide the party with all the advice it can absorb. But now that the Democrats control Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994, only the GOP's 21 incoming and incumbent state executives will actually have the power to prove that Republican rule can work. "Our friends in [Washington] are in a minority, and there's not much they can do but obstruct, complain and occasionally defeat bad policy," Mississippi Gov. and former RNC chairman Haley Barbour noted in Miami. "But they can't propose Republican ideas, much less put them into effect." No wonder Barbour & Co. are so cheery. In 1976, Georgia's Jimmy Carter reclaimed the White House after eight years of Nixon and Ford; it took a former California governor, Reagan, to revive the GOP. Later, pragmatic execs like Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson and Michigan's John Engler led the Republican resurgence of the early and mid-1990s, eventually propelling Gov. George W. Bush of Texas into the Oval Office. By making strides on the state level, a new generation of governors is now poised to rebuild the GOP for the Age of Obama—and in the process position themselves to lead the party in 2012.
While these rising Republican stars generally agree on a few fundamental principles—root out corruption, focus on substance, restrain spending—they split into conflicting camps in terms of how they actually govern. Their differences will define where the GOP goes next. On one side are the Traditionalists: "The people," as New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote, "who believe that conservatives"—like, say, John McCain—"have lost elections because they have strayed from the true creed." With a proven talent for rallying values voters, Sarah Palin is the group's undisputed darling, and party leaders will be watching how she governs (and grows) in Alaska. Also a Traditionalist crowd-pleaser, Mississippi's Barbour has slashed deficits and passed some the country's most restrictive abortion laws. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is a hit among fiscal hawks, who view his record—tax cuts, school choice, market-based entitlement reform, vetoes—as a model for national governance.
On the other side are the Reformers—Republicans who argue, Brooks writes, "that the old G.O.P. priorities were fine for the 1970s but need to be modernized." A leading advocate of green technology and, more recently, gay marriage, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dominates the group's left wing. Like Schwarzenegger, Reformers typically downplay "values" in favor of pragmatic "solutions"—policies that are as unobtrusive as possible (but still involve government action). In Florida, Charlie Crist has championed environmental causes and energy conservation while avoiding abortion and gay marriage. Meanwhile, Indiana's Mitch Daniels, a first-generation Syrian-American, has both wowed and worried the right, mixing major spending cuts with a proposed tax hike on the $100,000-plus crowd. Still, Daniels's pursuit of a "limited government" that's "as effective as it can possibly be" has largely produced practical reforms: all-day kindergarten, merit pay for state employees, privatized toll roads, low-income health coverage. Blue-collar Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota has a similarly pragmatic record, and his core message—the GOP needs to be "the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club"—is particularly in tune with tough economic times. And even though Jindal is a deeply devout Roman Catholic, he tends to focus less on divisive social issues than multipoint policy proposals, like a new effort to control costs and improve coverage by moving Medicaid patients and uninsured Louisianans into managed-care plans.
It's too early to tell which governor—or governors—will guide the GOP revival. In the short term, the Traditionalists have a few major advantages: the donor networks, the think tanks and a Southern, conservative class of legislators in Washington, most of whom also believe that the path to power runs to the right of Bush. And no Republican candidate will win in 2012, or 2016, without energetic evangelical backing. That said, the long-term trends don't bode well for any party hemorrhaging youth, minority and moderate support. For Republicans, a delicate balancing act—satisfy the right with your personal convictions; sway the center by actually solving problems—may represent the surest way out of the wilderness. Now it's up to the governors to get the job done.