Christie and McDonnell Aren't the Only Governors Missing From CPAC

Jill Lawrence

It’s not just Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell who are missing from the lineup at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Of the roughly 250 activists, thinkers, politicians, and media stars on the three-day program, only four are governors.

Along with its House majority, one of the GOP’s top bragging points is that 30 states are led by Republicans. The absence of this prominent group highlights one of the oddities of this year's CPAC. While it is heavy on conservative heroes, it is light on the governors who are less pure but traditionally have proven more capable of winning presidential elections.

The ranks of current governors include some of the brightest stars of the Republican Party and some of its most deft politicians – people who have won in states that, unlike carefully drawn congressional districts, are not guaranteed wins for conservatives and require outreach to many types of voters. The governors also embody a demographic diversity missing in other corners of the GOP.

The magnitude of the lost opportunity is clear in an ABC News list of 13 top Republicans we won’t see at CPAC. Three are former governors (Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, and Haley Barbour) and seven are sitting governors. Beyond Christie and McDonnell, the others now in office are Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez,  Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was a late-breaking addition to the program on Friday.

The ABC list is by no means complete. For instance, where are John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Paul LePage of Maine, Rick Scott of Florida? Some of them are controversial and some are taking steps unpopular with conservatives, such as expanding Medicaid, but they notched wins in states that are challenging for their party.

Three of the four governors who did score CPAC slots– Haley, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas – are champions of conservative causes in conservative states (in fact Jindal announced a plan to eliminate Louisiana’s income tax on Thursday, a day before his CPAC speech). The fourth, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, has iconic status for winning a purple state, pushing through tremendously controversial cutbacks in union rights, and then surviving a recall election.

Of the four, Jindal appears headed for a likely 2016 presidential bid, and Perry, whose 2012 attempt landed with a thud, left the door open Thursday for another try despite mixed reviews of his speech. Walker, should he be reelected next year, is likely too polarizing to end up on a national ticket.

Three former governors also won speaking slots, and to some degree they embody the complications of being a governor. Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential nominee, was never a CPAC favorite, given his Massachusetts health law and onetime support of abortion and gay rights. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush raised conservative eyebrows when he said the 2012 candidates were wrong to reject a theoretical deal that included a 10:1 ratio of spending cuts and tax increases. The third, 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, made a habit of taking on fellow Republicans when she was governor of Alaska.

Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union which puts on CPAC, has been trying out an array of explanations for the exclusion of Christie and McDonnell. The pair, who lifted their party out of its 2008 doldrums with 2009 wins in New Jersey and Virginia, respectively, were popular speakers at past events. Cardenas said there wasn’t room for two prominent Virginians on the stage at CPAC – and the slot went to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative idol who is running for governor this year. With 250 people onstage, that sounds dubious, especially since two prominent speakers – Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio – are from the same state.

McDonnell recently signed off on a transportation deal that includes raising taxes, despite having signed a pledge never to raise taxes, but that appears to have occurred after invitations went out. The only place to see McDonnell at CPAC was early Friday at a Faith & Freedom Coalition breakfast – a side event that fit well with McDonnell’s conservative social views. “It’s sold out and we’ve got a waiting list,” coalition chairman Ralph Reed said Thursday, adding with a laugh, “Now we kinda wish we’d invited Chris Christie.”

Christie’s crime, so to speak, appears to be praising President Obama for his response to superstorm Sandy and scoring House Republicans for failing to deliver help in what he considered a timely manner. “Hopefully next year he's back on the right track and being a conservative," Cardenas said. "He's a popular figure, but everyone needs to live by the parameters of the movement."

And what are those parameters? Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and originator of the no-tax pledge that is plaguing officeholders these days, put it plainly if strangely in his CPAC appearance. He said Republicans who vote for tax increases are “rat heads in a Coke bottle.”

The real problem for Christie and McDonnell is that they put pragmatism over their ideology. Virginia has some of the worst traffic gridlock in the country and a severely inadequate transportation-financing system dating from 1986. The state’s quality of life and economic growth were at stake, not to mention a legacy for McDonnell, who is limited to one term under Virginia law and will be leaving office after this year. So the governor compromised.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says Virginia Republicans are beyond furious at McDonnell for breaking his no-tax pledge. “The cost of the legacy is probably a future career, certainly as a presidential candidate,” he says. “It’s possible he could be picked as vice president if the nominee decides he has to have Virginia.”

Christie, by contrast, talks up the virtue of compromise with his Democratic Legislature and is  popular in his blue state. All indications are that he’ll be a major candidate in 2016.

At a recent town meeting in Paterson, Christie previewed a potential national message. He talked of how the entire U.S. system of government was based on huge compromises, how a conservative once told him he was meeting with The New York Times editorial board because “it’s harder to hate up close,” how important it is to reach out because “as we get to know each other, it becomes a lot harder to yell and scream at each other,” how “my job is to work for the people who elected me and not to work for my political party first,” and how Washington needs to learn these lessons.

It’s a winning if unrealistic campaign theme, as demonstrated by George W. Bush (“I’m a uniter, not a divider”) and Obama (who aimed to “turn the page on ugly bipartisanship” in Washington). For Christie, the first test of the unity message will be within his own party, trying to get back onstage at CPAC.

Editor's note and correction: This story has been updated throughout to reflect the late addition of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to the program. Also, an earlier version misstated the surname of the Maine governor. It is LePage.