Red-state operatives upset with governors association

Gov. Bill Richardson’s reelection in New Mexico was never in doubt, and the possible 2008 Democratic presidential candidate spent the final days of his campaign helping fellow Democrats while he cruised to a record-breaking margin of victory.

Gov. Bill Richardson’s reelection in New Mexico was never in doubt, and the possible 2008 Democratic presidential candidate spent the final days of his campaign helping fellow Democrats while he cruised to a record-breaking margin of victory.

So when the Republican Governors Association (RGA) spent $115,000 on ads opposing Richardson in the final weeks, eyebrows were accordingly raised.

That late expenditure in the non-competitive race was the coating on a bitter pill for GOP operatives in several red states with Democratic governors. Their candidates received little financial help from the governors’ association and went on to lose by stunning margins.

As the association convenes its annual conference today in Miami, some operatives say it didn’t have to be that way.

Some of the races in Democrat-governed red states turned out to be nearly as lopsided as Richardson’s 69-31 win; Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano won by 28 points, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry won by 33 points and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen won by 39 points. In these races and closer ones in red states such as Kansas and Arkansas, Republicans said the association could have done more with its record-breaking war chest early on, when they were more competitive.

The gripes are another example of post-election finger-pointing within the Republican Party. In other cases, Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, said that many of his losing candidates failed to “disqualify” their opponents, and several Republicans have criticized the White House for waiting until after the election to get rid of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying it could have helped their causes if his departure had been announced in the weeks before.

As with the House and the Senate, Republicans failed to pick up any gubernatorial seats held by Democrats and lost their majority. The Democrats picked up six seats, in Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio, and turned a 28-22 minority into a majority of the same count.

But despite the apparently overwhelming odds against them picking up seats in such places as Kansas and Oklahoma or holding outgoing Gov. Mike Huckabee’s (R) seat in Arkansas, Republicans in those states are expressing discontent.

“If there was a message sent to the national party, (it was that) for a few weeks on TV in those states, I’m not going to promise victory for the Republicans, but the outcomes would have been drastically different,” said one Kansas GOP operative who is “legitimately annoyed” with the national party.

“They seemed to be focused on states they maybe shouldn’t have been focused on,” the operative said, referring specifically to New Mexico and Michigan, where the governors association supported Dick DeVos, who lost to Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) by 14 points despite spending $18 million of his own money.

The operative said a lot of Republicans in the area are disappointed with the governors association.

A national consultant who does a lot of work in Oklahoma and Kansas said those two states represent two of the biggest missed opportunities because they are so cheap to play in. In Kansas, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius easily withstood a challenge from Republican Jim Barnett, 58-41.

“These are both places where the RGA could have come in and spent some early money in very inexpensive media markets,” the consultant said. “And yet they go decide to spend money on Bill Richardson.”

The consultant also said more could have been done in Arkansas, where Democrat Mike Beebe defeated Republican Asa Hutchinson 55-41 to replace Huckabee.

Conversely, Richard Dresner, a GOP consultant who has worked for and is close to Huckabee, said Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma were not winnable. He said the prevailing Republican strategy of relying on the party’s vaunted turnout machine was more responsible for Republican losses than a lack of funds.

“I don’t think it would have made any difference if they would have spent more money in places like Kansas or Arkansas,” Dresner said. “Nothing could have saved the governor’s race in Arkansas unless Mike Huckabee was running.”

The RGA is a registered 527 organization, and its filings are not required to be as frequent or as detailed as party committee reports. Its most recent filing covers the cycle through Sept. 30, and its next one isn’t due until early December.

The Richardson ad was disclosed to the New Mexico Secretary of State, and it is available on the governors association website. It features a cartoon Richardson bouncing around a map of the United States and suggests he is running for president instead of governor.

It makes no mention of Republican challenger John Dendahl, who in June replaced primary winner J.R. Damron as the party’s candidate.

As of their pre-election filing, Richardson had spent a record $11 million on the race, while Dendahl had spent less than $300,000.

All of the other ads on the association website were for much closer races. There were several in Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin.

RGA Executive Director Phil Musser pointed out that the association, which is headed by Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.), raised a record $20 million in the first nine months of 2006 and contributed record sums to candidates. The association is the largest 527 of the 2006 cycle, according to Politicalmoneyline.com.

“The RGA made a strategic decision in races where we believed that the contests were close, and in order to fund those races, we told candidates up front that you had to be able to demonstrate that you were viable within 10 points of reach,” Musser said. “And for races that they were viable within 10 points of reach, we went the extra mile.”

Musser said the association made the maximum direct contributions allowed by state law in Kansas and Oklahoma, $2,000 and $5,000, respectively, and that beyond that it would have required setting up an independent expenditure campaign. He said the association spent nearly $1 million in Arkansas.

“We were judicious about applying our resources where we thought we had the best opportunities to win,” he said.

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes gubernatorial races for the Cook Political Report, said the association was justified in not going into Kansas and Oklahoma because there were no signs that either Sebelius or Henry was vulnerable.

“Nobody ever thinks they get enough money,” Duffy said.