Welcome back, Barbour

With disgraced South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford out as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), it’s time for the GOP to take this bushel of lemons dumped at our doorstep and get very busy making lemonade.

Along with the sad, bad, excruciatingly embarrassing news about Sanford’s affair with a woman from Argentina, there is a silver lining for the GOP. One of the smartest, shrewdest, most effective strategists in the Republican Party has returned to a key leadership post. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), previously in line for Sanford’s job as chairman of the RGA, is now in the post, and not a moment too soon.

The GOP is developing a deep bench for the 2012 presidential primary. Sanford toppled off. Barbour has been mentioned as someone who belongs there. Term limits as governor of Mississippi and speeding up the clock to serve as RGA chairman pretty much ensure his spot on the bench, which also sports Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, undoubtedly with several more to emerge.

The ultimate Washington insider, Barbour went home to Mississippi in 2003 and ran against the Democrat incumbent governor — a tough task for anyone. Far from a “sure thing,” he wasn’t afraid to wear out the shoe leather working hard for the prize — working at least as hard as he’d advised candidates for decades to do. He translated well from inside the Washington Beltway to “back home.” He earned his stripes as a candidate and the respect of voters in his home state, as well as his many friends and admirers around the country, defeating Gov. Ronnie Musgrove with the largest voter turnout for a gubernatorial race in the history of the state. From fundraising, campaign strategy, party-building, candidate recruitment and media training to knowing the ins and outs of Capitol Hill and the White House, Barbour’s leadership and expertise is unparalleled.

As governor of Mississippi, the Reagan Republican garnered the endorsement of several high-profile Democrats in his bid for reelection. And he did the state and the nation proud when his beloved Mississippi was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, garnering comparisons to Rudy Giuliani in the tragic wake of Sept. 11. His efforts to evacuate residents prior to Katrina, crack down on looters and rebuild after the devastation now serve as a blueprint for future disaster management for other governors.

A hugely successful and trusted lobbyist, he’s as comfortable in the halls of power as when teaching Sunday school back home. Unapologetic for being a lobbyist, a Republican and a Southern white male, his cheerful endurance in politics and government speaks for itself. As chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), he was known (and beloved) for treating the lowest-ranking employee with the same respect and friendliness as the highest-level donor or bigwig who entered the building. He walked the building, made an effort to know everyone’s name and made a national party headquarters an uncharacteristically pleasant place to work. To this day, a commonly uttered and affectionate beginning to Republican operatives’ sentences is “Back when Haley was chairman ... ” He hasn’t been chairman for more than a decade, but folks are still learning from his leadership.

A former aide in Reagan’s White House, and heralded as one of the best RNC chairmen in decades, Barbour has long been considered the gold standard of party leaders. His leadership as GOP party chairman helped usher in the first Republican House and Senate majorities in a generation.

For those familiar with Barbour’s commitment and acumen to recruit, train and support GOP candidates at all levels, it may be a challenge to imagine him taking on rivals in a presidential primary. His natural inclination is to support Republican candidates, and he would likely have no struggle employing Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” But whether as king or kingmaker, Haley Barbour’s return to national party leadership is welcome news indeed.

Jacobus, president of Capitol Strategies PR, has managed congressional campaigns, worked on Capitol Hill and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.  She appears on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News as a GOP strategist.