"Democratic governors are going to reassert ourselves in the Democratic Party, both on policy and organizational issues," Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico said Wednesday. "Democrats can't be a Washington-based party."
The political call to arms will be launched Thursday, when the Democratic Governors Association meets to officially name Richardson its chairman and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm its vice chair.
The governors also will hold private talks about the future of the party, their contribution to an effort by anxious Democrats everywhere to determine how to recover from the devastating Nov. 2 elections.
In addition to retaining the White House, Republicans strengthened their majorities in Congress and made gains in state legislatures. Democratic Sen. John Kerry failed to win a single state in the South or Southwest while President Bush increased his percentages throughout the Midwest.
There are 21 Democratic governors, including a dozen in states won by Bush: Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. In Washington state, Republican Dino Rossi was certified as the winner Tuesday, but his winning 42-vote margin makes another recount inevitable.
"Democratic governors know how to win," Richardson said. "We are proposing pragmatic, moderate policies that create jobs, that make schools better, that broaden access to health care with public-private partnerships."
Richardson and his gubernatorial colleagues stopped short of criticizing Kerry, but had no reservations about taking swipes at the party's Washington leadership in general.
"We really have been acting as if we're the party in power, which is to say we have been the defenders of the status quo," said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the outgoing DGA chairman.
"We've defended Medicaid the way it is; we're constantly defending policies as they exist," the Iowan said. "We must defend the results those programs offer, but be open to strategies to improve health care and improve education. We have to be the drivers of those policies."
Indeed, states traditionally are the laboratories of national policy, and governors in both parties have a history of innovation. Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois has sought to increase access to cheaper prescription drugs in Canada. Gov. Brad Henry of Oklahoma has cracked down on methamphetamine production. Richardson, along with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, is a leader in renewable energy policy.
"Democratic governors are poised to be the key leaders of the Democratic message nationally because we're here, on the ground, delivering the things that matter most to people every day," Granholm said. "We're not just talking about being cost effective and innovative, we're doing it."
Their can-do and have-done approach to public policy is one reason why governors tend to be better presidential candidates than members of Congress, experts say.
"Democratic governors need to assert themselves because governors have to balance budgets, governors have to deal with competing constituents, governors have to put together political organizations irrespective of party and have to try to represent a whole citizenry," said Democratic strategist Doug Schoen.
He noted that the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, are former governors from states that were trending Republican.
"Philosophically, they have to be where their constituents are, and that's a lot closer to America than what the national Democratic Party and congressional party have come to represent," Schoen said.
As for tactics, leading governors are seeking to increase the DGA budget and put staff in more than 30 states. The operatives would build grassroots organizations for gubernatorial elections in the next two years and the 2008 presidential race.
Richardson argued that the national party and presidential campaigns tend to dismiss statewide political organizations of governors "which is a big mistake." Vilsack said the Democratic National Committee made great leaps in raising money and updating the party technologies, "but now it's time to take the next step, and governors have to play that role."
There is one step that Richardson or Vilsack said they won't take — seeking the DNC chairmanship. Officials say it is unlikely that any governor will run for the post, in part because heading the DNC would complicate any 2008 presidential aspirations.
That is a step many of the governors are contemplating.