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What Happened To The GOP In The Midwest?

This story was written by Jonathan Martin.

Ten years ago, Republicans held governorships in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. 

Today each is in the hands of a Democratic chief executive. 

As Republicans gather in Minnesota, one of the few heartland states that still has a Republican governor, a pressing question looms over the GOP: What has gone wrong for the party in the Midwest, and how can it recapture voters who are key to every presidential election and often serve as a political bellwether for the nation? 

In interviews with Politico, prominent Republicans throughout the region offer different diagnoses for the problem - and differ on just how worrisome the heartland woes are. But all agree that the GOP must focus on appealing to voters' day-to-day concerns, highlighting kitchen table issues in a region where times are tough and many are fleeing for the Sunbelt. 

"You've got to deal with things that affect people's lives," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, a tavern owner's son from Cincinnati. "Lower taxes, better schools, back to the basics. The Midwest needs to make some dramatic changes. We're not Florida or Arizona; we don't have great weather. So we've got to go back to the basics if we're going to keep people in the Midwest and grow the Midwest." 

"We haven't been that good on jobs and the economy," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a veteran member of Congress from western Michigan who is gearing up for a gubernatorial run in 2010. "Democrats have really hammered us on trade and manufacturing." 

But the Midwest, like other regions in the country, is not monolithic, and what works politically in part of the heartland may not be as effective in other parts of it. 

For Mitch Daniels, the conservative Republican governor of Indiana, one of the most conservative states in the Midwest, the GOP simply must be true to its core. 

"Our approach is firmly grounded in Republican principles," Daniels said. "We're cautious about the scope of government and seek market-based solutions." 

One can be an activist, he said, without creating new programs. 

"We found a way to tackle the infrastructure problem that 50 states are agonizing over, and it didn't cost a penny," he boasted, alluding to his controversial decision to lease the Indiana toll road to a private company. 

But for Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, an upper Midwest state with the Humphrey-McCarthy-Mondale-Wellstone progressive tradition, the party must take a populist tack. 

Citing the loss of manufacturing jobs and a demographic shift to the south and west, Pawlenty noted that "in times of decline, there is a tendency to turn to government." 

"You can't blame people - they're looking for solutions," he said. "But I don't think the Republican Party has done a very good job recalibrating to address these changing trends. 

"The party could use some freshening," he acknowledged. "We need new leadership, energy level and new ideas." 

And pushing conventional conservatism would not be enough, he said.

"Republicans should recruit candidates who are reformers, populists. A little bit of prairie populism within the confines of the Republican philosophy is a good thing."

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In his state, Pawlenty has done this by taking on the drug companies and pushing to allow prescription drug reimportation from Canada.

But Republicans admit that the answer to their political woes isn't just refocusing on certain issues or tailoring their rhetoric to appeal to the region's workaday voters.

The GOP, acknowledged Hoekstra, has made problems worse by spending too much money when it controlled Congress and abusing the trust of voters.

"You have to go back and earn it," he said. "It's about issues, our platform but alo keeping your nose clean. We didn't keep our nose clean in Washington."

Some state capitals saw the GOP ensnared in strikingly familiar corruption scandals. In Ohio, for example, Gov. Robert Taft limped out of office with Nixon-in-Watergate approval ratings. But the end of the GOP gubernatorial reign in the Midwest owed as much to simple arithmetic - the run of Republican governors got so long in places like Michigan and Wisconsin that they paid a price for their longevity.

"There's cyclicality to state politics," said Daniels. "Here in Indiana, we're counter-cyclical. Democrats ran the state for 16 years. We arrived as the party of change and reform very overtly three years ago."

Other Midwest states, he noted, "had long runs of Republican leadership, and it runs its course. Sooner or later, almost any team wears out its welcome. It is exactly the opposite here."

Michael Barone, principal co-author of the Almanac of American Politics and an authority on the state-by-state political landscape, agreed that some of the problems were "state-specific."

Different factors, he noted, have conspired against the GOP in different states: corruption in Ohio; changing political demography in Illinois around the Chicago suburbs; a split party in Iowa; and the lengthy period of Republican rule in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Noted Hoekstra about the Republican who served as governor from 1991 to 2003: "After [former Gov. John] Engler, people were saying we're just ready for a change."

Republicans are hopeful that Democrats may face such an itch when many heartland states hold gubernatorial contests in two years, especially in those states where Democrats also control the legislature.

"After Democrats raise taxes, let schools run amok without accountability and increase spending, it doesn't take long before public says, 'We've had enough of that!'" said Pawlenty.

And, Hoekstra added, a win by Barack Obama this fall would only make the itch more severe.

"Michigan is getting a front-seat view of what America will look like if Barack Obama is president," he said alluding to the tenure of two-term Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "We have a charismatic leader with no substance who wants to grow government."
By Jonathan Martin

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