New Jersey governor Chris Christie at the Republican National Convention in 2012
For those anxiously awaiting the emergence of a less-extreme Republican Party, 2014 got off to a depressing start. The Bridgegate scandal in New Jersey changed Governor Chris Christie’s image from lovable, gruff straight-talker to retributive, partisan bully. In Virginia, the once-rising star of former Governor Bob McDonnell—who came into office with strong Christian-right credentials but left after granting voting rights to ex-felons and spearheading a bipartisan effort to improve transportation infrastructure—crashed to earth when he was charged on 14 federal corruption counts of taking loans and gifts from a nutrition-supplement mogul and doing favors in return. He’ll be lucky to escape prison time. It’s not quite so bad for Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Many have posited him as a “moderate” possibility for 2016—moderate in that he limits his extremism to demolishing unions and killing government programs. But now he’s damaged goods, with an ongoing investigation of his 2012 recall election after a probe into improper campaign activities in 2010 resulted in the convictions of six Walker aides and allies.
Looking down the bench of big-name GOP moderates—which, let’s face it, really means right-wingers who occasionally reach out to the center—pundits tend to point to Jeb Bush, who not only shares a family name with the most unpopular president in recent times but who also hasn’t held an office, or campaigned for one, in quite a while. Then there’s Paul Ryan, who’s moderate, apparently, because he doesn’t say vicious things about minorities or women in public and only wants to privatize Medicare and Social Security and cut just about every remaining tax on the wealthy. Or Marco Rubio, who has remained loyal to Tea Party interests aside from one toe-dip into the scalding waters of immigration reform. (A toe-dip now qualifies you as a moderate.)
Of course, running for president—or hoping to—makes it hard to buck your party’s prevailing drift. Christie earned some bipartisan cred by embracing President Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandy. On other issues, from gay marriage to union-bashing, he’s thrown the hard right plenty of red meat. How else to win the Republican primaries? But in less-watched corners of the country, hidden away from D.C.’s chattering classes, more successful models of pragmatic conservatism can be found—governors who have been freer to govern and used that freedom to sometimes-surprising ends.
Nevada’s Brian Sandoval was elected in the Tea Party stampede of 2010; a former federal judge, he beat out the scandal-plagued sitting Republican governor in a primary that stressed Sandoval’s anti-immigrant, anti-tax, anti-government views. Once in office, though, Sandoval—while never straying from his version of fiscal conservatism—proved less predictable. He loudly criticized the Affordable Care Act, but after the Supreme Court upheld it, he became one of two Republican governors to both sign off on Medicaid expansion and allow the state to create its own health-care exchange. He’s called for comprehensive immigration reform and backed a successful bill to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s permits. Earlier this year, when the state party sent out a 13-question survey for candidates—one that looked suspiciously like a purity test—Sandoval refused to fill it out.
If he sounds like the next Republican who’s likely to face a big-money Tea Party challenge, think again. Sandoval is one of the five most popular governors in the country, maintaining approval ratings in the 60s. As of late February, with just a month to go before the filing deadline, not a single Tea Partier or Democrat had lined up to run against him this year. That might be rotten for democracy in Nevada, but it’s a good sign for Sandoval’s political future.
Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico has less of an independent streak than Sandoval, and she’s taken some flak for her unusually combative relationship with her state’s Democrat-led legislature. But she’s the only Republican governor besides Sandoval to back both Medicaid expansion and a state-based exchange. She’s popular, too, and expected to cruise to re-election with ease in November.
Sandoval and Martinez are the country’s only Latino governors, but they aren’t worth watching because they represent a magic formula for wooing Latinos to the GOP. (Sandoval actually fared worse among Latinos in 2010 than the previous Republican governor, an Anglo.) Diversity isn’t just about voting blocs; it’s also about broadening the definition of what a party can be, in terms of governance as well as race and ideology. Republicans need that kind of diversity in the worst way. The party has become extreme partly because it’s so homogeneous—and it has become even more homogeneous because it’s grown so extreme. If Republicans can welcome pragmatists—if not moderates—back into the fold and learn to look west for models of a saner conservatism, the GOP may yet have a future that Ronald Reagan could recognize.