Interview with Phil Cox of the RGA
Phil Cox is not a household name, but as the new executive director of the Republican Governors' Association, he may have as big a role as any Republican in sustaining the GOP's momentum and keeping the money flowing to Republican candidates around the country.
In the ruinous tenure of the RNC chairman Michael Steele, the RGA stepped up to the plate, raising in excess of $60 million last year and partnering with successful Republican gubernatorial campaigns in South Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and elsewhere. Under the chairmanship of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the RGA became a critical source of financial aid and advertising support. Republicans picked up a net of 6 seats and now outnumber Democrats 29 to 20.
Cox had only been on the job three days when I spoke to him by phone. His role as the campaign manager for Virgina Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009 convinced him that he wanted to work for the RGA. "They were incredible partners," he recalls. In 2010 he ran races in Florida and Pennsylvania, but when the RGA position opened he leaped at the chance. He, not surprisingly, calls it the "best political committee in the country." But he makes a credible case that his job is made infinitely easier because the organization is "run and led by governors" who are, in effect, "successful CEO's" who have run and won in diverse states.
He sees governors as a different breed than national politicians. As the executives of their states "they have to deliver." In describing the distinction between governors and legislators he explains, "The fundamental difference is that the buck stops with them. In the Congress or the Senate you're one of 365 or 100. You're casting votes or making floor speeches." But governorships, especially in states with serious fiscal woes, are "where the rubber meets the road."
He's well aware of the difficulties at the Republican National Committee. (There is, a source who was in attendance at the recent RGA meeting tells me, "unanimity" among governors that Steele "has to go"). Cox delicately puts it, "A strong RNC is in the very best interests of the Republican Party and our candidates nationally." He says he's confident that the RNC will "get through" the election and straighten itself out.
Cox is more than cognizant of the fact more than one Republican governor may be running for president soon. He dismisses the idea that this makes his job more difficult. He says, "It just brings more attention to the fact that we have a great group of governors. It's a sign of our strength."
It is also the case that with ObamaCare front-and-center and a Democratic president, the RGA and its governors are looking to play a bigger policy role. Cox says the RGA's goal is not just to elect more Republicans but "to support good public policy." He contends we are on the brink of "a resurgence of federalism." With Barbour in a new policy role for the RGA, he predicts that on major issues such as health care we will see governors increasingly act "with one voice."
As for fundraising, Cox says the RGA is in the process of setting forth its four-year plan, but that 2011 is a "different cycle" than 2010. Unlike the 37 races in 2010, there will be only 3 this year. He jokes that "it would be nice" to raise as much cash as they did last year, but the focus is on putting together a multi-year plan that will fund races in 2012 (when there are 11 races) and into 2014 when there again will be more than 30 races.
As for this year, Cox is confident that Bobby Jindal will be re-elected in Louisiana and that, for the first time in 125 years, Mississippi will elect a Republican to replace a fellow Republican. Mississippi and Kentucky will both have gubernatorial primaries, and Cox confirms that, as in the past, the RGA will let those "play out" before supporting the Republican nominee. As for Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear is up for re-election, Cox is more cautious. "It's hard to defeat an incumbent governor," he says. But nevertheless he promises the race will be "very competitive."
I ask Cox about diversity and the need for the GOP to shed its image as the "white, male" party. Cox is emphatic, "It is incredibly important as our counties and states become more diverse" that the party does the same. He points to Texas, which will be a "majority minority" state within the decade. In that environment, he deems it essential from an "electoral standpoint" to have "serious," policy-minded governors such as Nikki Haley, Brian Sandoval, Bobby Jindal and Susana Martinez.
In a time in which the White House and Senate are controlled by Democrats and numerous governors or former governors are in the 2012 presidential mix, the RGA is going to continue playing a critical role for the party. But in the end, as Cox puts it, it boils down to whether the Republican governors can "deliver." If not, there are sure to be fewer of them.
| January 6, 2011; 12:12 PM ET
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