GOP Governors Try to Re-Brand, Urge Party to Connect to 'Heart of America'

Scott Olson/Getty Images

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ.- GOP governors meeting this week at the Republican Governors' Association are not only trying to distinguish themselves from tarnished Washington politicians, aiming to rebrand a party hurt after the government shutdown, they are also urging their party to connect to the "heart of America."

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio at first chose not to directly criticize members of Congress in his party regarding last month's shutdown, saying Speaker John Boehner is "trying the best to lead the party."

"There are factions within the party that make it difficult for him," Kasich said at a press conference Wednesday. "Do I blame Boehner? No, Boehner is doing the best he can."

But, when asked to differentiate the government shutdown in the 1990s, when he was in Congress, to the recent one, he directly critiqued the strategy of tying the defunding of the Affordable Care Act to the funding of the government.

"When you don't control the White House or the U.S. Senate, you are not going to kill the administration's major policy objective. So the strategy of shutting it down with the hope they would get something, the answer to that was no," Kasich said, adding, "In the days when we would fight, you never poisoned the well."

"It's like they've poisoned all the wells in Washington and that's the difference between … the great result we got when I was there and what's happened here," Kasich said.

Kasich added that the relationships between the parties is at an all-time low in D.C., saying there is a "lack of cohesiveness, respect, and it's across the board."

"I'm just saying the town is not working," Kasich said. "Do Republicans bear some responsibility for it? Of course they do, but it's the whole mess, it's the whole thing … that is not working."

In a panel "The Key To GOP Messaging In 2014? at the tony Phoenician hotel here Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said "talking to people's hearts is that messaging part of it." He included immigration, which he said is "fixing to change and change substantially over the next 18 to 24 months," saying he believes the Mexican government's changing policies on oil and gas exploration will "completely change the immigration discussion."

"I would suggest the discussion is going to be where are we going to find enough people to fill all the jobs that we are helping to create in this country because everyone who had come over here illegally looking for a job to take care of their family is going home," Perry said at the forum seated alongside Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Kasich.

Kasich agreed that Republicans need to focus just as much on a message of caring and connecting with voters as putting people back to work.

"You can't ignore people who live in the shadows, that's the heart, somebody that is mentally ill … drug addiction, working poor, you can't let people get stuck on the other side of the bridge to prosperity," Kasich said. "People have to know that you care about them, that you understand them, if they are stuck in a ditch, you are going to put your shoulder to the back of their car and you are going to help push them out. And if we can demonstrate more of that, people will say that's kind of a new brand for Republicans, create jobs, compassion, care. I think it works. It shows we care."

Kasich expanded on that point in the press conference, saying he decided to support Medicaid expansion in Ohio, despite some conservative criticism, because "it is the right thing to do," focusing on the drug addicted and mentally ill.

"It's going to save lives and it's going to help people and you tell me what's more important than that I'm always going to feel good that I did something good," Kasich said, and when asked about the criticism around the expansion, he said he thinks the critics have "never been in somebody else's shoes."

During the panel Fallin echoed Kasich, saying that as a party they have "got to do a better job as a party of showing people that we listen, that we understand their problems, that we are doing to something and then keep our word and do something about it."

"That's the big difference between what our party stands for and what the Democrat party stands for, they have done a better job on messaging, making people that they really care more than Republicans do, but I don't believe that," Fallin said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the current head of the RGA who will hand the reigns over to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey this week, echoed those comments in a separate press conference. "We have to do a better job of defining what we are for" and "we don't want to outsource our brand management to D.C."

"We have to win the war of ideas, too often in D.C. we are defined as the party of no, too often we are defined about what we are against," Jindal said.

The Democratic Governors' Association responded to the Republican governor's comments saying, "No matter their rhetoric, Republican governors like Kasich continue to reward the wealthiest and well-connected at the expense of the middle class and working poor - a failed economic philosophy that was resoundingly rejected in their states in the 2012 presidential election."

Despite the serious nature of the discussion the conference has had its light moments so far. During the panel Wednesday, Kasich said he knew one topic that would get some "applause" from the crowd, stressing the party must change the way they conduct presidential debates.

Perry, who had some excruciating debate moments during the 2012 presidential campaign, began clapping and exclaimed, "Hell, yeah!"