Published May 18, 2012
DANVILLE, Va. – In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell runs TV ads hailing the state's business growth. Ohio Gov. John Kasich tells anyone who will listen that 100,000 jobs have been created or retained on his watch. And Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder promotes a state budget that's on solid ground for the first time in a decade.
All that optimism from Republican governors in key presidential election battlegrounds conflicts with the pessimistic message that Mitt Romney is spreading. The GOP presidential candidate is focused on the nation's fragile economic rebound as he works to persuade Americans to dump President Barack Obama.
"America counted on President Obama to rescue the economy, tame the deficit and help create jobs" but instead "we are enduring the most tepid recovery in modern history," Romney said this week in Des Moines, Iowa. That's the same state where GOP Gov. Terry Branstad has been crowing about an unemployment rate that has dropped to 5.1 percent from 5.9 percent a year ago.
It's just the latest example of how, less than six months before the general election, Romney can end up in an awkward situation as he argues that the economy is deeply troubled while GOP governors salute an economic renaissance in their states.
How can it be both?
"Well, it is both," McDonnell, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said recently. "Nationally, we're still in the doldrums because our national economic policies are inept as led by this president: more taxes, more government programs, more regulation, lots of rhetoric and limited results."
But things are looking up in states like his, he said, adding: "I'd say most of the credit in Virginia goes to the private sector and the entrepreneurs."
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, hopes to ride a wave of voter discontent with the economy into the White House. No president has won re-election with a national unemployment rate above 7.2 percent. The rate stood at 8.1 percent in April.
Any number of factors, gas prices among them, could shift voter attitudes about the economy between now and Election Day.
To win, Romney must convince voters — especially those in the roughly dozen swing-voting states where the race is likely to be decided — that the situation is so bad that that they should give him a chance to do what Obama hasn't been able to do: get the economy really going.
Obama says voters should give him four more years so the nation's recovery can continue, and he warns of a backslide if Romney takes over.
Democrats, like Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, contend the country would be in far worse condition had the president not pumped stimulus money into the economy in 2009, saying it was directly responsible for new jobs. Romney and Republican governors contend that the infusion has acted as a brake on the economy, not the accelerator.
"If our economy had been stimulated differently, we'd be farther along than we are at the present time," said Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama, a state where the jobless rate fell by 2 percentage points over the past year.
In a way, however, Republican governors, many of them freshmen elected in 2010, aren't making it easy for Romney to make his case.
McDonnell, for one, spent an entire week canvassing his state and used $400,000 from his own political action committee to run TV ads statewide trumpeting a 2½-year turnaround in job growth and business expansion. Virginia's unemployment rate fell from 7.3 percent the month he took office in January 2010 — the depth of the crippling recession — to 5.6 percent last month.
"We've been rated the top state for business in America," McDonnell bragged, ticking off citations from several outfits after touring a newly opened circuit board factory in Danville.
Ohio's Kasich is equally upbeat as he takes credit for 100,000 new or retained jobs since taking office in January 2011and for a new, private job-creation agency called JobsOhio. The state's unemployment rate ticked down from 7.5 percent in March to 7.4 percent last month.
Michigan's Snyder beams when he talks about a jobless rate that has fallen by 2.2 percentage points in his state, Romney's boyhood home, in the past year. And Branstad boasts: "The unemployment rate in Iowa is dropping dramatically, and the kind of jobs that we're creating are the kinds we want."
In some cases, the competing messages come across as GOP governors — like McDonnell and Snyder — stand next to Romney to introduce him when he campaigns in their states.
Rising-star Republican governors who are potential Romney vice-presidential picks also are publicly giddy about a thawing jobs market as corporations and small businesses expand, and they point to steadily improving tax collections in their states as proof.
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley talks up a jobless rate that slid from 12 percent in December 2009 to 8.8 percent in April. Her commerce secretary, Bobby Hitt, says that South Carolina recruited a projected 20,000 jobs and $5.1 billion in investment last year, and the state Commerce Department churns out press releases on every company expansion, whether it creates 10 jobs or 500.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal talks up his state's unemployment rate (7.1 percent in April) and job growth. Even as the latest Louisiana revenue estimates exposed a $211 million shortfall, Jindal insisted the state's economic picture wasn't grim. He notes that Bayou State unemployment rates are below the regional and national averages and points to 44,000 Louisiana jobs added over the past year.
To be sure, it's not just GOP-governed states that are experiencing economic growth. Forty-eight states have seen a drop in unemployment rates over the past 12 months — New York's rate increased from 8.0 percent to 8.5 percent, and Rhode Island's remains unchanged at 11.2 percent. Democratic governors, however, are quick to credit Obama with helping their states rebound.
"Our country has now seen 26 straight months of private-sector job growth under President Obama's leadership," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. "We are moving in the right direction toward full recovery."
Ultimately, the presidential race will come down to whether voters feel the economy is improving or stagnating. And the outcome will determine whether Romney and the Republicans are successful in squaring the broader economic criticism with progress in key states.
Bob Lewis reported from Danville and Richmond in Virginia, Phillip Rawls from Montgomery, Ala. Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, Kathy Barks Hoffman in Lansing, Mich., Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tenn., Randall Chase in Dover, Del., Seanna Adcox in Columbia, S.C., Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.