CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Looking for a new direction, many Republicans are turning to the states for an antidote to their 2012 election drubbing.
Republicans are praising the tax and economic growth policies put forward by several GOP governors as a way the party can appeal to the pocketbook needs of voters and avoid the perils of divisive social issues that they believe undermined Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. With governors in 30 states, Republicans say they may be able to pave a path to power from outside Washington.
"Our governors are America's reformers in chief. There is a movement in America being led by our 30 Republican governors," said GOP strategist Ari Fleischer, speaking on the sidelines of the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in Charlotte. "That's a source of inspiration and an example."
The work of governors like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and several GOP governors in Democratic-leaning Rust Belt states are being viewed as case studies for Republicans searching for ways to change the tone and direction of the party after President Barack Obama's re-election.
How Republicans go about rebounding from 2012 dominated discussions in Charlotte, where party officials gathered in a large hotel ballroom with the words, "Renew, Grow, Win," projected on large screens. Fleischer and several Republican strategists are developing a blueprint to help Republicans reach new voters and compete more effectively in elections.
Jindal, in a keynote address Thursday night, said his party was too focused on debt-cutting austerity measures in Washington and had failed to connect with voters on more basic near-term issues like jobs and economic growth.
The Louisiana governor, who is viewed as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, has discussed plans to replace state income taxes with higher sales taxes. He said the tax code has become too complicated for average taxpayers and said states need to make reforms to eliminate loopholes that benefit small segments of the population.
"We must focus on real people outside of Washington, not the lobbyists and government inside Washington," Jindal said. "We must stop competing with Democrats for the job of `government manager' and lay out ideas that can unleash the dynamic abilities of the American people."
Other Republican activists cited Kansas, where Brownback has slashed income tax rates for individuals and eliminated taxes for nearly 200,000 companies in the state. His administration has turned over delivery of Medicaid services to private health insurers, a step he says will hold down costs.
Republicans also promote the work of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who pushed through "right to work" legislation that bars unions from requiring workers to pay dues or representation fees, even if they are covered by union contracts.
And they view Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as a breakthrough leader for his much-publicized push to strip public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights – and his ability to survive a union-led campaign to recall him.
"The governors really did provide a model, particularly as you look at states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, where we couldn't win in the presidential," said Henry Barbour, a Republican national committeeman from Mississippi. "Those governors, they connect with the people, and they do it, really, on a policy basis."
Democrats say the Republican economic approaches in these states simply shift the tax burden from wealthier families to middle-income earners and the poor.
"The more that Republican governors want to highlight the same failed, top-down economic policies that were overwhelmingly rejected by voters in November, the better," said Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. He called the policies "shell games and gimmicks that reward the wealthiest Americans."
Many of the Republican policies have been met with protests at statehouses and intense criticism from Democrats. But Republicans say it shows a commitment to growing the economy and provides a way to put social issues on the back burner.
Republicans here said the major lessons of 2012 were the damage it caused among Latino voters when Romney urged the "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants, and the alienation among women in states where Republican candidates supported new abortion laws. As they look forward, Republicans say a focus on economy – along with a new tone – is the better way.
"The election was a wake-up call to all of us that we can't continue to be doing what we've been doing and win elections," said Alabama Republican chairman Bill Armistead.