- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
Vice President Mike Pence, the calm amid the storm that is the Trump administration, came to Austin on Wednesday to lay out for his party’s record-tying number of Republican governors what the GOP message will be in 2018 stripped of tweets and tumult and the outsized personality of the man — his boss — who dominates American politics virtually every waking hour of every day.
After praising the people of Texas for their fortitude and heart through the trials of Hurricane Harvey and the Sutherland Springs shooting, and lauding Gov. Greg Abbott’s leadership through challenging times, Pence offered greetings to the annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association from President Donald Trump.
Amid Trump’s record-low poll numbers for a president a year into his term, and last week’s electoral defeats for Republicans — most notably in the gubernatorial election in Virginia — the party’s best bet to retain its thorough dominance in statehouses and its control of both houses of Congress in next year’s midterm elections, might be to lower the volume and focus on tangible evidence that, with continued Republican hegemony, “to borrow a phrase,” Pence said, “we are going to make America great again.”
“Optimism is sweeping America,” Pence said to a packed JW Marriott Austin ballroom. “More Americans are working than ever before.”
“The stock market is setting records,” he said. “The economy is growing again.”
“In a word, we’ve got real momentum,” Pence said.
Where others lament an administration with nary a legislative victory, Pence described a Congress that is on the verge of enacting major tax reform that would also achieve the long-promised, perpetually deferred GOP dream of undoing Obamacare.
“We are going to repeal the individual mandate that is at the heart of Obamacare,” Pence promised, declaring the end of the mandate a “middle-class tax cut.”
The current tax code is thicker than the Bible “with none of the Good News,” said Pence, a former Indiana governor, who Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker introduced as having remained “Midwest nice.”
A ‘wake-up call’
Pence didn’t mention the recent electoral bad news.
At a press conference earlier in the day, Walker, the association’s chairman, said the stinging loss in Virginia was historically predictable in a state that Hillary Clinton had carried. But the big, 9-point Democratic margin for Ralph Northam was a shocker, particularly since Walker described Republican Ed Gillespie, as an exceptional Republican candidate.
Walker said Republicans had to take to heart a surge in Democratic turnout in Virginia, which he hoped will be a “wake-up call” for Republican voters back in states like Wisconsin, where he’s up for re-election in 2018.
Republicans now serve as governors in 34 states, including Bernie Sanders’ Vermont — tying a record set almost a century ago. Some 25 other Republican gubernatorial candidates for 2018 joined the conference.
Republican fortunes, though, might rise or fall on Trump, and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, also a former Republican National Committee chairman, laid the blame for the controversies that have enveloped the first year of the Trump presidency on a news media that he said is driven by its negative view of Trump — “and not just on the editorial pages.”
For example, Barbour said he believes that The Washington Post held publication of its story on Alabama U.S. Senate nominee Roy Moore’s unsavory pursuit of girls as young as 14 when he was in his 30s, so that the story would break after it was too late for Alabama Republicans to get Moore’s name off the special election ballot as the party nominee.
The story’s timing, Barbour said, is all about trying to deny Trump Republican control of the Senate.
Walker and Florida Gov. Rick Scott did not hesitate for a second when asked about Moore at their press conference.
“He should get out,” Walker said.
“This is way above partisan politics,” Scott said. “This is about doing the right thing. It’s pretty clear what’s right and what’s wrong. This is not about Roy Moore. This is about victims.”
Walker was asked whether the controversy surrounding Moore might contribute to a blue wave that could adversely affect the party’s gubernatorial prospects in 2018.
“No,” Walker said. “No more than the Democrats had to answer for (former U.S. Rep.) Anthony Weiner or (former New York Gov.) Elliot Spitzer or anybody else out there,” said Walker, referring to two New York Democrats who disgraced themselves in sex scandals.
“Voters in our states are smart. I think a lot of people in politics or covering politics assume that people aren’t very smart. They are. Whether they vote for us or not, I think voters are smart, and they are going to want you to answer for things you are going to do as governor, not what somebody else does in some other state,” Walker said.
But, Walker was asked, if Alabama voters, knowing what they know, elect Moore to the Senate, should Republicans in the Senate seek to keep him from being seated?
“I think they’ve made it pretty clear. You heard Cory Gardner the other day,” said Walker, referring to the Colorado senator, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who said Monday that if Moore is elected, the Senate should move to expel him.
Pence made no mention of Moore, and he took no questions during his day in Austin.