In the hunt for the White House, the GOP’s leading presidential contenders know they would struggle to win the voters who know them best.
From Minnesota to Massachusetts, the governors and Members of Congress who make up the evolving Republican field acknowledge that a path to general election victory might not include their home states.
Even the GOP’s rising stars who continue to be part of the presidential chatter, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, draw poor marks back home.
“I’m not a biblical scholar, but didn’t Christ say a prophet is not beloved in his hometown?” asked Tony Sutton, chairman of the Republican Party in Minnesota, the launching pad for two Republican candidates this cycle. “But I don’t think that makes any difference in a national election.”
Indeed, Republican observers and those associated with the campaigns are quick to dismiss the significance of unpopularity back home. But Democrats have a different perspective and an aggressive message.
“Perhaps nothing says more about the records of the Republican field than the fact that many of them would struggle in their own states,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse. “The voters in these states know the records of these candidates and the majority are unlikely to support them.”
Easy for him to say, given that President Barack Obama would seem a lock to win Illinois in 2012. As the Democrats battled for the nomination in 2008, neither Obama nor then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) was going to have a problem on the home turf.
This time around, the Republicans face challenges because so many hail from states with a Democratic voter registration advantage. Plus, some of the candidates have shifted away from the moderate positions that helped elect them in the first place.
“On the face of it, some people might say, ‘Oh wow, you can’t win your own state? You’re a joke.’ But not really, when you look at how complicated politically it is,” said David Urban, a Republican consultant associated with Rick Santorum’s campaign.
Santorum admits that a path to the presidency does not necessarily include Pennsylvania, where he served as a Senator for two terms. That’s because Santorum knows there’s little chance that Keystone State voters who handed him a 17-point drubbing in 2006 would support him again.
“Pennsylvania is a tough state for a Republican period. It is very purple and very fickle,” Urban said. “I don’t think it’s an indictment on Rick for not being able to win Pennsylvania.”
Pennsylvania last supported a Republican for president in 1988, but even with a Democratic registration advantage of more than a million, the GOP still considers it a swing state.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday suggests former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is actually more popular in Pennsylvania than Santorum, who is best known for his cultural conservative credentials. Santorum trailed in both a primary matchup against Romney (16 percent to 21 percent) and a general election matchup against Obama (38 percent to 49 percent).
Romney has troubles of his own back home.
He convinced a majority of Massachusetts voters to elect him governor in 2002, winning just 50 percent of the vote and defeating his Democratic rival by 5 points. Romney served one term and did not seek re-election in 2006, having already taken steps to launch his first bid for the White House. His campaign knows that he’s likely never to win over the majority of Massachusetts voters again.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said it’s a “very challenging state for any Republican presidential candidate,” given it’s “one of the bluest states in the country.”
“It’s no small miracle for any Republican to win statewide in Massachusetts,” Williams said.
Ronald Reagan was the last GOP presidential nominee to capture the Bay State in a general election. And Obama won there by 26 points in 2008.
There have been various Republican governors in recent decades, but nearly all of them — Romney included — were elected in lower-turnout nonpresidential years.
Polling released this month by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling shows just 40 percent of Massachusetts voters have a favorable opinion of their former governor. Obama led Romney by 20 points — 57 percent to 37 percent — in a general election matchup.
But the numbers offer Romney a glimmer of good news.
Romney “actually” has good numbers with independents (52 percent to 39 percent favorability spread), “a decent amount” of popularity with Democrats (19 percent), and a GOP base that likes him (74 percent to 21 percent), PPP pollster Tom Jensen wrote in an analysis to go along with the poll.
“But there are just too many Democrats in the electorate for all of that to add up to good numbers overall,” Jensen wrote.
Sutton thinks Minnesota could be a different story in 2012.
“I know history is not on our side,” the GOP chairman said. “I’m convinced this is the year we break that streak.”
That streak? It’s been 39 years since Minnesota voters last supported a Republican for president — Richard Nixon in 1972.
Sutton credited Walter Mondale’s position on the ticket in 1976, 1980 and 1984 for the long trend of Democratic wins.
But the hometown advantage that boosted Mondale doesn’t appear to be helping Tim Pawlenty or Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Pawlenty, who left the governor’s office just five months ago, is best positioned among 2012 contenders to carry Minnesota. But that’s not saying much.
PPP found this month that Pawlenty trailed Obama in a general election matchup 51 percent to 43 percent. Bachmann, a three-term Minnesota Congresswoman and tea party favorite, fared far worse. She lagged behind Obama by 21 points — 56 percent to 35 percent.
Sutton still believes a shifting political landscape in Minnesota presents an “opportunity” for the GOP next fall.
Recent polling suggests there is no chance for Christie to win the Garden State, should he change his mind and decide to run for president, as some national Republicans hope.
A whopping 65 percent of New Jersey voters would oppose a Christie candidacy, according to a Rutgers University Eagleton poll released in mid-April. And though Christie generates enthusiasm from Republicans nationwide, just 44 percent of New Jersey Republicans supported the outspoken executive, who earned a 6-point victory in 2009, ousting Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine with less than 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Practically speaking, the Republican nominee won’t need to carry traditionally Democratic states such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey or even swing states such as Pennsylvania to capture the White House.
But the DNC’s Woodhouse said that the GOP candidates’ weak support back home should not be forgotten: “That should be a wake-up call to voters elsewhere.”