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GOP looks to red states' successes for answers

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Republican Party leadership is looking at red state successes as a national model
  • Many potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates hail from Republican-dominated states
  • Immigration, gun law reform and balanced budgets often easier on state level, experts say
  • GOP will have to figure out why there is a disconnect between state success; national failures

Washington (CNN) -- While Republican Party leaders are knee-deep in mea culpas and issuing public floggings over election-year losses, they are heaping hosannas on the governors and statehouses out in the red states of middle America and the South.

That praise is well-deserved.

In places such as Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana and Wisconsin, Republicans control the governor's mansion and the legislature. In all, 30 of the nation's 50 governors and 28 of the country's legislatures are Republican.

Now, as the Republican Party undergoes a makeover in the wake of 2012 election losses, party leaders are casting an eye toward red states in the hopes of replicating those types of victories.

"At the federal level, much of what Republicans are doing is not working beyond the core constituencies that make up the party. On the state level, however, it is a different story," wrote the authors of Monday's 100-page Republican National Committee report analyzing the party's election year losses.

GOP has power where it counts: The states

"Republican governors are America's reformers in chief," the report continued. "They continue to deliver on conservative promises of reducing the size of government while making people's lives better. They routinely win a much larger share of the minority vote than GOP presidential candidates, demonstrating an appeal that goes beyond the base of the party."

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The states have also cultivated a crop of up-and-coming Republican leaders who are potential 2016 presidential contenders: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

"The large number of Republican governors represents a very deep bench for future national-level leadership of the Republican Party, and there are some GOP governors who seem to be doing particularly well," said Jim Garand, a political science professor at Louisiana State University.

While Republican lawmakers on the national level have been forced to tread gingerly as Congress cobbles out gun reform legislation, more than half of the nation's legislatures -- many of them Republican-controlled -- have seen measures introduced that aim to nullify the effect of any federal ban on firearms, assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Will states go where Congress hasn't on gun laws?

Republicans on the federal level are now being cautioned to watch their tone in discussing ongoing immigration reform efforts and steer clear of language that suggests the party doesn't want immigrants in the U.S.

But last year, lawmakers in both red and blue states enacted 156 laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The laws ran the gamut from Colorado, Georgia and Tennessee's laws setting residency requirements for attending state-funded educational institutions to employment verification in such states as Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia.

"Many Republicans have told me they couldn't care less about Washington, because legislation with real impact is being proposed and passed in the states. That's why you've seen groups quietly backing initiatives on the state level and bypassing the hot lights and screaming media in Washington," CNN contributor Roland Martin wrote this week. "The real battles on same-sex marriage, abortion, education, spending, labor unions, and, yes, the Affordable Care Act, are happening state by state."

But governors and legislatures are dealing with different political realities, and it might not be that easy for the party to replicate that type of success on the national level, political experts say. For example, it's easier for a Republican governor to get his agenda approved when he hails from a state with a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature.

In other cases, such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott's reluctant acceptance of a Medicare expansion, Republican governors have wagered that the political blowback is worth taking a more moderate stance on some issues, said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

Further, Republican lawmakers on the state level get credit from national leaders for balancing the budget and trimming debt, but many states have laws requiring this, Geer said.

"The state has to worry about the economy, but the federal government gets the lion's share of the blame for the economy," Geer said.

However, President Barack Obama's election wins in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Mexico -- states with Republican governors -- would suggest there is some kind of GOP breakdown between what happens in statewide elections versus the top of the ticket, Geer said.

"It's important for them to think about that at this juncture," he said. "They are successful at the state level, so why isn't that the case on federal level? Is it because they don't have the right candidate or right message?"

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