Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said dismayed Republicans should look to the states for hope.
"Many people are frustrated with Republicans nationally … but go down the line of Republican governors and you’ll see leaders who are more optimistic, more relevant, and more courageous," Walker said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon.
The GOP has tried to figure out how to broaden its appeal to blue collar workers, minorities, and women in the wake of Barack Obama’s reelection.
A number of prominent congressional Republicans have called on the party to rethink its traditional policy stances. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) has spearheaded efforts to reform the nation’s immigration system as a way of winning over Hispanics, while Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) has called on conservatives to rally behind gay marriage to appeal to younger voters.
Walker sees deficient leadership and messaging, rather than deficient policy, behind the GOP’s woes and points to conservatives' ability to elect 30 governors as proof that Republicans are not a dying breed.
"In the states, you saw Republicans reach out to blue collar voters, young people, and immigrants and get elected. We haven’t done that at the national level," he said. "We get caught up in our heads, talking about fiscal cliffs, the national debt, instead of talking about the issues."
The Republicans need messaging that is worthy of the party's "great ideas," said Walker. The party has relied too heavily on pointing out the nation’s troubles instead of offering solutions that inspire confidence.
"We need to use language that is relevant to people—they’re concerned that their sons and daughters won’t have jobs, that their neighbor’s been out of work for six months, that their children and grandchildren won’t be able to afford this massive national debt," he said. "In Wisconsin, we were realistic about our challenges, but optimistic about solving our problems."
Walker faced a multi-billion dollar deficit when he was elected in 2010 and closed the gap without raising taxes by taking on the state’s powerful public employees unions. His reforms, which curtailed collective bargaining for benefits and gave public employees the option of opting out of unions, made him a conservative darling and liberal pariah.
Big labor conducted mass demonstrations at the state capital and launched a recall. Walker stuck by his policies and became the first governor to survive a recall, winning by a larger majority than he did in his initial 2010 run.
The reforms emboldened Republican governors in the Midwest, a historic labor stronghold, to successfully take on union interests. Walker’s victory inspired Indiana and Michigan to become right-to-work states in order to compete for job growth.
"As conservatives we love competition; we don’t shy away from it," he said. "The good news amongst Republican governors is that people have taken on the big reforms in education and budgets and entitlements."
Republicans at the state level are "doing bold, aggressive things to create jobs," rather than hindering the Obama agenda in Washington. While Republicans at the national level have created presidential chatter using microphones, governors have to rely on their performance as a measure of their White House prospects, according to Walker.
While no stranger to microphones—he addressed a packed house of conservative activists at CPAC Saturday morning—the governor expects to be judged by his ability to actually govern.
"Americans have historically shown as a preference for electing chief executives [as president because] you sink or swim as governor, there’s no in between," Walker said.
Walker, along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, has attracted attention as a possible presidential contender when Obama vacates the White House in 2016. But the governor, while acknowledging his prospects, played coy at the idea of a national run.
"My number one job is to help create more jobs for the people of Wisconsin," he said. "I understand the talk, but I’ll let the pundit class talk about that."