LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Gov. Susana Martinez will hold the reins of the Republican Governors Association through the 2016 election cycle, after being elected Thursday by fellow GOP governors as the deep-pocketed national group’s new chairwoman.
The vote means Martinez’s national profile will likely rise, as she’s expected to spend large chunks of next year traveling out of state to raise money and rally support for Republican gubernatorial candidates around the country.
But she insisted the increased RGA duties – which began immediately with Thursday’s election – will not distract her from her day-to-day responsibilities in New Mexico.
“It’s an honor, and it allows me to showcase New Mexico throughout the country,” Martinez told the Journal during a break from the RGA annual meeting, held at the Encore at Wynn Las Vegas hotel. “I think that’s really an amazing opportunity.”
Martinez, who had been the RGA’s vice chairwoman, is the first woman and first Hispanic to lead the GOP governors group. She was recommended for the top position by the RGA’s executive committee and elected to the post Thursday by acclamation. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who recently dropped out of the Republican presidential race, was elected the group’s vice chairman.
No other Republican governors formally announced bids for the chairmanship.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, the RGA’s outgoing chairman, lauded Martinez as one of the Republican Party’s best leaders.
“She has made the tough decisions necessary to move New Mexico forward and knows what it takes to win in a blue state, a skill that will be vital to ensuring our governors and candidates have the resources they need to win in 2016,” Haslam said in a statement.
Martinez’s election as RGA chairwoman also drew immediate criticism from the Democratic Governors Association, which referenced recent reports on a federal grand jury probe involving the governor’s top political adviser, Jay McCleskey.
“We welcome Governor Martinez into this new role, and look forward to discussing the FBI investigation everywhere she campaigns in 2016,” DGA communications director Jared Leopold said in a statement.
Martinez has expressed confidence that McCleskey did nothing wrong. Asked Wednesday whether other GOP governors had raised concerns regarding the federal investigation involving how money was raised and spent for her 2010 inaugural celebration, she said, “Not at all.”
McCleskey was present for this week’s RGA meeting in Las Vegas as part of the governor’s entourage. He declined to comment Thursday on what his role might be with Martinez as the group’s new chairwoman.
McCleskey has worked as a consultant for the RGA in the past, most recently heading up the group’s independent expenditure efforts in Arizona and Nevada in 2014.
There are also familiar faces for Martinez among top-ranking RGA staffers, including former Governor’s Office policy director Janel Broderick, who now works as a policy director in Washington, D.C., for a nonprofit affiliated with the RGA.
With Thursday’s election, Martinez also becomes the second consecutive New Mexico governor to hold a leadership post with a national governors’ group.
Her predecessor, former Gov. Bill Richardson, was the Democratic Governors Association chairman in 2005 and 2006.
In an interview earlier this year, Richardson said heading such groups can bolster an elected official’s national profile and help him or her make contacts with key donors around the nation, but he warned such positions also come with a downside.
“The negative is that there is a perception in your own state that you are paying more attention to outside interests than your state,” said Richardson, who has criticized Martinez in the past. “There’s a perception that you’ve gone national and not tended to local issues or concerns.”
Nationally, the RGA has a significant war chest, raising more than $24 million during the first six months of 2015. The group has been a major financial backer of Martinez, giving $1.3 million to her 2010 gubernatorial campaign and spending money last year on TV ads that attacked Martinez’s re-election opponent, Democrat Gary King.
In a statement released by the RGA, Martinez said she’ll work to get more GOP governors elected. There are currently 31 Republican governors, with another – Kentucky Gov.-elect Matt Bevin – set to take office soon.
“All across America, Republican chief executives are solving the problems that Americans need fixed, and I am proud to serve in this role to help elect more of these outstanding leaders,” Martinez said.