Thursday, September 14, 2006

Gubernatorial Races: Another Big Democratic Gain

By Stuart Rothenberg

It is now clear that when the dust settles on Nov. 8, Democrats will find themselves holding a majority of governorships for the first time since the 1994 midterm elections, when Democratic ranks across the nation were decimated.

While Republicans currently hold 28 of the nation’s 50 governorships, Democrats are likely to gain from four to six. If they net as many as four, they should hold a majority of governorships for at least the next two years.

Governorships become particularly important toward the end of a decade, of course, because of the role some governors play in redistricting, as well as in the presidential nominating process.

One big-state GOP governorship, New York, already seems to have slipped away, and another, Ohio, is in serious danger of doing so. I’d be surprised if Republicans win either race.

Republican Govs. George Pataki of New York and Bob Taft of Ohio are widely unpopular at home, and voters in those states appear inclined to vote for change by electing Democrats — state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in New York and Rep. Ted Strickland in Ohio.

While Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is trying to run as a candidate of change, he is still the GOP nominee and represents continuity with the Taft administration and with President Bush more than he stands as a vehicle for change.

Four other states that currently have Republican governors now seem more likely than not to elect Democratic governors.

Gov. Bob Ehrlich has an uphill, though not impossible, battle for re-election in very Democratic Maryland, while three other states with GOP governors — Arkansas, Massachusetts and Colorado — are more likely to elect Democratic than Republican governors.

Four other races — Alaska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan — fall into a broad “too close to call” category.

While Republicans once appeared likely to lose the top job in Alaska, the primary victory of former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin gives Republicans a chance to hold the state’s top job against Democrat Tony Knowles, a former two-term governor. Knowles lost his bid for the Senate in 2004, and his two victories for governor occurred under unusual circumstances.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration has had ethics issues to deal with, and the governor’s leadership skills are being questioned. As a result, Doyle’s job ratings are poor. Rep. Mark Green (R), who is giving up a safe Congressional seat to run for his state’s top job, is running about even with Doyle in polls and delivering the same successful “change” message that is being delivered by Democrats nationwide.

Another Republican Member of Congress who’s giving up his seat to run for governor, Rep. Jim Nussle, finds himself in a tight race against Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver (D). Nussle earned a reputation as a tough campaigner while in the House, but he’s finding the going a bit rougher than expected this year.

Essentially all of the GOP House Members who ran for governor this cycle have found their years on Capitol Hill at best a mixed blessing in their runs for state office. In addition to Nussle and Green, famed former football coach Tom Osborne lost a GOP gubernatorial primary in Nebraska; Colorado’s Bob Beauprez is having a tough time against Democrat Bill Ritter; Oklahoma’s Ernest Istook is an underdog in his race against an incumbent Democrat; and Nevada’s Jim Gibbons has stumbled even though he retains an edge. Even Idaho’s Butch Otter, while favored, is facing a surprisingly aggressive Democratic challenge in his solidly Republican state.

Michigan remains one of the more interesting contests in the nation, as businessman Dick DeVos (R) has opened his checkbook against Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. DeVos and Granholm have generally been locked in a tight contest, with neither one ahead by more than 2 or 3 points. Granholm now has launched a major attack on DeVos, charging him with exporting jobs to Asia. He’s answering the ads, and if he can withstand the attacks, he’ll have a chance to overtake her in the last month of the race.

Democratic prospects in three of the nation’s biggest states now look increasingly poor. In Texas and California, GOP governors appear headed for re-election. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in particular, has rallied in the polls and looks headed for a comfortable win over state Treasurer Phil Angelides (D).

And in Florida, Democratic hopes of electing a Democrat to succeed outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush (R) seem to be fading. State Attorney General Charlie Crist (R) is a favorite over his Democratic opponent, Rep. Jim Davis.

While voters will likely elect more Democratic governors, they will also confirm the recent pattern of voters being willing to elect candidates from the minority party to a state’s top job. Even with horrible national and state political environments for Republicans, GOP governors in Connecticut, Hawaii and Vermont are likely to win re-election, just as Democrats in heavily Republican states such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming are headed for another term.

Still, as in the fight for House and Senate seats, gubernatorial races are likely to result in significant gains for Democrats nationally. And that will only add to the GOP’s problems heading into the crucial 2008 elections.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 11, 2006. Copyright 2006 Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.