Wednesday, March 08, 2006

In a Change Environment, More Bad News for GOP

By Nathan L. Gonzales

If voters are looking for a change this November, the fallout for Republicans could spread beyond the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House. Republicans are defending a number of governorships this cycle in states they have controlled for a number of years.

Voters at the state level have generally shown more of a willingness to switch parties for governor every couple terms or so anyway. That’s one reason why there is a Democratic governor in Wyoming and a Republican governor of Hawaii. And in a state like Pennsylvania, voters switch parties like clockwork, voting the out-party back into office every eight years since World War II (This doesn’t bode well for Lynn Swann’s candidacy).

But in an environment of change, the willingness to throw out the in-party at the gubernatorial level may be even more dramatic.

Republicans have held the governorship in New York since 1994, when George Pataki (R) was first elected. But now, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the Democrats are heavily favored to pull the Empire State back into their column. Even if Pataki were seeking a fourth term, he would lose.

The GOP has also held both Massachusetts and Ohio since 1990. The last Democrat elected governor in the Bay State was Michael Dukakis in 1986. Now, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R) is vying to hold Massachusetts in the wake of Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) exit, but her task is significant based on the politics of the state and the longevity of GOP governors in power there. Three Republicans - Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift - all served before Romney.

Gov. Bob Taft’s difficulties in Ohio and the voters desire for change is compounded by the fact that his party has been in power there for 15 years. In fact, it has been over a decade since Democrats won any of the five elected statewide offices. But now, Ohio continues to be a great opportunity for the Democrats in November.

Republicans are also defending in five states (Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Nebraska) that they have held since 1998. All but Nebraska are currently opportunities for Democrats.

On the other side, the list is considerably shorter. Of the fourteen Democratic governorships up this year, eleven switched from Republican hands in 2002, and a twelfth (New Hampshire) only came under Democratic control in 2004. This makes the Republican opportunities for a change message considerably smaller.

Democrats have held the Oregon governorship since 1986. The last Republican to win in the state was Gov. Victor Atiyeh, who won reelection 61%-36% over Ted Kulongoski. Now, two decades later, Gov. Kulongoski (D) is running for reelection to a second term. He faces a competitive primary, but Republicans have a messy primary of their own to sort out. This is not yet a great GOP opportunity, but a race to watch for now.

Iowa remains the best takeover opportunity for Republicans, where Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) is not seeking reelection and where Democrats have been in control since 1998. Republicans have effectively rallied around Cong. Jim Nussle, and he is in good shape for the general election fight.

But in some states, the change message is less likely to resonate. A Democrat hasn’t won a gubernatorial race in South Dakota since 1974. This year, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) is seeking a second term, but this has never been a serious race and the only Democratic candidate just dropped out. Republicans have controlled Idaho, Rhode Island, and Texas since 1994, but only Rhode Island seems to have the potential to develop out of those three, based on the Democratic nature of the state.

And Democrats haven’t won a gubernatorial race in Connecticut since 1986. But Gov. Jodi Rell’s (R) job approval and favorability ratings remain in the stratosphere, and she is in very good shape to win election to a full-term.

Longevity in power is certainly not the only factor worth evaluating when handicapping races, but in an environment particularly primed for change, Republicans have yet another flank to defend with their governorships.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on March 2, 2006.