Correction to This Article
A Feb. 26 article incorrectly indicated that Democrats last held a majority of governorships in 1990. They lost their majority to the GOP in the 1994 elections. Also, the accompanying graphic transposed the parties' totals after the 1990 elections: It should have indicated that Democrats held 28 governorships and Republicans held 20. (Two states had independent governors.)

Democrats Look for Historic Shift in Governors' Races

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Republicans face a potential upheaval in the states this November, with Democrats positioned to capture a majority of the governorships for the first time since 1990 and seize an early advantage in the 2008 presidential contest.

While the battle for control of Congress has drawn more attention, the states may be the most competitive arenas in this midterm election year. Historically, shifts in power in the 50 capitals have held long-term implications for both parties, and control of statehouses can give parties tangible organizational advantages during presidential elections.

Republicans hold a 28 to 22 advantage among the governors, but they begin the campaign year on the defensive. Thirty-six states will elect governors in November, and the GOP must protect 22 of them to the Democrats' 14. Of the nine states where the incumbent governor is either term-limited or retiring, eight are held by Republicans.

The National Governors Association winter meeting has drawn most of the state executives to Washington this weekend. The governors will discuss health care, education, homeland security and the role of the National Guard, meet with President Bush on Monday at the White House and hear from former president Bill Clinton on Tuesday.

But the backdrop for the usually bipartisan gathering is the partisan competition back home in what could be the most consequential year for governors' races in more than a decade. In a year when fewer than one in 10 House seats appear to be in play, thanks to the power of incumbency and gerrymandered congressional districts, about half of the 36 gubernatorial contests appear to be competitive -- many of them clear tossups eight months from Election Day.

Democrats thought they would win a majority of governorships four years ago but fell just short. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said this year's contests look like fertile ground for his party.

"Potentially, we could go from 22 Democratic governors to 27 or 28 after the '06 elections," he said. "The real reform and the real action in the Democratic Party is with governorships. It's a good omen for strengthening the Democratic Party for '08."

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), chairman of the Republican Governors Association, offered a more cautious, and vaguely worded, assessment. "The math is daunting," he said. "The math would say we will lose quite a few seats. I think we'll do better than that."

This year there are contests in every section of the country, but the most pivotal region is the same one that often decides the outcome of presidential elections. It is the band of states running from Pennsylvania in the East through the old industrial heartland of Ohio, Michigan and Illinois and including Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Democrats control five of the seven.

Republican hopes of retaining their majority may rest on their ability to win in several Midwestern states held by Democrats. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle are widely regarded as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, followed by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell. Iowa offers Republicans their best opportunity for a pickup among those capitals where no incumbent is running.

Beyond the political stakes, voters may find the governors' races appealing for sheer entertainment value, starting in California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is trying to rebound from a shellacking last year on a series of ballot initiatives. Schwarzenegger, whose approval ratings remain well below 50 percent, has recruited Steve Schmidt and Matthew Dowd, veterans of Bush's reelection campaign, to guide his operation.

A former Schwarzenegger aide said recently the governor hopes to raise $120 million to secure reelection. A campaign official privately scoffed, calling the figure significantly inflated. But the contest still may end up as the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in history.

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