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.
Schwarzenegger's star power and California's size command national attention, but there are other compelling story lines in other states. Republicans have two African Americans -- former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann and Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell -- running for governor this year. Former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld (R) has changed addresses and is trying to become governor of New York but must get through a GOP primary first. Close to home, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. ranks among the most endangered Republican incumbents in a heavily Democratic state.
Even before the main events of November, both parties face difficult and potentially nasty primaries. Ohio Republicans got a taste last week, when Blackwell launched radio and TV ads accusing his opponent, state Attorney General Jim Petro, of having ethics worse than the incumbent governor, Republican Bob Taft, who pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor ethics violation last year and whose approval ratings have plunged toward single digits. Blackwell's ads drew a reprimand from Ohio Republican Party chairman Robert T. Bennett.
Presidential politics come into play, as well. New Mexico's Richardson hopes to use his reelection campaign to launch a 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination. Three retiring governors -- Republicans Romney in Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee in Arkansas and Democrat Tom Vilsack in Iowa -- would like to enhance their possible candidacies in the same way that former Virginia governor Mark Warner (D) did his at the end of last year, by helping elect a successor on their way out the door.
The gubernatorial landscape tramples conventional notions of an America rigidly divided into red and blue. In the 19 Bush-won states with contests, Democrats hold seven of the governorships. In the 17 states won by Sen. John F. Kerry (D) with gubernatorial elections this year, Republicans hold 10 of the governorships.
Some of the most popular and politically secure Democratic governors facing reelection this year preside over states won by Bush in 2004. They include Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry and Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal. The same is true for many Republican governors in states won by Kerry, among them Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle and Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas.
Nonetheless, Democratic hopes for gaining governorships begin in Blue America. The retirement of New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) after 12 years -- he, too, has presidential ambitions -- gives the Democrats their best opportunity to pick up a seat. At this point, Eliot Spitzer, the state's aggressive attorney general, is the favorite to win the Democratic primary and the November election.
Romney's retirement after a single term to pursue his presidential ambitions gives the Democrats a second clear target in a heavily Democratic state. But Democrats have not won a gubernatorial election in the Massachusetts since 1986, in spite of the state's liberal leanings.
Ohio, which frustrated Democratic hopes of taking back the White House in 2004, is another state poised to shift parties. The corruption scandals surrounding the Taft administration are dragging down all Republicans this year, and Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland (Ohio) can spend his time raising money and getting organized while Blackwell and Petro go after one another.
Democrats see opportunities in two other states -- Maryland and Minnesota -- with strongly Democratic traditions but GOP executives. But gaining a majority likely will also require Democrats winning on Republican-tilting turf.
Their best opportunities at this point are in Arkansas, Colorado and Nevada. Florida is a target, given its importance in presidential elections. But even with Gov. Jeb Bush (R) retiring, the GOP has an advantage, if for no other reason than both Republicans running for the nomination have been elected statewide, while neither Democrat is well known around the state.
Special correspondent Chris Cillizza and researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.