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Five governor's races could indicate GOP success in 2012

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010; A02

The roots of a Republican political renaissance in 2012 lie in the Rust Belt.

That swath of manufacturing- based states in the Midwest -- Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan -- with tentacles that reach as far east as Pennsylvania, has been the epicenter of the economic difficulties in the country over the past few years.

Each state is hosting a competitive gubernatorial race this fall. Republicans argue that a clean sweep (or close to it) would immediately change the electoral calculus heading into the nationwide redistricting in 2011 and President Obama's reelection race in 2012.

"With apologies to the Northeast, South, Mountain West and Left Coast, the industrial Midwest is the measure of success or failure for the Republican Party," said GOP consultant Curt Anderson, who has worked in the region on and off for the past 15 years. "We cannot win a national election without doing well in this region, and we can't be healthy as a party without doing well there."

Ten years ago, Republicans controlled the governorships in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Today they hold none of those seats, after the party suffered an across-the board wipeout due, at least in part, to President George W. Bush's increasing unpopularity as the last decade wore on.

But with a Democrat in the White House and economies in these states flagging badly, Republicans are increasingly optimistic that a sweep, or something close to it, could come to pass.

In Michigan, the declining auto industry and stratospheric unemployment rate (13.6 percent in May) have turned term-limited Gov. Jennifer Granholm into an unpopular figure and led a number of prominent Democrats to take a pass on the race. Party strategists all- but concede the contest to Republicans.

Pennsylvania is only slightly better for Democrats as, after eight years of Gov. Ed Rendell (D), voters seem ready to follow their historical pattern and install a Republican as chief executive. Ditto Wisconsin where, after two terms for Gov. Jim Doyle (D), Democrats admit it won't be easy to retain the seat, though they like their chances with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Illinois remains under the cloud of former governor Rod Blagojevich (D). Pat Quinn, who became governor when Blagojevich was impeached last year, has worked to distance himself from the scandal-tarred Blagojevich but has also been forced to propose an income tax increase -- never popular -- to close the state's budget shortfall. (Democratic state legislators scuttled that plan.)

And then there is Ohio, long at the center of both parties' presidential electoral calculus, where Gov. Ted Strickland (D) is facing off against former congressman John Kasich. Strickland, elected in a landslide in 2006, said in an interview with the Fix that "for the last several months, I have been running not against John Kasich, but I have been running against the economy."

However, ads funded by the Democratic Governors Association attacking Kasich for his Wall Street ties -- he worked at Lehman Brothers after his time in Congress -- have strengthened Strickland's hand.

The outcome of these five governor's races could have a big effect on the 2012 presidential election.

In the near term, declining population in these states means they will probably lose five House seats, and possibly more, in the 2011 redistricting. Controlling the governor's mansions when those district lines are redrawn can have a decade-long impact, as the congressional districts created over the next year or so will be in place through the 2020 elections.

Looking ahead to 2012, the five states have a combined 89 electoral votes -- roughly one-third of the 270 a Republican challenger to President Obama will need to win the presidency. Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and a senior political hand within the party, estimates that in 2012 "a Republican governor is worth two points to a nominee -- if they are popular and willing to mobilize their troops."

For Republicans to be competitive against Obama, they must find a foothold, or several footholds, in the Rust Belt and build out from there. The five governor's races in the region this fall represent a critical marker for the GOP heading into the next presidential election.

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