Correction to This Article
A map with the July 11 Sunday Take column, showing the states holding elections for governor this year, incorrectly indicated that Minnesota has a Democratic governor. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, holds that office.
The Sunday Take

Long-term structural changes start at state level

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

BOSTON -- Nick Ayers, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, offers this preview of what's at stake in the 37 gubernatorial races in November. Between now and Election Day, the association and its Democratic counterpart will be engaged in "a $100 million-plus chess match for control of the foundation of American politics for the next 10 years."

If that sounds like hyperbole, it isn't. The Washington political community is understandably obsessed with the battle for control of Congress that will play out between now and November and the implications for how President Obama may govern in the second half of his first term. But no one at this weekend's summer meeting of the National Governors Association underestimates the potentially greater significance of the outcomes in the states this fall.

Everything from implications for redistricting to 2012 presidential politics to contrasting styles of Republican and Democratic governance that will be put before the American people will be affected by what happens in the races for governor. As Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, put it, "It's the most important gubernatorial election in a generation."

Daschle noted that many of the House seats that switch parties this November could shift back in two years. "Gubernatorial politics, particularly in a year like this, are long-term structural changes," he said.

There are 24 states in which the governors are either term-limited or have decided not to seek reelection, 12 in each party. In addition, about half a dozen incumbents seeking reelection face competitive races.

It means that by January, more than half of the states will probably be under new management, including some of the biggest and most important. There are competitive races in California, Texas and Florida, all now in Republican hands but clearly in varying degrees of jeopardy. Democrats will face challenges holding onto power in a swath of heartland states that includes Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Iowa as well as Colorado and New Mexico in the West -- all of which were important in Obama's 2008 victory.

One of the first areas where the changes in the governors' mansions could be felt will be in the redistricting wars that will break out next year. Ayers said redistricting presents an opportunity to gain 15 to 26 House seats, depending on who controls the redistricting machinery in the states. That alone could offset whatever happens in House races this November.

But the implications go beyond that. Reapportionment and redistricting will affect the shape of the House through much of the coming decade. If Republicans take over the House in November and control enough governorships in key states next year, they could use the redistricting process to virtually lock in a majority that could last for several election cycles.

A second area where the outcomes in November will be felt is the presidential race for 2012. Republicans are determined to create as many obstacles as possible to Obama's expected reelection bid, and that effort includes winning as many gubernatorial races as possible.

"If we do what I believe we can do this year, it creates a very difficult map for Obama in 2012," Ayers said.

Daschle agreed on the implications for presidential politics, pointing to perennial battleground Ohio. In 2004, Republicans controlled the governorship of Ohio and President George W. Bush narrowly won the state. Had Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won Ohio, he would have become president. In 2008, with the state in the hands of Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, Obama won it.

Strickland's presence was one of several factors that caused Ohio to flip in 2008. But, Daschle said, "just having Ted Strickland in the governor's mansion in Ohio means that he controlled the state party, and the state party's infrastructure and operation was far more sophisticated than Democrats had in 2004."

It's possible, of course, to overstate the significance of what governors can do to help elect a president from his or her party. In 1996, President Bill Clinton captured states where Republican governors held power, including such regular battlegrounds as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. But both sides see the governor's races as helping to create the underpinning for political operations in 2012.

Turnover in the states also will produce contrasts between the governing philosophies of Democrats and Republicans. In the 1990s, Republican governors took the lead in experimenting with activist, conservative domestic policies. The most notable were welfare reform efforts in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan that became models for what eventually happened in Washington.

Economic hard times make such experiments less likely today. New governors, like those now in power, will spend much of their time managing states short on money and long on problems. Governors have been warned that it will be two or three years before they get back to the level of revenue they had before the economic collapse. That comes after a decade in which state revenue was growing at a rate of about 6 percent annually.

With the focus on spending in Washington at the heart of the political debate, voters may get insights into how a Republican president might deal with the budget compared to Obama and the Democrats. Already, the two sides are engaging in a rhetorical battle over whether Democrats or Republicans have been more successful in managing states during the recession.

Republicans say they have been more successful in balancing state budgets without raising taxes. Daschle noted that four of the five states with the highest unemployment rates have Republican governors and said that Democrats are doing a better job of creating economies of the future.

Governors are discussing these policy issues in polite forums in Boston this weekend. But the real debate will unfold on the campaign trail this fall and intensify next year. All that underscores why it's important to pay as much attention to the gubernatorial races in the next few months as the noisier battle for control of Congress.

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