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What about the state races?

Topic A
Sunday, October 3, 2010; A11

Amid all the discussion of House and Senate races this fall, The Post asked political experts to weigh in on gubernatorial contests around the country. Below are contributions from Ed Rogers, Martin Frost, Dan Schnur, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Matthew Dowd, Ed Gillespie and Jane Swift.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

Washington, being Washington, is mostly preoccupied with the federal elections that will occur in November. Yet the races with the most near-term impact and perhaps more enduring political consequences are the governors races.

America's governors have to deal with today's economic problems on a real-time basis. California's deficits, evaporating manufacturing in the Midwest, and banking and housing calamities in Florida and elsewhere all require immediate action at the state level. Newly elected governors in November will be like rookie firefighters showing up at a 12-alarm blaze and being handed a hose and a bullhorn. Governors don't have the luxury of just having an opinion and voting on gigantic pieces of legislation drafted by others, and everything that is easy to do to cut state budgets has been done. A model that all the candidates are watching is Gov. Chris Christie (R) in New Jersey. He inherited a disaster and has been forthright with his public, and residents have accepted the hard decisions he has had to make.

In this context, the Republicans' pro-growth and reduced-spending message is carrying the day in many places where it would often not. No one is looking for more of the same from their politicians. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) is facing a challenge not because he has an appealing opponent but because he is a political institution. This is not the right year to be old-hat.

If Nov. 2 is a good day for the GOP, Republicans will win 27 out of 37 races. On a great day for the GOP, that could be 30. And among these new governors a presidential contender could emerge.

MARTIN FROST

Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1995 to 1998; representative from Texas from 1979 to 2005

The contest for governor of Texas may be the single most fascinating state race this year. Democrats have a real chance of winning the governorship of this deep-red state in a good Republican year. How did this happen?

First, I tell all my friends in Washington that they shouldn't be totally surprised that Texas may go against the national trend. Texans are very independent and aren't necessarily influenced by what's happening in the rest of the country.

Second, former Houston mayor Bill White, the Democratic nominee, is the first credible, well-financed Democratic candidate for governor since Ann Richards. White will come close to matching incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry in money, and he has an outstanding record as mayor of the state's largest city.

Third, there are the issues of Perry fatigue and Perry weirdness (secession, really?). This is Perry's 10th year as governor, and he would serve 14 years if reelected. This is not a good year to be a long-term incumbent for any office. Further, Perry moved very far to the right in his successful campaign to squash Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary this year. Texans will tolerate a lot in their public officials, but they don't like to be embarrassed by them.

Despite all this, Perry is still ahead, but White is in striking distance in the polls -- something people thought was impossible not long ago. Texas is moving back toward being a two-party state because of the growing Hispanic population. Democrats are going to win statewide races again someday, and the future just might be now.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

Like voters in other parts of the country, Californians are deeply frustrated as they prepare to cast their ballots next month. But unlike their counterparts in other states, voters here are not so much angry or enraged as they are simply despondent. For more than a century, our state's economy and self-esteem have been continuously resuscitated during difficult times by a series of seemingly magic solutions. The entertainment and aerospace industries and the technology and real estate booms have come to our rescue when we needed and restored our sense of collective pride and prosperity. But now, there's a sense that we're fresh out of miracles.

In a state dealing with seemingly intractable economic and budgetary challenges, the candidates in the close race for governor are spending less time selling public policy solutions than they are submitting their professional and political qualifications as credentials with which they might navigate this quagmire. Democrat Jerry Brown presents himself as an experienced public servant. Republican Meg Whitman is running as an equally experienced private-sector job-creator. Both argue that their particular brand of biography is what's necessary to bring California back to economic health. But with voter resentment targeted at the political and business establishment in Washington and on Wall Street, the candidate who can best distance him or herself from the negative stereotypes of their respective backgrounds may end up as the next governor.

KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND

Lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003

The great value of the Maryland governor's race is that it involves candidates who have both done the job. Voters can compare who did what when, not just who shouts that taxes must be lowered or wh0 promises to take on government.

In a recent Post poll, former Republican governor Robert Ehrlich trailed incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley by 11 points. Maryland has more voters who are registered Democrats, which helps O'Malley. But registration does not ensure victory. It helps that voters can compare what Ehrlich did with what O'Malley has accomplished.

In The Post's poll findings, I saw a citizenry that cares about jobs and knows that tax cuts alone don't create them. Forty-one percent of respondents said the state economy is their top priority, and 20 percent said public education. Only 16 percent said taxes. Marylanders still accept the notion that investments the government makes in education, infrastructure and quality of life fuel economic growth.

The race isn't over. Despite the prominence of anti-government crusaders nationally, though, Maryland still seems to prefer the candidate who believes that government must play an active role in creating jobs.

MATTHEW DOWD

Political analyst for ABC News; columnist for National Journal; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

While often ignored in this cycle's political analysis, the governors' races could determine the direction of politics and policy in a much more profound way than congressional races because (1) the states are usually the incubator for new policies and programs, which then migrate to Washington; (2) health-care reform, the biggest domestic policy reform in a generation, will primarily be implemented, and its success or failure determined, at the state level; and (3) with a governor or former governor having won seven of the past nine presidential elections, future national leaders are likely to come from this crop.

One place to watch is Florida, where a female Democrat, Alex Sink, is battling a Republican businessman, Rick Scott. In an extremely close race, Scott has a slight lead over Sink, but each candidate has equal favorable standing with the public. Scott's lead is a result of President Obama's dismal approval ratings weighing down Sink a bit. Upon winning, either candidate in this race will become a national player in his or her party because of Florida's importance in national politics.

The winner will also be responsible for health-care policy in a state where this issue resonates deeply. The economy remains a huge issue in Florida, which has been hit especially hard over the past three years. Because of his business background Scott has a slight edge in this area. A sleeper issue may be education, especially among female voters, and Sink seems to have an advantage on this one.

ED GILLESPIE

Former chairman of the Republican National Committee; chaired Bob McDonnell's campaign for governor of Virginia; adviser to John Kasich's presidential exploratory committee in 2000

Ohio is always a good barometer of the national mood and politics. Geographically, Ohio is both a Great Lakes state and a border state, which has made it very closely divided as far back as the Civil War. Youngstown is actually farther east than Abingdon, Va., but culturally Ohio has always been where the Midwest begins. In terms of education, age, neighborhoods, the mix of industry and agriculture, its population reflects the country as a whole.

This year's gubernatorial race has two strong standard-bearers for their respective parties, incumbent Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and Republican former congressman John Kasich. Kasich's focus is on his expertise: spending, budgets and jobs. He's a mainstream conservative with a strong blue-collar ethos and a populist flair. He's a fount of ideas and boundless energy.

Strickland has run a very good campaign for a Democrat in a tough environment, but it won't be enough to overcome the wind in his face and his opponent's strong campaign. More important, the standard-fare liberal arguments against Republican policies, rooted in class warfare, are falling flat in a critical swing state. No president since John Kennedy has won the White House without winning Ohio.

The Ohio governor's race is at the center of what's likely to be a strong Republican sweep along the Great Lakes. Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin are also likely to replace Democratic governors with Republicans, and Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania are likely to elect Republican senators as well. Republicans may gain as many as six state legislative chambers in those states to boot.

JANE SWIFT

Former governor of Massachusetts

The Massachusetts electorate has elected more Republicans to the governor's office than to the U.S. Senate, so in a year when the Democratic governor has upside-down approval ratings and the state has already sent Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate, one would expect a fairly clear path to victory for a highly qualified GOP candidate. Yet Charlie Baker -- definitely a high-caliber candidate -- has been virtually tied or slightly behind the incumbent, Deval Patrick, for most of the year.

The wild card is the independent candidacy of Tim Cahill. While Massachusetts, like many states, has had quixotic third-party candidacies that have had no impact on the election outcome in the past, Cahill is known statewide. He was elected state treasurer after running as an establishment Democrat four years ago.

Cahill's polling, in the low double digits, has had a significant impact on the race. Pundits disagree as to whether his support draws from Patrick's or Baker's base, but everyone agrees his presence -- assured by a healthy campaign war chest -- will keep this race close till Nov. 2.

My bet is that if the defection last week of Cahill's chosen running mate, a GOP former state representative, drags his numbers below 10 percent, and this becomes a two-person race, Baker wins. If Cahill continues to run ads and is able to draw 15 percent of the vote, Patrick will win a second term but with no mandate to govern.

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