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Five governors races to watch

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 5:09 PM

All the midterm election talk in the nation's capital centers on whether Republicans will win back the majority in the House or the Senate. But, step outside the friendly confines of the Beltway and political junkies and insiders are far more focused on the panoply of gubernatorial races going on nationwide.

Not only are 37 states holding governors races in eight days, but some of the biggest prizes (from a population perspective) are up for grabs. And although majority control isn't an issue as it is for the Senate and the House, the prospect of reapportionment and redistricting - the reallocation and then redrawing of congressional seats based on the 2010 Census - at the gubernatorial level makes what happens in the states arguably more important.

Unlike House and Senate contests - in which every seat and state matters equally in the battle for the majorities - not all governors races are created equally. States with large populations and those slated to gain or lose seats in reapportionment matter more.

Here's a look at five seats that both national parties covet (in alphabetical order):

California: The sheer size of the Golden State coupled with the sheer depth of Republican former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman's checkbook - she has donated $142 million to the campaign - make this race one to watch. State Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) has been running a devastating one-minute ad that juxtaposes comments made by unpopular outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) with similar remarks by Whitman. The ad seems to be working, as a new University of Southern California poll released Sunday showed Brown ahead of Whitman, 52 percent to 39 percent. The Republican's campaign insists that the contest is closer.

Florida: The late, great Tim Russert made this state famous when he wrote "Florida! Florida! Florida!" on a dry-erase board during the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The race to replace Gov. Charlie Crist (Republican-turned-independent) not only has practical importance - the state is slated to gain two congressional seats before 2012 - but deep symbolic meaning for the two parties. Alex Sink (D), the state's chief financial officer, began the general election as the favorite but free-spending former health-care CEO Rick Scott (R) has made up ground, and polling now suggests the race is a jump ball.

Ohio: It's no accident that the final campaign appearance President Obama will make before the Nov. 2 midterms will be in the Buckeye State on behalf of Gov. Ted Strickland (D). Strickland, who was elected in a landslide in 2006, has struggled to overcome the state's sluggish economy. He has been pilloried by the Republican Governors Association with millions of dollars in ads that highlight the hundreds of thousands of jobs the state has lost over the past four years. Former congressman John Kasich (R) is far from an ideal nominee - he is a former member of Congress and he worked on Wall Street - and has struggled to maintain the lead he held over the incumbent earlier this fall.

Pennsylvania: To beat Obama in 2012, Republicans will almost certainly need to find a way to win in Ohio or Pennsylvania. Capturing the Keystone State governorship would be a good start, and polling shows state Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) ahead of Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato (D), although the margin has narrowed in recent weeks as the Democratic base appears to be rallying behind its nominee. With Pennsylvania slated to lose a congressional seat in 2011, the governorship is even more important to both sides.

Texas: In eight days, we will know whether the Lonestar State was national Democrats' white whale or a genuine pickup opportunity. The Democratic Governors Association has long touted the candidacy of former Houston mayor Bill White, and he has shown a tremendous fundraising capacity against Gov. Rick Perry (R). And, with Texas set to gain a whopping four congressional seats before the 2012 election - by far the most of any state - Democrats felt compelled to make a run at Perry even if the state leans heavily toward Republicans. Polling - of which there hasn't been much - suggests that White trails by single digits and that Democrats may wind up coming up short on Election Day.

chris.cillizza@wpost.com

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