Republicans Expect to Strengthen Hold on Governorships
By David S. Broder
For a generation, governors' offices around the country have been the main source of policies and leadership for the Democratic Party. But political operatives gathered here for the annual meeting of the National Governors' Association say next year's elections are likely to confirm that this vital political base will belong to the Republicans into the next century.
The GOP holds 32 of the 50 governorships and Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, head of the Republicans' 1998 statehouse campaign, said he hopes that number will increase to 35. His Democratic counterpart, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, said his goal is to bring the Democrats to parity, but conceded "it will not be easy for us."
The Republican advantage is dramatically greater in the key races. The GOP holds nine of the 10 biggest states all but Florida and has strong candidates in every one of them. Florida looks shaky for the Democrats in 1998 and Republicans are favorites in at least six of the other nine.
The governors elected next year will be key players in redistricting the House and state legislatures that will follow the 2000 census and set the battle lines for the next decade. Equally important, they will exert a growing voice in domestic policy, as Washington's effort to balance the budget shifts more and more responsibility to the states. "The debates you will hear in next year's gubernatorial elections will tell you more about the direction of national policy than anything coming out of Capitol Hill," a Democratic strategist said. "We can't afford to lose in that arena."
Over the past quarter-century Democrats have become increasingly dependent on governors' offices for talent and ideas. Jimmy Carter, a former governor of Georgia, gave them their only presidential victory of the 1970s and Michael S. Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, made their best showing in the 1980s. Bill Clinton moved from the Arkansas governorship to the White House, running on policies he and other governors of both parties had urged on Washington politicians for years.
But in the first election cycle after Clinton's 1992 victory, Republicans scored dramatic gains in gubernatorial races. They made a net gain of 13 seats in 1993-94 and, operatives in both parties say, are in a strong position to maintain their dominance in the coming contests. A booming economy, combined with lower crime rates and welfare rolls, helps incumbents, and Republicans may have as many as 20 incumbents running, compared with a maximum of six Democrats.
Virginia and New Jersey, won by Republicans in 1993, lead off the new cycle in November. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) is the favorite over youthful state Sen. Jim McGreevey (D). A closer race is shaping up in Virginia, where Lt. Gov. Don Beyer (D) faces Attorney General Jim Gilmore (R). Some Democratic operatives agree with their GOP rivals that Gilmore has dominated the early stages of the contest.
Whitman is far from the only Republican to win an upset of an incumbent Democrat last time and emerges now as a strong favorite for a second term. That is the case also with New York Gov. George E. Pataki and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Pataki may face State Comptroller Carl McCall (D), the highest-ranking black elected official. Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro (D) has been targeting a 1998 gubernatorial race for years, but other Democrats have advised him not to embark on a "kamikaze mission," and he has delayed a decision on running against Bush.
The former president's younger son, Jeb Bush, a narrow loser in Florida last time, has a head start for 1998 and will not have to go up against term-limited Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) again. Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay (D) is the current favorite on his side, but, like Bush, could face a nomination battle.
The best Democratic prospects for big-state gains appear to be in California, Massachusetts and Ohio, where the 1994 winners will not be running.
Term-limited California Gov. Pete Wilson's anointed heir is Attorney Gen. Dan Lungren (R). Lt. Gov. Gray Davis (D) and other possible Lungren challengers are waiting anxiously to see if Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) comes home to try again for the governorship she lost to Wilson in 1990. Lungren rates a narrow early favorite against anyone but Feinstein.
In Massachusetts, Gov. William F. Weld (R) just resigned to fight for Senate confirmation as ambassador to Mexico. He has been succeeded by Lt. Gov. Paul Celluci (R), who has more than a year to entrench himself against the winner of a likely Democratic primary between Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II and Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. No Kennedy has lost a Bay State primary or general election in the past half-century but some Democratic strategists think Harshbarger might make a stronger race against Celluci.
In Ohio, retiring Gov. George V. Voinovich (R) is favored for the Senate seat left vacant by Democratic Sen. John Glenn's decision to step down. His likely running mate for governor boasts a famous Ohio name, Bob Taft; the secretary of state. Former attorney general Lee Fisher is the likely Democratic opponent. Neither man is a proven campaigner, so the race may be close.
The final three of the Big 10 states are almost certain to stay Republican unless the incumbent unexpectedly steps aside.
Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (R) has come under pressure from national GOP officials to run against vulnerable Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D). But insiders say they will be astonished if his decision, due next month, is not to seek a third term.
Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) has been declared a third-term candidate by no less an authority than his wife, and the only Democrat with statewide campaign experience who has indicated any interest in the race is former senator Donald W. Riegle Jr.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) has had a productive first term and Democrats have yet to find a candidate to oppose him.
A number of switches are likely in smaller states. Democrats are targeting Arizona, Minnesota, New Mexico and possibly Connecticut, should Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly (D-Conn.) decide to run against Gov. John G. Rowland (R). Republicans have at least as good prospects in Colorado, Maryland, Nebraska and Nevada.
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