3 GOP Governors Could Face Token Opposition
By Thomas B. Edsall
In Texas, Nevada and even Tennessee, the home state of Vice President Gore, local Democratic officials have given up trying to find competitive candidates for governor next year. They are struggling to come up with just about anybody to run.
When voters go to the polls next Nov. 3 to pick governors in 36 states, they are also likely to elect Republicans to run New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. These states will provide the GOP not only with a base of power running from Austin to Lansing, but also with crucial leverage over congressional redistricting.
"The governor races are the most crucial contests out there in 1998," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. "Redistricting comes into play after 2000, and those governors are critical."
Noting that Republicans hold 32 governorships, Newhouse added, "The governors have become the bread and butter of the Republican Party in terms of where the base is and where the rising stars are."
While the picture looks bleak in these battlegrounds for a Democratic Party struggling to regain its grass-roots base, Democrats are expected to put up strong candidates in a bid to retake the governors' mansions in Ohio, Alabama, Illinois, Massachusetts and Minnesota along with the grand prize, California.
Of the 36 races for executive mansions, Republicans hold 24, Democrats have 11, and one is held by independent Angus King of Maine.
Both sides generally agreed where the battles are likely to be as well as some of the key issues. Newhouse said polling shows education topping voter concerns and predicted it will be high on candidates' agendas. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, head of the Democratic Governors Association, said Democrats must have a strong message on taxes and crime if they are to win voter attention on education, which he agreed was the top issue.
Dean said Democrat Jim McGreevey ran a "textbook campaign" in New Jersey against Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R), coming within 27,000 votes of defeating her last week by showing that he understood the tax and insurance burdens on middle-class voters.
At the moment there is rough consensus that nine states now run by GOP governors are in play next November: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Rhode Island.
Conversely, strategists on both sides of the aisle believe the GOP will be competitive in seven states with Democratic governors: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Nebraska, and Nevada.
At this stage, however, the most significant development is that there are no serious challenges to a number of GOP governors in large states with Democratic traditions or in states generally considered competitive between the two parties.
New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) was elected four years ago with only a 49 percent plurality and in 1996 President Clinton carried New York with 59 percent of the vote. But Pataki's reelection campaign is looking like a cakewalk.
In Texas, where Land Commissioner Garry Mauro (D) has been agonizing for months over whether to challenge Gov. George W. Bush (R), some Democrats are counseling that the party would be better off giving Bush a free ride, which would depress GOP turnout and limit any coattail effects his candidacy might have benefiting down-ballot Republican candidates.
"What Texas Democrat ever thought it would come to this?" wrote Dave McNeely, columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. "In less than two decades, why have some Democrats gone from being dead certain their nominees picked in the spring would win the general election in the fall to actually arguing against even fielding a candidate for governor?"
In private, Democratic strategists are virtually ceding the reelection of Republican Govs. Tommy G. Thompson in Wisconsin, Don Sundquist in Tennessee and Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania. John Engler is favored to win a third term in Michigan.
The apparent staying power of Bush, Engler and Thompson, GOP strategists said, adds to their appeal as potential candidates for president in 2000 or for the No. 2 spot on the Republican ticket.
Political analysts conclude that while the GOP is decisively favored to retain governorships in six major states and nine smaller ones, Democrats can feel fairly confident about only four states where they have incumbents: Alaska, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont.
When these states are considered in terms of partisan advantage in post-2000 congressional redistricting, the 15 likely Republican states have 151 congressional districts, while the four likely Democratic states have nine congressional districts. In many states, governors initiate redistricting plans, and in most states governors can veto redistricting plans passed by the legislature.
Depending on the quality of the nominees, there will be hard-fought contests for the governorships of up to 16 states, including such vote-rich states as California (52 districts), Florida (23), Illinois (20), Ohio (19) and Georgia (11).
In California, the key question is whether Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) will make a second attempt at winning the governorship. Her entry would probably prompt former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta to abandon consideration of the Democratic primary that is expected to include Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, businessman Alfred Checchi and state Sen. John Vanconcellos. State Attorney General Dan Lungren, conservative and antiabortion, is expected to win the California GOP nomination with ease.
In Florida, Jeb Bush, son of the former president, is favored to get the GOP nomination for a second try at the governorship, where he is likely to face Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay (D), who must first win a tough primary.
Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan is almost certain to be the GOP nominee for governor, while at least four major candidates will battle for the Democratic nomination.
There are competitive primaries in both parties in Georgia and Ohio, where the incumbents also are not seeking reelection.
With months to go before the primaries, all the races are subject to dramatic change. In Arizona, for example, Democratic prospects were set back by the conviction on fraud charges of Gov. J. Fife Symington III (R).
"We were hoping for a hung jury," quipped Dean, head of the Democratic Governors Association, noting that would have left Symington free to compete for reelection. Instead, the guilty verdict forced Symington out and put into his office Secretary of State Jane Hull (R), who has won plaudits from the voters and currently is the clear favorite to win next November.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company