It could be that Republicans are ready to shed their minority status in the state capitols.
With the lineups for the 1985 gubernatorial contests completed last week and the outlines of the 1986 races beginning to become clear, it is possible to see how the Republicans could come out of the 1985-86 cycle with a majority of the governorships for the first time since 1970.
The risk of a recession and some uncertainties in the candidate picture cloud the current bright GOP prospects. But right now, there are few knowledgeable politicians who would dispute the judgment of Michelle Davis, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, that the opportunities for Republican gains "look almost too good to be true."
Democrats hold 34 of the 50 governorships today and have a hammerlock on the state legislatures as well. So long as that control continues, Democrats will have the upper hand in drawing the lines for U.S. House districts, and Republican chances of gaining a House majority will remain poor. Moreover, with President Reagan's budgetary and tax policies shifting more and more domestic policy authority to the states, continued Democratic dominance of the state capitols will mock talk of a real "Reagan revolution" in American government.
All these factors give added importance to the gubernatorial elections that start this November in New Jersey and Virginia and continue in 1986 in 36 more states. Only six governors in each party have terms extending beyond 1986.
Part of the Democratic problem lies in the numbers. Among the 28 Democratic governors whose terms are expiring in 1985-86, 12 are definite retirees (mainly because of constitutional term limitations), and five others are considering stepping down or running for other offices.
Among those missing will be phenomenal Democratic vote-getters in states that are historically Republican or are heading in that direction: Bob Graham of Florida, George Nigh of Oklahoma, John Carlin of Kansas, Dick Lamm of Colorado and Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, for example.
In such states as Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland and South Carolina, stronger-than-usual Republican challenges are expected because the two- term or longer Democratic incumbents have reached the end of their tenure. In some, but not all, of the retirees' states, there are strong Democratic replacements available. In Idaho, for instance, former governor and former interior secretary Cecil Andrus, a Democrat, is back home, preparing to run for the seat that Democratic Gov. John V. Evans is yielding to run for the Senate.
But generally speaking, the Republicans are looking better in the battle to replace retiring incumbents. In Pennsylvania and South Dakota, there are Republican lieutenant governors ready to move up. Oregon Republicans have a top vote- getter in former secretary of state Norma Paulus, who might be favored even against the prospective challenge of former Portland mayor (and former transportation secretary) Neil Goldschmidt, a Democrat. In Tennessee, where the popular Republican governor, Lamar Alexander, must step down, the party has recruited former Republican governor Winfield Dunn as a 1986 candidate.
The two races this fall are likely to demonstrate the importance of incumbency. New Jersey Democrats last week nominated 33-year-old Essex County executive Peter Shapiro, a bright hope for the party's future, as their candidate for governor. But Shapiro faces in Republican Gov. Thomas Kean a man whose approval ratings dwarf even those Reagan receives in the state.
By contrast, in Virginia, Gov. Charles S. Robb, virtually the only Democratic winner of top office in 20 years, must step down at the end of one term. The newly nominated Democratic standard- bearer, Gerald L. Baliles, defeated his Republican gubernatorial opponent, Wyatt B. Durrette, four years ago for attorney general. But Republicans clearly have a better chance against Baliles than they would have had against Robb -- especially since the Democrats are testing the tolerance of Virginia's conservative electorate with a ticket that includes a black nominee for lieutenant governor and a woman candidate for attorney general.
Republicans have reaped publicity in the past few weeks by recruiting three prominent disenchanted Democrats who are prospective gubernatorial candidates in their states: former governor Edward King in Massachusetts, Wayne County executive William Lucas in Michigan and former representative Kent Hance in Texas. But all three face possible primary fights if they run for governor as Republicans, and all three would begin as underdogs to the incumbent Democratic governors.
The best Republican chances are spread all across the map from Connecticut, where Democratic Gov. William A. O'Neill faces a possibly serious primary fight, to Ohio, where Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste has been weakened by the savings-and-loan crisis, to Oklahoma, where former governor and former U.S. senator Henry Bellmon, a Republican, is primed for a comeback, to Hawaii, where Honolulu county prosecutor Charles Marsland heads a big field of GOP potentials.
In the two biggest states, California's George Deukmejian (Republican) and New York's Mario Cuomo (Democrat) are solid favorites for second terms that could advance their claim to places on their party's 1988 national tickets.