Former White House budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R) defeated Democratic Gov. Joseph E. Kernan of Indiana yesterday, securing his high-profile bid to become the state's first Republican governor since 1989.
Meanwhile, Democratic challenger John Lynch unseated Gov. Craig Benson (R) in New Hampshire, and Democrat Brian Schweitzer defeated GOP Secretary of State Bob Brown in Montana for the seat being vacated by Republican Gov. Judy Martz.
In Missouri, GOP Secretary of State Matt Blunt, the son of House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R), won the governor's job being vacated by Democratic Gov. Bob Holden, who was defeated in an August primary by Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill.
The action was part of the 11 gubernatorial contests that played out yesterday in the shadow of a tight presidential campaign.
In other races, Democrats won in Delaware, West Virginia and North Carolina, while Republicans prevailed in North Dakota and Vermont and were leading in Utah.
Entering the elections, Republicans controlled 28 governors' offices to Democrats' 22. Of the 11 seats on yesterday's ballots, six were held by Democrats and five by Republicans. Republicans could register a net gain of one seat if they were to win Utah and a close contest in Washington between Republican state Sen. Dino Rossi and Democratic Attorney General Christine O. Gregoire, who were vying to succeed Gov. Gary Locke (D).
Daniels, 55, resigned his federal post in June 2003 and campaigned on the themes of improving Indiana's economy and making state government more efficient. Kernan, 58, a former lieutenant governor who took over last year after the death of Gov. Frank L. O'Bannon, ran ads criticizing Daniels for his role in the sale of an Indiana utility to a Virginia-based company.
The state's last Republican governor was Robert D. Orr, who served from 1981 to 1989.
"This is a historic election," said Marc Lotter, a Daniels spokesman. "Indiana has an over $800 million budget deficit and the state has experienced a number of scandals and examples of mismanagement in recent years. Mitch is talking about aiming higher and bringing in a new crew with new ideas to lead Indiana's comeback."
Gubernatorial contests are important because states are often fertile grounds for issues that blossom into national concerns, and successful governors frequently become an important pool from which presidential contenders are drawn. Most gubernatorial races did not center on terrorism or the Iraq war but the lingering economic slump that has left many states with tight budgets, reduced services and fiscal pressure to raise taxes, said Tim Storey, an election analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"Tax and budget issues are really dominating the discussion this time around," Storey said. "In these governors races, it's really economic and pocketbook issues."
In North Carolina, Gov. Mike Easley (D), 54, won a second term by defeating former GOP state senator Patrick J. Ballantine, 39. Meanwhile in West Virginia, Democratic Secretary of State Joseph Manchin III, 57, beat Republican Monty Warner, a retired Army colonel, in a race to succeed Gov. Bob Wise (D). Wise did not seek reelection after acknowledging that he had an extramarital affair.
Democrats were especially proud of their showing in New Hampshire. "John Lynch's upset victory over Governor Craig Benson is a huge win for New Hampshire residents and for Democratic governors," said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association, in a statement.
In Delaware, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) escaped a strong challenge from Republican William S. Lee, 68, a retired Superior Court judge. Minner's campaign struggled after she was criticized for being insensitive in her response to the case of a counselor who was taken hostage and raped by a prison inmate in July.
Republican incumbents John Hoeven, 47, of North Dakota and James Douglas, 53, of Vermont rolled to easy victories over Democratic challengers.
In Utah, a solid GOP state, Republican Jon Huntsman Jr., 44, a former ambassador to Singapore, led Scott M. Matheson Jr., dean of the law school at the University of Utah, in a battle to succeed Gov. Olene S. Walker (R).
Walker rose to the top job when former Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) became head of the Environmental Protection Agency, but she faltered in the primary.
In the Washington contest, Democrat Gregoire was leading Republican Rossi by a small margin in her bid to become the second woman to hold the state's top political post.