Democrats Look Hopefully Toward ’05 and ’06 State Races

Posted March 18, 2005 at 2:37pm

In 2002, Democrats had an opportunity to make major gains in governorships. They increased their numbers by three (while the Republicans lost just one and both Independents left office), but that outcome was disappointing. [IMGCAP(1)]

Now, with governorships in the Northeast up for election and a half-dozen Republican governors prevented by term limits from seeking re-election, Democrats have another good opportunity — and a chance to win enough governorships to claim a majority of states.

The current lineup is 28 Republicans and 22 Democrats, but in the next two years 22 of the 38 governorships up for election are in GOP hands.

The GOP’s success winning gubernatorial races in the past decade comes with a down side in 2006: They have to defend those seats. And recently, that hasn’t been easy.

While few seats in the House and Senate have changed party, even when they come open, governorships have been turning over at a much higher rate. Many states faced an economic squeeze in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade, and that put governors in a difficult position.

Last year, when only 11 states held gubernatorial elections, two sitting governors were denied renomination, one in a party convention and one in a primary. Two others went down to defeat in the general election.

In 2003, all four states that voted for governor — Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana and California — changed the party of the executive.

And in 2002, 20 of 34 states switched party control of the governorship, including two states in which the incumbent was an independent. Four incumbents seeking re-election were defeated.

This recent history of party turnover isn’t good news for the GOP.

This cycle, Republicans must try to hold governorships in Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts — five of the most liberal and Democratic states in the country, and places where President Bush is likely to be unpopular next year.

New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D) is an overwhelming favorite to win that state’s top job, while Democratic prospects in other states are less certain. In Connecticut, Gov. Jodi Rell (R) started with terrific poll numbers, but they are likely to deteriorate in the next 20 months as voters focus on her job performance and her partisan affiliation.

Even in traditionally Republican states, the GOP’s fortunes are uncertain. Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) is about as popular as the flu, and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R), who is prohibited from seeking re-election after two terms, has job ratings that rate somewhere between bad and horrible.

Democrats are also hoping to win open governorships in Colorado and Arkansas and would like to oust Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) in Georgia.

Four other GOP governors who now look relatively solid for re-election but who hold office in states (California, Hawaii, Minnesota and Vermont) that went for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) could also eventually face problems.

While the Republicans have a long list of potential problems, the Democrats’ worry list is shorter. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) isn’t likely to seek re-election, leaving an open seat that would be an obvious GOP target. And in Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle (D) is likely to face a very formidable opponent, either Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker (R) or Rep. Mark Green (R), in the general election.

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry (D), one of the big surprise winners of 2002, is worth watching if only because of his state’s conservatism and increasingly Republican bent.

Before 2006 rolls around, two gubernatorial elections will be held later this year, in New Jersey and Virginia. While Garden State Democrats have had their problems, including a governor who resigned in disgrace, Sen. Jon Corzine (D) is a prohibitive favorite to retain the state’s top office in November.

New Jersey Republicans don’t yet have a candidate who can beat Corzine, and they don’t seem likely to find one between now and November.

In Virginia, where Democratic Gov. Mark Warner is term-limited, only the likely nominees are clear: Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine and Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. The Republicans have a chance to win the state’s top job, but Kaine certainly has a chance to retain it for his party.

Hanging over many of next year’s contests is Bush. While gubernatorial contests involve state issues and are often relatively unaffected by national politics, they can be swept up in a partisan wave. Since 2006 will be the second midterm in Bush’s two-term presidency, it contains additional risk.

But a wave is not inevitable, and state issues, including the normal cyclical nature of gubernatorial elections, could once again be more important than Bush’s popularity.

At this point, a year and a half before the midterm elections, Democratic have a real opportunity to draw even with, or even pull ahead of, the GOP in the number of governorships. But to do so, they’ll need to win in a few more blue states.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.