Midwest Democratic Governors Find Rough Sledding

Posted May 18, 2005 at 3:14pm

This was supposed to be the point when state Republican parties in Michigan and Illinois were throwing up their hands and accepting the inevitability of defeat, and when reporters and political pundits were proclaiming the re-elections of Govs. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) and Jennifer Granholm (D-Mich.).

Not so fast. [IMGCAP(1)]

Instead of beginning to celebrate their certain victories, Granholm, Blagojevich and a neighboring Democratic governor, Wisconsin’s Jim Doyle, now find their electoral futures cloudy.

Ultimately, each of these governors may win another term. But for now, they no longer look quite so certain.

The turnaround is surprising for a number of reasons. All three states went for both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, and all three Democrats took over governorships that had been in Republican hands for years.

Although the national economy started sagging at the beginning of the decade, it turned around about a year ago. That improvement should have filtered down to the states, improving the political standing of many state officeholders.

But Blagojevich, who has portrayed himself as a reformer and is often mentioned by insiders as having White House ambitions, is having problems, including alleged cronyism and criticism of the governor’s top administrative agency. And while he is dealing with a Democratic-controlled Legislature and a Democratic-controlled Chicago machine, his attitude — described by one newspaper columnist as “a cavalier, ends-justify-the-means” approach — has not won him any friends.

A recent Market Strategies poll for the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV found only 35 percent of likely voters approving of his performance as governor, and the same percentage saying that he should be re-elected.

To be sure, the Illinois GOP now resembles Turkey before World War I: It has become the sick man of the Republican Midwest, a political basket case torn apart by internal division and poor leadership. Yet, a number of Republicans are expressing interest in the race, and Blagojevich will likely have to run a real race to win another term.

Granholm, for her part, has been battered by a heavy dose of bad economic news, including job losses, depressing news out of the U.S. auto industry and a projected $300 million budget deficit in the city of Detroit, which has inspired talk that the state may have to bail out its biggest city.

Granholm is apparently maintaining her upbeat, energetic style as she talks about a better educated workforce and seeks to mobilize the business community behind her agenda. But the bloom is clearly off the governor’s rose, and she will need to resurrect the star quality that helped her ride into the governor’s office in 2002.

The Michigan GOP is weak (though not as weak as Illinois’) and that could be enough to save Granholm. But Democrats might want to put Granholm’s second-term coronation on hold. Wealthy business Dick DeVos is looking at seeking the Republican nomination, and he has the personal resources and the poise to force the governor to earn a second term, not merely win it by default.

In Wisconsin, recent polling by Wisconsin Public Radio and St. Norbert’s College shows Doyle still with good poll numbers: 62 percent of those polled said they approved of his performance.

But the governor is taking heavy heat from GOP legislators for his vetoes of a state property tax cap and for his proposed state’s budget, which taps the state’s transportation fund, medical malpractice fund and rural telephone service fund to close the state’s budget gap.

Maybe even more important, Doyle isn’t exactly Mr. Personality, so he can’t count on his charisma to carry him to another term.

Republicans have two serious candidates running for governor: Rep. Mark Green and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, and given the state’s recent competitiveness at the presidential level, Doyle can expect a challenging re-election contest.

GOP strategists argue that the three Democratic governors are having problems because each has failed to show the consistently strong leadership of recent big-name Republican governors in the state (Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, John Engler in Michigan and Jim Edgar in Illinois). That may be the case, but “leadership” is often a matter of partisan perspective.

Anyway, Granholm, Blagojevich and Doyle aren’t the only incumbent Midwestern governors having problems as the 2006 elections approach.

Ohio’s Bob Taft (R) has poll numbers that are even worse than the three Democrats’, but he can’t seek re-election. Gov. George Pataki (R-N.Y.) hasn’t ruled out running for reelection, but his poll numbers are almost as bad as Taft’s. And even the numbers of larger-than-life California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) have slipped noticeably.

But with Wisconsin developing a reputation as one of the nation’s true swing states, and Michigan and Illinois becoming important parts of the Democratic Party’s base, political weakness by Democratic governors in those states means cause for concern for party strategists.

Overall, Democrats remain on the offensive in governors races this cycle. But in order to make major gains, the party must first re-elect its incumbents.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.