Can Democrats Keep The Wave Alive in ’07 Gubernatorial Races?

Posted March 28, 2007 at 1:57pm

I’ve often yammered that off-off-year gubernatorial races don’t necessarily predict what will happen the following year, when the entire nation goes to the polls in a national election that includes federal races. And I see no reason to change that conclusion.

[IMGCAP(1)] That said, 2007 is not without national implications. Primarily, those implications are psychological, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

The GOP was routed last year, and Democrats rightly feel enthusiastic about their prospects in 2008. The Bush administration turns out to be the Democrats’ best friend, since the White House seems to botch most of what it touches these days.

Maybe all of the news over the past few weeks hasn’t been the president’s (and his party’s) fault, but plenty of it has. The Valerie Plame Wilson controversy and the mess following efforts to remove U.S. attorneys, combined with the news about conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, have Republicans reeling again.

While it’s true that the ’08 Republican ticket will try to turn the page on the Bush administration, the past few years will color perceptions of the parties, and that’s likely to be a substantial asset for the Democratic ticket.

The only true test of the parties and candidates over the next year (aside from the multitude of polls that we all will be forced to digest) will occur in three states holding gubernatorial elections this fall. While these races will be determined by local factors, most importantly the quality of the candidates, the results could either add to the sense of a Democratic wave or give Republicans a chance to crow about at least a couple of victories.

The GOP’s first problem is that Republican governors now sit in two of the three states that will hold elections later this year. That means Republicans are defending more governorships this year, much as they will be defending more Senate seats both in 2008 and 2010.

If Democrats can win two of the three governorships, it will give them another boost and, I expect, add to a growing Republican sense of gloom and doom. The problem is even worse for Republicans since two of the three states are in the South (Mississippi and Louisiana) and all three (including Kentucky) are “red states,” making potential losses harder to swallow.

Mississippi looks like the easiest race to handicap, since Gov. Haley Barbour (R) remains popular and is a figure of considerable stature.

Democrats once hoped to recruit a well-known candidate, such as former state Attorney General Mike Moore, but when the filing deadline passed on March 1, they were left with little more than a Jackson, Miss., attorney, John Arthur Eaves Jr., and two ex-legislators, former state Rep. Elmer Fondren and former state Sen. Bill Renick (who also was chief of staff to former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D), whom Barbour defeated in 2003).

Barbour isn’t expected to have any problems winning a second term.

Kentucky, however, looks like a major GOP headache. Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) has been a disaster — and that’s what Republican insiders say — and he has drawn two primary opponents. Former Rep. Anne Northup is by far the most serious threat, but some observers believe that she came out of the gate too aggressively.

GOP strategists doubt that Fletcher can win a general election, so the primary (which may well include a runoff) could be crucial to Republican hopes of holding the state’s top office. Nobody is writing off Fletcher just yet in his bid for renomination. Meanwhile, the Democratic race has drawn a crowd, which is not always a good thing for a party seeking to win a governorship it doesn’t hold.

Louisiana remains a huge question mark. Rep. Bobby Jindal (R), who nearly won the governorship in his 2003 race against Democrat Kathleen Blanco, has been regarded as the strongest Republican in the race and a lock to make a runoff.

Blanco has been looking like a defeat waiting to happen for months, so her announcement on March 20 that she won’t run again enhances Democrats’ chances to recruit a candidate who can win.

A number of Democratic names have made the rounds, including former Sen. John Breaux (who may or may not qualify to run under the state’s residency law), former state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, brother of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D). Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell already has said he is running.

Republicans close to Jindal insist his polling is incredibly strong, and they insist that he runs very well against all hypothetical Democratic opponents, including Breaux.

Momentum for 2007, then, comes down to two races, an open Democratic governorship in Louisiana and a damaged Republican incumbent seeking renomination and re-election in Kentucky. If Republicans can win just one of them, they can brag that they held their own and won a majority of gubernatorial races this year. Obviously, a GOP sweep would bolster national party morale at a crucial time.

But if Democrats hold the Bayou State and win the governorship of Kentucky, it will confirm the worst fears of Republicans and give Democrats another opportunity to brag that they still are making gains at the GOP’s expense. And that would be a very comfortable message for Democrats heading into 2008.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.