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GOP May Lose Its Edge in States

Democrats are on track to end the Republicans' eight-year dominance in governors' offices, a shift that would alter local and presidential politics.

November 01, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- For the last eight years, Republicans have held the governor's office in more than half of the 50 states. Democrats are poised to erase that edge next week -- a shift that would reverberate across the country in both local and presidential politics.

At minimum, Democrats are expected to approach parity with the GOP, winning enough of the 36 gubernatorial contests on Tuesday to command the top office in two dozen states. The Democrats also could gain a clear majority.

Republicans now govern 27 states, Democrats 21 and independents two. But perhaps more significant than the raw numbers is the size of the states each party governs.

Not only is Democrat Gray Davis favored to win reelection as governor of California, but several other large states now led by Republican governors are tilting toward a Democratic takeover -- including Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all considered pivotal in presidential contests.

"You've got some heavy-hitter states" poised to turn over, said John Kohut, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "The implications for 2004 are clear. Democrats have gained some ground."

In all, 10 of the 15 most populous states are expected to have Democratic governors next year. That's a conservative projection. Among the other five:

* Florida, where Republican Gov. Jeb Bush is in a tight race for reelection against Democrat Bill McBride;

* Massachusetts, where Democrat Shannon O'Brien and Republican Mitt Romney are in a dead heat for an open seat; and

* Texas, where GOP Gov. Rick Perry, elevated when George W. Bush became president, faces a tough challenge from Democrat Tony Sanchez, who is spending tens of millions of dollars of his own fortune.

Only in New York and Ohio, among the major states, are Republicans apparently assured of holding on to the governorship.

Depending on its strength, the Democratic gubernatorial surge could produce another milestone. Among the party's nominees are nine women, all running competitively. If four win, then at least six governors next year would be women -- a record.

The lone Republican female nominee, Linda Lingle in Hawaii, also is running a strong campaign. Currently, there are five female governors.

Republicans face potential losses in large part because they have more seats to defend Tuesday -- 23 of the 36. Many of their warhorses, such as Gov. John Engler of Michigan, were forced out by term limits. Democrat Jennifer Granholm, one of this year's most prominent candidates, is favored to succeed him.

Other vulnerable Republican incumbents and candidates are laboring in the long shadow of GOP predecessors.

Republican Gov. Scott McCallum of Wisconsin, for instance, is seeking to win on his own a post once held by Tommy G. Thompson, now a Bush administration Cabinet secretary; and Republican nominee Mike Fisher in Pennsylvania is seeking the post vacated last year by White House advisor Tom Ridge. Democrats James Doyle in Wisconsin and Edward G. Rendell in Pennsylvania are giving both men all they can handle.

One Republican in Illinois suffers from bad timing. State Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan is trailing in a bid to succeed a scandal-tarnished GOP incumbent governor also named Ryan. Democrat Rod R. Blagojevich, a three-term U.S. House member, is the front-runner.

Democrats have relatively few vulnerable incumbents. Two are Govs. Donald Siegelman of Alabama and Jim Hodges of South Carolina, running against Republicans Bob Riley and Mark Sanford, respectively. Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa is also in a tight race against Republican Doug Gross.

Although critical in each of the three dozen states where elections are being held, the gubernatorial campaigns as a whole have attracted less national attention than the battle for Congress. That was also true in 1994.

In that year, Republicans won control of the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. But they also broke a long-standing Democratic stranglehold on power at the state level, capturing a majority of the governorships for the first time in a quarter-century.

Republican dominance in state government during the late 1990s played a critical role in policy and politics. In policy, GOP governors had a major hand in reshaping welfare programs and deciding whether to cut taxes or raise spending -- or do both -- as states enjoyed record surpluses.

A Help to Bush

In politics, Republican governors helped elect one of their own as president in 2000. First, they helped Bush, who was first elected Texas governor in 1994, capture the GOP nomination. Then they deployed their fund-raising and grass-roots networks to help him win a razor-thin victory in the general election.

Now three of those governors hold Cabinet rank in the Bush administration: Christie Whitman of New Jersey, head of the Environmental Protection Agency; Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services; and Ridge, director of homeland security. The attorney general, John Ashcroft of Missouri, is also a former governor.

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