WASHINGTON — For downcast Democrats, a lone bright spot emerged Wednesday: Their gains in gubernatorial elections drew them near parity with Republicans in an important measure of political strength.
With the outcome uncertain in Alabama, Republicans were on track to hold 25 governorships next year and the Democrats 24.
Oregon and Arizona completed counts Wednesday that resulted in narrow Democratic wins, while in Alabama the Democratic incumbent and the Republican challenger each claimed victory in a contest probably headed for a recount.
Democratic officials were optimistic that they could pull even with the GOP; Republicans said they could retain the majority they have held for eight years.
Regardless of the final tally, Democrats cheered the climb from their current total of 21 governorships -- savoring solid takeovers in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arizona and Michigan and upsets in traditionally Republican states such as Wyoming and Oklahoma.
Other states wrested from the GOP were Tennessee, Wisconsin and New Mexico. Democrats also took a governorship now held by an independent in Maine.
Though the gains were smaller than some Democrats had predicted, they were nonetheless real -- and they offered a sharp contrast to the party's demoralizing losses in the House and the Senate.
"Our gubernatorial pickups will give us an edge in fund-raising and grass-roots organizing going into 2004," said Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He proclaimed the Democrats "in good shape" for the presidential election.
Republicans, though, took from Democrats the governorships of Maryland, for the first time in 36 years; Hawaii, for the first time in 40 years; and, surprisingly, Georgia, for the first time since after the Civil War. They also captured governorships in New Hampshire, Vermont and South Carolina, all now held by Democrats, and Minnesota, held by an independent.
And GOP incumbents beat back Democratic challenges in Florida, Texas and New York. The decisive victories of Govs. Jeb Bush, Rick Perry and George Pataki in those large states far outshined the meager sub-50% reelection win recorded by Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis.
"We made huge inroads getting back to Southern Republican strongholds," said Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland, chairman of the Republican Governors Assn. "And we surprised everybody by winning some New England states.... All in all, we've built a strong, solid base and foundation for the president's reelection."
There was good reason for presidential politics to be on the minds of party strategists. In recent years, the road to the White House has led through the statehouses, and governors can deploy large political organizations to help presidential candidates.
Before Tuesday's elections, Republicans governed in 27 states with 298 votes -- a majority -- in the Electoral College, which will choose the next president. After the elections, Democrats will govern at least 24 states, and possibly 25. That would total at least 282 electoral votes -- not counting three in the Democratic-led District of Columbia.
Put another way: Since 1995, a majority of Americans have lived in states with Republican governors. Next year, most will live under Democratic governors.
Oregon remained in Democratic hands when Ted Kulongoski pulled out a razor-thin victory Wednesday over Republican Kevin Mannix.
In Arizona, Democrat Janet Napolitano narrowly defeated Republican Matt Salmon.
A Napolitano victory sets two precedents: She will be the first woman to succeed a female governor, outgoing Republican incumbent Jane Dee Hull. And she will be one of a record six women to serve next year as governors. There are now five.
In Alabama, both sides claimed victory in a cliffhanger where the outcome could be determined by recounts or the courts. Unofficial returns initially showed that Gov. Donald Siegelman, a Democrat, had beaten Republican Bob Riley by a whisker. On that basis, Siegelman was declared the victor early Wednesday by news organizations, including The Times and Associated Press.
But Riley made a stunning turnabout after Republican-dominated Baldwin County revised its vote total due to what election officials called a computer tabulation error. The revision stripped Siegelman of roughly 6,000 votes and left Riley with a lead of more than 3,000 votes.
Both candidates declared victory and dispatched supporters to recheck vote totals throughout the state. "How sweet it is," Siegelman told supporters at a party in Montgomery. Riley, likewise, told supporters in Talladega: "We win. Alabama's got a new day coming."