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Control of the Governors' Mansions in Play

Democrats need to gain four seats to achieve a national majority. Fewer than a dozen appear truly up for grabs in November, experts say.

October 08, 2006|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

For the first time since the 1994 Republican landslide, Democrats are poised to attain a majority of the nation's governorships, an important political toehold regardless of who wins the battle to control Congress.

Election handicappers forecast Democratic gains of four to eight seats out of the 36 on the Nov. 7 ballot, with the Republican-held governor's chairs in New York and Ohio considered most likely to switch parties. The Democrats need to gain four governorships for a national majority.

Massachusetts, Arkansas, Colorado and Maryland also look promising for Democratic candidates, according to campaign analysts. In Massachusetts -- the land of Kennedys -- a win would put a Democratic governor under the gold Capitol dome for the first time in more than a dozen years.

Four seats appear to be tossups: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan, all states that could prove vital in the 2008 presidential campaign. All but Minnesota have Democratic governors now.

Overall, "I think the Democrats have to be more optimistic about their chances," said elections analyst Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The way polls show it, Democrats are definitely going to make gains."

As with the state-by-state congressional struggle, factors shaping individual gubernatorial contests vary. In Michigan, it is the state's sagging economy. In Wisconsin, it is government ethics. In Minnesota, it is education and healthcare. In Iowa, it is a grab bag of issues, including immigration.

But more broadly, the voter pessimism that has Republicans fighting to keep control of the House and Senate is hurting the GOP at a time it has to defend far more governors' seats than Democrats do.

"Because Republicans have all this exposure, you've got to draw some connections to what is going on nationally," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes gubernatorial contests for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Another problem facing the GOP is longevity: Republicans have been governor for eight or more years in several of the states with midterm elections, and voters often show an inclination to switch party control after such a period.

"It's hard to run a state," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent election analyst in Washington. "You have to make some tough calls. You're going to make enemies. So there's kind of a normal rotation we don't see in the House and Senate."

Democrats have one other factor going their way: Nine Republican-held seats are open -- meaning no incumbent is running, so the seat is more competitive -- as opposed to just one open Democratic seat, in Iowa.

There are bright spots for the GOP. Three of the four most populous states -- Texas; Florida; and California, where Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides is challenging Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- seem likely to stay in Republican hands, according to opinion polls and political experts.

Each party has its election-day wish list. Democrats talk of the chance to pick up an open seat in Nevada; to stage an upset in Florida, where Republican Jeb Bush is stepping down; and to knock off the GOP incumbent in Democratic-leaning Rhode Island, where a hot U.S. Senate race could turn out loyalists. Republicans are talking about possible pickups in Oregon, where Gov. Ted Kulongoski finished with a less-than-impressive 54% in May's Democratic primary; and Illinois, where Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich seeks reelection but has been dogged by ethics allegations.

But most analysts say that, barring surprises, fewer than a dozen seats appear truly up for grabs.

According to Republican Governors Assn. Executive Director Phil Musser: "There's no question we're facing a bit of a head wind. The national mood ain't great."

Although the scandal surrounding recently resigned Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has complicated GOP efforts, the party's strategists are counting on a superior get-out-the-vote operation, like the efforts that boosted Republican turnout in the last several elections, to stem midterm losses.

More is at stake in the governor's races than mere bragging rights.

With Washington twisted in partisan knots, governors have taken the lead on welfare, healthcare, immigration and the environment, among other issues. Statehouse initiatives have offered blueprints for national legislation, such as federal welfare changes during the Clinton administration.

"That's where the policy innovation is going on: with the governors and legislatures," Storey said.

Statehouses have also been an important presidential proving ground; four of the last five White House occupants had been governors. Bill Clinton was in his fifth term as Arkansas governor when he was elected president in 1992, and George W. Bush won the White House in 2000 during his second term as Texas governor.

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