Will 2010 Repeat 1994 in Governors' Races?

A lot is similar this year to the environment of the last GOP landslide. A lot is different as well.
by | October 8, 2010

By Pamela M. Prah, Stateline Staff Writer

There’s a lot of talk about how this November’s election could rival the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” in which the GOP reclaimed both chambers of Congress. But largely overlooked in the speculation are the gubernatorial campaigns in which the GOP also won an unexpected majority in 1994.

Both parties agree that this year will be different from 1994 in the 37 gubernatorial elections being held. But maybe not in the way you might think.

Many Republicans are banking on occupying more than the 30 gubernatorial seats that the GOP held following 1994, when the party gained 10 governorships. Democrats counter that while the president’s party may get booted out of some of the 26 governors’ mansions the party currently holds, it is poised to pick up from the GOP a few marquee states, including California, Florida and possibly Texas.

The big wild card this year is the Tea Party and the impact these independent and frustrated voters will have at the state level. Even here, many see similarities between Tea Party activists and another phenomenon of the early 1990s: supporters of Ross Perot, the Texas businessman who crusaded against deficits and free trade as an independent candidate during the 1992 presidential election. Tea Party activists, like Perot supporters, largely feel the political system is broken and are shaking up the 2010 elections.

Stakes are high

The similarities and differences between 1994 and 2010 are more than just an interesting civics lesson. The stakes for both parties are even higher this year than in 1994: The party that wins the most governorships and legislative chambers in 2010 will have an upper hand in drawing new congressional and statehouse district lines that will cost some lawmakers their jobs and reduce their parties’ representation for the next 10 years.

Historically, the party that wins the White House loses gubernatorial berths — an average of four — in the next midterm election. But in 1994, in the first midterm election after Bill Clinton won the White House, his fellow Democrats lost a net of 10 governorships, as well as control of 20 legislative chambers.

Just like this year, the 1994 midterm election came amid a contentious debate over health care reform and voters’ concerns about a growing budget deficit. And as in 1994, anger in the electorate has been a big factor this year. But then the differences begin to pile up.

Obama is not Clinton and voters are angry for different reasons. In 1994, many were upset because the new president spent the early days of his tenure debating the rules for gays in the military, rather than drawing public attention to an economy that was beginning to gain strength. It didn’t help that Clinton announced in his first State of the Union address that he intended to raise taxes to cap the budget deficit, abandoning the middle-class tax cut he promised during the campaign.

This year, many voters are incensed over the bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry and Obama’s health care and stimulus plans, all of which are key reasons for the rise of the Tea Party. But they are especially worried about the economy, and that’s particularly bad news for incumbent governors who, fairly or not, may bear the brunt of the criticism for not creating enough jobs in their states.

Paul Begala, a political adviser in Clinton’s White House, said during a recent panel session at the Democratic Governors Association that voters are more anti-Washington this year than anti-Democrat. “It sucks to be the party in power with a 9.6 percent unemployment rate.” he said.

Historically, that hasn't always been true, however. In Franklin Roosevelt's first midterm election year of 1934, with unemployment at 21.7 percent, Democrats held onto every one of the 38 governorships they then possessed.

Anger and fear in 2010

Whatever the differences among election years, there’s no disputing that this one is marked by voter outrage. John Baick, professor of history at Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts, says voters are more riled this year than they were 16 years ago. “There wasn’t a sense in 1994 that everything was wrong,” he says. “In 2010, there are some people who are motivated by an apocalyptic fear.” In 1994, the GOP had been out of power in Congress for 40 years and was united under the “Contract with America” banner unfurled by Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. Aides from the Clinton White House admit now they underestimated the appeal. Harold Ickes, who was President Clinton’s deputy White House chief of staff, says that in 1994 Democrats were “asleep at the wheel,” smug, arrogant and out of touch. In 2010, he says, “we clearly have been on red alert for a long, long time.”

This year, Republicans have attempted to recreate the zeal of the “Contract with America” by offering a “Pledge to America,” outlining policy goals should they take majorities in Congress. But notwithstanding the “Pledge,” Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), insists Democrats have an advantage this year both in Congress and in the gubernatorial contests because the “GOP is in the midst of a brutal civil war in which a battle rages between the Tea Party extreme right and the traditional right wing of the Republican party.”

Unlike in 1994, disaffected voters haven’t waited until the November elections to show their displeasure with the established parties, and they made a dramatic impact on the primaries, including those for governor. Among the more important results:

Carl Paladino, a wealthy Buffalo businessman, appealed to Tea Party voters to win the GOP nomination for governor of New York over Rick Lazio, a former U.S. Congressman.

Rick Scott, a former hospital executive, defeated Bill McCollum, the state attorney general and a long-time congressman, in the Republican primary for governor of Florida.

Dan Maes, a businessman with no political background, grabbed the GOP nomination for governor of Colorado, besting former U.S. Representative Scott McInnis, thanks to Tea Party support.

Paul LePage, a Tea Party candidate and mayor of Waterville, Maine, prevailed over six other candidates to become the Republican candidate for governor of Maine.

But the question remains how many of these candidates can win. “While their supporters bring a lot of enthusiasm, sometimes the Tea Party movement doesn’t distinguish between electable Tea Party candidates and those who have trouble getting elected,” says James Broussard, professor of history at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania.

Will the Tea Party hurt or help the GOP?

The GOP is downplaying any infighting with the Tea Party activists and is actively wooing them. “On the issues foremost in voters' minds — the economy, jobs, spending, taxes, debt and deficits — the overwhelming majority of Tea Party voters and Republican voters are in strong agreement,” says Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who headed the Republican National Committee in the 1990s and was largely credited with the party’s big wins in 1994. He now heads the Republican Governors Association, which, like the DGA, expects to break records in the amount of money spent this year on governors’ races.

Barbour has urged Tea Party activists not to run as third-party candidates. “To do so would have split the votes of those who know the Obama-Pelosi-Reid policies don't work and are hurting our economy,” he wrote in an editorial this week in the Wall Street Journal. Republicans are confident that the economy is their trump card. “Republicans’ pro-growth and reduced spending message is carrying the day in many places where it would often not,” Ed Rogers, a longtime GOP White House staffer, argued in a recent editorial in The Washington Post.

But if the Republicans do win big in the state contests this November, their incoming leaders will face a much bleaker situation than after 1994, with depleted treasuries and bruising budget battles a certainty for nearly all the states in 2011. “A governor will be especially vulnerable to criticism if things do not turn around economically, and many of the areas in which Republicans may pick up seats” Baick says, “do not have bright economic futures in the short term.”

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