Politics

Many Mansions

This is a busy gubernatorial year, with contests in more than two- thirds of the states. It may also be a year of significant change.
by | February 2006

Republicans currently hold 28 of the nation's 50 governorships, but Democrats do not expect that majority to last. Oddly, Republicans agree.

The consensus that 2006 will be a Democratic year at the state level, one shared by Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the head of the Republican Governors Association, has more to due with the playing field than the national political climate. Republicans are defending 22 of the 36 governorships at stake, including 8 of the 9 with no incumbent running. Unless Republican candidates can knock off a few of the handful of vulnerable Democratic incumbents, most of them in the Midwest, GOP gubernatorial ranks may be thinned considerably. "The best-case scenario for Republicans is to get through election night at 25-25," says Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Of course, nobody can be sure just what the mood of the electorate will be in November, or, for that matter, whether that mood will have much impact on gubernatorial campaigns. Elections for governor do not always follow the national trend, especially in non-presidential years. The Republican tide of 1994 lifted GOP candidates into governors' mansions across the country, but 1986 was a different story: Democrats suffered substantial losses in governorships, while making big gains in Congress. Still, it's likely that a few of the close contests will turn at least in part on the extent to which voters are fatigued with President Bush. "It so happens that this is the sixth year of the presidential cycle," says political scientist Larry J. Sabato, of the University of Virginia. "There's a clear desire for change in certain parts of the country."

OPEN TERRITORY

The Republican challenge is magnified by the fact that some of the open governorships they must defend are on less-than-congenial turf. Two GOP governors, Romney in Massachusetts and George Pataki in New York, are retiring in states that vote overwhelmingly Democratic in national elections.

New York may represent the best opportunity for Democrats to gain a Republican-held office. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the crusader against corporate malfeasance who is loved in some circles and reviled in others, is the heavy gubernatorial favorite. Spitzer likely will face Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi in the Democratic primary. Suozzi should win some support and financing from Wall Street interests uncomfortable with Spitzer, but polls show the attorney general comfortably ahead. Potential Republican candidates include former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, who is a New York native; billionaire Republican Tom Golisano, a former independent; and Secretary of State Randy Daniels. But barring major missteps on his part, Spitzer will have the upper hand against any of them. "It's as close to done as done can be," says Gonzales. "The only person who can beat Spitzer now is Spitzer."

Massachusetts looks less certain. Even though the entire congressional delegation is Democratic, Republicans have won the last four elections for governor. Still, Democrats begin the year with a better-than-even chance. Republican Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey is her party's presumptive nominee, while in the Democratic primary, state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly is the front-runner against Deval L. Patrick, who was an assistant U.S. attorney general in the Clinton administration. Republican officials tried frantically to persuade multimillionaire Christy P. Mihos not to campaign as an independent because they fear his candidacy will hurt Healey, but Mihos appears to be running.

Democrats also have a good chance to capture the Ohio governorship. After a series of scandals, term-limited Republican Governor Bob Taft is extraordinarily unpopular, creating an opening for the Democratic nominee even though no Democrat has won a statewide election in Ohio for the past decade. Congressman Ted Strickland is the Democratic front-runner, while three statewide GOP officials will square off for their party's nomination.

Iowa, the only state being vacated by a Democratic incumbent, represents the best chance Republicans have to snatch a governorship they do not currently control. Although outgoing Democrat Tom Vilsack is popular, his presence is a mixed blessing for his party's candidates, who are constantly measured against him. "Vilsack is a very articulate guy, and he's very smart," says Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen. "He casts a big shadow over the race." Democrats have a seven-candidate free-for-all for their party's nomination, while Republicans will likely pick Congressman Jim Nussle over conservative businessman Bob Vander Plaats. Iowa is a swing state, but some experts give Nussle a slight edge because of the crowded Democratic primary.

There will be some competitive open-seat elections in swing states that Republicans hold. Democrats appear to have about 50-50 odds of winning governorships in Nevada and Colorado, where the GOP incumbents are retiring. They also have a good shot at winning in Arkansas, a state that has trended Republican in presidential voting but where Democrats typically have an edge for other offices.

Democrats may, however, be disappointed in the consummate swing state: Florida. Outgoing Republican Governor Jeb Bush is relatively popular, and the two Republican contenders, Attorney General Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, are statewide elected officials with a financial advantage over the Democratic contenders, who have never won statewide. Republicans also should hold on to the open seat in Idaho.

TARGETED DEMOCRATS

While nearly all of the party changeovers are likely to be in the open states, most incumbents in both parties will face competitive challenges. Republicans, in particular, need to find and target vulnerable Democratic governors if they are to have any hope of offsetting their expected open-seat losses. Fortunately for them, they do have promising opportunities in a half dozen or so states.

Penny Lee, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, and Philip A. Musser, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, both cite the same three Midwestern incumbents as the most vulnerable Democrats this year: Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, Jim Doyle of Wisconsin and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. Blagojevich, who also tops Sabato's and Gonzales' lists of embattled Democrats, has been hampered by federal probes investigating his administration's hiring and contracting practices. Republicans have a crowded primary field, but if moderate State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka overcomes more conservative competitors, she will be well positioned to take on Blagojevich.

Doyle, who is likely to face either Republican Congressman Mark Green or Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, has sparred with the Republican-controlled legislature throughout his tenure, vetoing hundreds of bills during his three years in office. "It's a tough economy, it's a tough legislature," says Jennifer Duffy, managing editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, who considers Doyle the most endangered Democratic incumbent in the country. Republicans will argue that Doyle has thwarted their efforts to cut taxes.

In neighboring Michigan, the economy also looms large. Faced with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, Democratic incumbent Granholm will be up against a Republican opponent, multimillionaire Dick DeVos, who will have a virtually unlimited campaign treasury to use against her. To deflect criticism away from Granholm, Democrats will place blame for Michigan's economic troubles on Bush administration trade policies.

Two other Democrats, Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell and Maine's John Baldacci, also could face stiff general election challenges. Rendell currently has a narrow edge over all of his potential Republican rivals, including Bill Scranton, a former lieutenant governor and son of a former governor, and football star Lynn Swann. Property tax reform will likely be the central issue of the campaign. Baldacci's fate may hinge on whether he can convince voters that his comprehensive state health care plan is working, although it is unclear who his opponent will be.

ENDANGERED REPUBLICANS

Despite these opportunities for the GOP, most prognosticators agree that the two most vulnerable incumbents at this point are both Republicans: California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maryland's Bob Ehrlich. Schwarzenegger's reelection prospects took a hit last November, when voters rejected a series of ballot measures he had championed. His statewide approval ratings are abysmally low. Still, it would be foolish to count Schwarzenegger out: Running a campaign in California costs tens of millions of dollars, he will have all the cash he needs and neither of his potential opponents, State Controller Steve Westly and State Treasurer Phil Angelides, is widely known to voters--although Westly is spending from his personal fortune to change that. Leading members of the state's Democratic establishment have lined up behind Angelides, making it unlikely that any higher- profile Democrat will jump into the contest.

Ehrlich, like Schwarzenegger, is a Republican in a Democratic state. One of his challengers, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, quite literally brings rock star qualities to the race--he is the former frontman of an Irish-style rock band--although Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan will test him in the Democratic primary.

Minnesota's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, also could be in for a tough contest against any of four Democratic candidates. State Attorney General Mike Hatch is the only statewide official challenging Pawlenty, but wealthy developer Kelly Doran and state senators Steve Kelley and Becky Lourey are also credible aspirants for the Democratic nomination.

Republican Governor Rick Perry's reelection campaign in Texas will not necessarily be competitive--analysts consider him a favorite for another term--but it promises to be among the most entertaining, thanks to the quips of humorist and independent candidate Kinky Friedman. "Friedman is going to do shockingly well," says Sabato. "They hate politicians in Texas." Former Congressman Chris Bell and former Congressman and state Supreme Court Justice Bob Gammage will compete for the Democratic nomination, but Perry's toughest challenger could be State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who considered challenging Perry in the Republican primary but instead opted to run as an independent. School finance issues, which have roiled Texas politics for years, are certain to be a hot topic on the campaign trail.

While Perry dodged a primary challenge, other governors will face off with members of their own party. Governor Dave Heineman, a Nebraska Republican, is running as the underdog in a primary against legendary football coach and former Congressman Tom Osborne, with the winner virtually assured of victory in the general election as well. Alaska's Republican governor, Frank Murkowski, will likely face multiple primary challengers should he decide to seek another term. Democrats are generally considered to have a good shot at this office if a weakened Murkowski wins his party's nomination.

No primary challenge is drawing more attention this year than Roy Moore's campaign against Alabama Republican Governor Bob Riley. Moore is the former state Supreme Court chief justice who was removed from office by a judicial ethics panel for refusing to take down a display of the Ten Commandments from the Supreme Court building. He will campaign to the right of Riley, criticizing him especially for an effort to raise taxes early in his term. Either of the two Democratic contenders, Lieutenant Governor Lucy Baxley or former Governor Don Siegelman, would have a better chance of defeating Moore than of ousting Riley.

At least one Democrat, Oregon's Ted Kulongoski, is likely to face a credible challenge from within his own party. Kulongoski, who has drawn criticism from fellow Democrats on health care and education issues, may face former governor John Kitzhaber in a primary, and if Kitzhaber opts not to run, another Democrat, state senator Vicki Walker, promises to mount a campaign. Even if he survives the primary, Kulongoski will almost certainly encounter a tough opponent in the fall.

Most of the other governors up for reelection next year find themselves in relatively strong positions, including those in states that generally prefer the opposite party. Republican incumbents in Vermont, Hawaii, Connecticut and Rhode Island are all favored to win even though they will have to do it in large part with Democratic votes. Democratic governors in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Tennessee and Wyoming, five states with decidedly Republican bents in recent national politics, also look relatively strong.

But several of these states are guaranteed spirited contests. Oklahoma's Brad Henry will have a tough race against Republican Congressman Ernest Istook, and Rhode Island's Don Carcieri is expected to square off against the state's Democratic lieutenant governor, Charles Fogarty. The strategy for challengers in these states will be to tie the incumbents to the unpopular positions of their national party. "I do believe that what is going on in Washington is likely to have a significant impact on the 2006 election," says Ian Carleton, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, who hopes former state Senator Scudder Parker can upset Republican Governor Jim Douglas in part by arguing that Douglas should have opposed President Bush's health care and education policies.

Nearly all of the seemingly out-of-place governors were underdogs when they won first terms four years ago. The fact that they overcame those odds may explain why each is adapting well to the role of incumbent seeking reelection. "They had to work hard to get there, and they know they have to work hard to stay there," says Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report. "They don't make many mistakes."

Somewhat more secure are five governors seeking second terms in states where the political terrain is more favorable to them: Democrats Bill Richardson in New Mexico and John Lynch in New Hampshire, and Republicans Mike Rounds in South Dakota, Sonny Perdue in Georgia and Mark Sanford in South Carolina.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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