Washington — If a Republican tide is rising in the land, it will show up next in the coming round of battles over the nation's governorships. Two states elect governors this year; 36 will do so in 1982.
History and a state-by-state survey of Republican prospects for gubernatorial elections suggest the GOP will do well to keep the 23 governors' mansions they now hold.
President Reagan's federal budget cuts will put pressure on incumbents of both parties to either raise taxes or cut state services, posing an acute test of the public's willingness to bear with the conservative changes launched in 1980.
"If in fact the '80 and '82 elections do turn out in retrospect to be watershed years, the Republicans aren't going to see net losses in 1982," says Fred Radewagen, director of state and federal relations for the Republican Governors Association, "but in fact we'll see some gains."
Historically, in the eight midterm elections this century after White House control changed hands, the party in power lost governorships. Republicans have been the big off-year losers, yielding 12 in 1922, 9 in 1954, and 10 in 1970.
Republican and Democratic pros alike see modest GOP governorship losses ahead for 1982. At the moment, the GOP controls 23 governorships, the Democrats 27. Mr. Radewagen talks of "a potential loss in the 3 or 4 or 5 range." Former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic National Committee's head man on the governorship front, expects the Democrats to gain two or three seats at least.
There are two clear reasons why the national Republican surge of last fall has not produced a visible GOP tide in state races at this point: Individual recognition and popularity are prime factors in winning statewide office, and the Democratic Party still holds an advantage in grass-roots organization in many states.
In New England, the South, and the West, the Democrats have the better-known candidates and appear likely to hold their near-monopoly on governorships.
The GOP's advantage is in its national organization, its fund raising, and its targeting expertise. But some of its strongholds in the Midwest, where the Republican Party controls all governorships except Kansas, could fall to the Democrats -- Michigan if popular Gov. William G. Milliken runs for the Senate and Ohio where Gov. James A. Rhodes cannot succeed himself. Iowa could be in danger if Gov. Robert Ray retires. And Minnesota's Gov. Albert H. Quie could lose out in the Democrats' general revival in that state.
The state races tend to be heavily candidate-centered, with successful governor prospects able to put together a set of policies that differ from the national party's.
Of the two 1981 races, the Democrats appear likely to retain control of the New Jersey executive office, and they think they can capture the governorship in Virginia, where former President Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law, Charles Robb, is expected to face Republican J. Marshall Coleman.
In the nation's two largest states, California and New York, the Democrats appear to be holding their own. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley could become the nation's highest-ranking black politician ever -- if President Reagan's characterization of the California governorship as second only to the presidency is correct -- by succeeding Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who is considering a try for the Senate seat now held by Republican S. I. Hayakawa.
In April, Mr. Bradley was leading his Democratic rivals -- former US Sen. John Tunney and state Treasurer Jesse Unruh --for the nomination. He also led Republican contenders -- Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, state Attorney General George Duekmejian, and San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson -- in Mervin Field's California Poll.
New York points up the Republicans' problems in converting their 1980 gains into a longer-lasting leverage in the state capitals. As in most other Eastern states, the Democrats have the stronger political personality in New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey with the help of incumbency.
"When [US Rep.] Jack Kemp is politically hot in New York State, like he was last summer for the convention, he looks pretty good against Carey," says East Coast pollster Richard Bennett. "When you go out two months later, when people aren't talking about Jack Kemp any more, he doesn't do well at all."
In the Southwest, Texas is expected to be a major test again for the Republicans. "I don't think [Republican Gov. William] Clements is a shoo-in," says Democrat Clinton, who sees the hard-charging style of Clements as possibly the incumbent's undoing. Conservative issues in Texas can work just as effectively for a Democrat.
He also asserts that a conservative shift on economic matters need not remove Democratic governors from their jobs, if the governors can keep their images as "relevant" to voters' needs.
"In 1982, the governors will be running under the impact of the budget cuts, and it's dicey for both Democrats and Republicans," Clinton says.
In the West, the Republicans hope to make gains in the Democratic-controlled "sagebrush rebellion" states from Idaho in the north to Arizona and New Mexico in the south. The Democratic governors of the Rocky Mountain area have so far been skilled at holding on with their blend of fiscal conservatism and environmentalism. But President Reagan scored strongly there in the last election, says Mr. Radewagen of the Republican Governors Association.
Summing up the GOP case for 1982, Mr. Radewagen says: "If Reagan has popularity going into the fall of '82, and some of his economic magic is working , the argument can be made that a key to his administration is the return of power to the states, and therefore Republican governors ought to be there to manage the block g rant money coming back."