Democrats Tighten Their Grip on Nation's Governorships

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE momentum of victorious Democratic candidates nationwide has given the Democratic Party two-thirds of state governorships, a percentage it has not held since 1979. Thirty-one of the nation's 50 governors will be Democrats.

In winning three governorships away from Republican control (Delaware, Missouri, and North Carolina), and holding onto five others (Indiana, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia), they harnessed the same voter anger over the economy and jobs that won the presidency for Bill Clinton.

"In all these states, voters went with the candidates they felt would deliver the most in jobs, health care, education, " says Katharine Whelan, director of the Democratic Governors' Association. "For them, the last 12 years have meant a failed Republican experiment. "

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"The races shifted on state and local issues, " notes Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "Other than following the general Democratic tide, there is no overarching theme. "

Partly because of the heated presidential campaign, the 12 gubernatorial races were considered the lowest-profile contests in a decade. All three women candidates lost their bids (Democrats Dorothy Bradley in Montana and Arnie Arnesen in Hew Hampshire, and Republican Elizabeth Leonard in Rhode Island). Because of term limitations or retirement, eight posts will be held by newcomers.

Analysts say the largest surprise in the gubernatorial races was the come-from-behind victory by Montana's GOP candidate, Attorney General Marc Racicot. Tracking polls just last week gave a 6 percent edge to his Democratic opponent, Ms. Bradley, who had raised more money ($1 million) than any candidate in state history. She also had an army of volunteers 3,000 strong that had positioned her well.

Chris Henick, chief spokesman for the Republican Governors' Conference, says Mr. Racicot's win helped cut across the grain of more-dire predictions for Republicans. "Factoring in the House, Senate, and presidential races, we expected to do worse, " Mr. Henick says. With Republican Ed Schaefer picking up the seat left open by Democrat George Sinner in North Dakota, and the GOP's Stephen Merrill winning by a wide margin in New Hampshire - a state carried by Clinton - the GOP can begin carving out some new bases, he says.

In New Hampshire, Democrat Ms. Arnesen's loss was no surprise to most pundits. In a state with no income tax, Arnesen had proposed a 6 percent income tax with 75 percent of the proceeds going for education and property-tax relief. Exit polls showed voters 67 percent for and 30 percent against income taxes.

Heading South, the return of former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt to the North Carolina statehouse on a platform of education reform, crime reduction, and economic development was assured, according to many analysts. "We showed for the first time since 1980 that a Democratic candidate can beat a negative campaign, " said Rachel Perry, spokeswoman for the Hunt campaign.

Opponent Jim Gardner had run one of the most negative campaigns in history, according to several observers. The public, captivated by a 1988 campaign ad in which Mr. Gardner accused his opponent of criminal actions and for which Gardner later had to apologize in court, didn't buy similar tactics this time.

Missouri voters did, however, apparently buy allegations of misconduct against GOP Attorney General William Webster, who ran against Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan. As underlined in campaign advertisements, Mr. Webster has been under investigation by a federal grand jury for alleged mishandling of the state's workers' compensation insurance fund and in land deals involving his family. Mr. Carnahan beat Webster by a substantial margin.

Overall, analysts point out that since the nation's 50 governors do not vote for and against legislation in blocs, the two-thirds Democratic majority is less significant in generating or sustaining party voting trends. But they add that 8 of 12 wins for Democrats underlines a distaste both for Republican agendas and their implementation during the recent recession.

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