Some Governors at Risk Despite Hot Economy

Close races likely in 10 of 36 governorships up for grabs this year.

By most measures, Parris Glendening should breeze to reelection this fall as governor of Maryland.

His state's unemployment levels are at record lows, he's reduced taxes, and he's enacted almost his entire program, which is popular.

But he has high negatives, even among fellow Democrats. In fact, he's seen as so vulnerable that not one but two challengers have lined up against him for the party's nomination in September.

What's more, Mr. Glendening isn't the only incumbent governor who faces a serious primary challenge this year - despite economies that are so strong the biggest battles are over what to do with the budget surpluses.

What's going on here? Why should any sitting governor with a strong economy face any opposition at all?

There's Fob James of Alabama, Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts, and Bill Graves of Kansas - all Republicans who face challenges from within their own parties.

"In each case, it's an example of the old saying: All politics is local," says Del Ali, a vice president at Mason-Dixon political research in Laurel, Md. In general, though, "it's still the year of the incumbent."

Overall, when the dust settles in November, at least 10 new faces will grace the roster of governors, sometimes viewed as a third chamber of Congress. There are 10 open seats this year - including those in some of the most populous states, California, Florida, and Illinois.

This fall's elections are particularly important, because they will produce the governors who oversee the 2001 redrawing of congressional districts, a highly partisan exercise that takes place only once each decade.

Control over governorships is expected to remain at about 2-to-1 in Republican hands. Currently, there are 32 Republican governors, 17 Democrats, and one Independent, and political analysts expect the totals to shift only slightly. Republicans are favored to pick up open seats in Nevada, Nebraska, and possibly Florida.

"Governors are like presidents; they tend to be captives of the economy," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a political newsletter. "When times are good, they can make the case they're responsible, so that's why it's hard to beat them."

But sometimes local issues - including an official's personal idiosyncrasies - can trump a strong economy.

Personality

Two sitting governors face primary challenges because of their personalities: Glendening of Maryland, widely viewed as the most vulnerable incumbent, and Fob James of Alabama.

Glendening stumbled right at the start of his administration over his decision to take a state pension for his years as a county executive and has been fighting image problems ever since.

Last month, longtime Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a fellow Democrat, dealt a blow to Glendening by endorsing an opponent, Eileen Rehrmann, in the primary. He called Glendening "inconsistent, and not credible" over a variety of issues, including whether to allow slot machines in Baltimore. The decision by Schmoke, who is black, could hurt the governor among the state's African-Americans.

As of now, Glendening faces two primary challengers: Ms. Rehrmann, a local official little known outside her county, and Ray Schoenke, an wealthy insurance executive and former Washington Redskin. If both stay in the race, Glendening will win the nomination easily, but if one drops out, he could face a real battle, say Maryland analysts.

In the general election, Glendening would likely face Ellen Sauerbrey, who nearly defeated him in 1994. Her bid to become Maryland's first Republican governor since former Vice President Spiro Agnew depends on her ability to maintain a moderate image in a Democratic-leaning state.

Religious issues

In Alabama, Governor James is under fire for being mercurial and unpredictable - for appearing to care more about whether the Ten Commandments can hang in a judge's chambers than about business prospects in Birmingham and Mobile.

He has inspired four primary challengers: Montgomery businessman Winston Blount, former Gov. Guy Hunt, who was convicted in 1993 for illegal use of inaugural funds, and two lesser-known Republicans. Observers predict James will win the nomination, but may face a runoff, which would delay focus on the general election.

His likely Democratic opponent is Don Siegelman, "the kind of Democrat who can win statewide in Alabama," says Mr. Ali. "What he's doing cleverly is appealing to the business community. He's saying, 'I'm a conservative Democrat, a fiscal conservative, and I want to bring business in.... That's what the business community wanted James to do."

In Kansas, Gov. Bill Graves's primary challenge stems from the state GOP's internal warfare over the direction of the party - social-issue conservatives vs. Chamber of Commerce moderates. What's stunning is that the popular Governor Graves is being challenged by the state chairman of his own party, David Miller.

The Kansas GOP divide is a mini-version of the national battle over the direction of the party. In Kansas, it's been going on for a few election cycles, and "it's as bad there as anywhere in the country," says Mr. Rothenberg.

Observers expect Graves to beat off this challenge, but anything could happen. Turnout will be critical, and in primaries, it's the conservatives who tend to turn out. "I think any moderate in a primary ought to be a little nervous," says Rothenberg.

The partial incumbent

In Massachusetts, acting Gov. Paul Cellucci really counts only as a "demi-incumbent." He took over the governorship when William Weld resigned last year, and so Mr. Cellucci enjoys only partial benefits of incumbency. His primary opponent, conservative state treasurer Joe Malone, has tried to paint him as a Statehouse "insider."

For Cellucci, the key to winning in the general election will be to hew as closely as possible to ex-Governor Weld's moderate style in this Democratic state. Ironically, the Democratic battle cry against Cellucci may be: "He's no Bill Weld!"

Another Republican governor who almost joined the challenged-incumbent club is Jane Hull of Arizona, whose situation mimics that of both Cellucci in Massachusetts and Graves in Kansas. She's another demi-incumbent who took office last year when Gov. Fyfe Symington was indicted and resigned. And the threat of a challenge to her by conservative Rep. Matt Salmon would have publicized internal divisions with the state GOP. But Mr. Salmon backed away from this challenge, reportedly under pressure from fellow Arizona Republicans.

Governors' Races in 1998

Alabama Iowa Ohio

Alaska Kansas Oklahoma

Arkansas Maine Oregon

Arizona Maryland Pennsylvania

California Massachusetts Rhode Island

Colorado Michigan South Carolina

Connecticut Minnesota South Dakota

Florida Nebraska Tennessee

Georgia Nevada Texas

Hawaii New Hampshire Vermont

Idaho New Mexico Wisconsin

Illinois New York Wyoming

Source: State Net Capitol Reports

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