Democrats sense opening in governors' mansions

Early start to New York race reflects high stakes for 2002, as GOP struggles to retain its gubernatorial edge.

With little warning, the 2002 New York governor's race got under way in earnest this week.

Andrew Cuomo, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and son of the former New York governor, said he was definitely in. And Comptroller Carl McCall, the state's second most powerful elected official, announced he was hoping to become New York's first black governor, setting up a Democratic primary that will last more than a year and a half.

The early start in New York is a sign that governors' races are likely to be critical in the national tug of war currently under way between Democrats and Republicans. The parties are almost at parity on every level - from the president to Congress to state legislative chambers. The only exception is in governors' mansions, where the Republicans have so far held onto their 1994 gains.

But now, with several governors leaving their posts to join the Bush Cabinet, and others facing term limits, governorships are likely to be among the most tightly contested seats in 2002.

"The vast majority of the Republican governors that won in that 1994 tidal wave got reelected in 1998, and most of them can't run again in 2002," says political analyst Charles Cook. "So next year is going to be judgment day for Republicans in those governorships: Can they hold onto those 1994 gains when it becomes an open-seat situation?"

The first test will come this November, according to Mr. Cook, when New Jersey and Virginia hold their off-cycle gubernatorial elections.

In 1993, Republicans took both of those seats from Democrats. Their victories were later seen as a harbinger of the Republicans' 1994 sweep of the nation's statehouses.

"People are again looking at those for a sign of things to come," says Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes gubernatorial races for the Cook Political Report.

Both of those races could prove problematic for the GOP, because of expected primary challenges.

In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman resigned her seat this week to take up her post at the Environmental Protection Agency and turned over the reins to State Senate President Donald DiFrancesco (R). He's now the acting governor and is expected to face a primary challenge from Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler. Whoever emerges will have to take on the Democratic mayor of Woodbridge, Mark McGreevey, who lost to Ms. Whitman by a hair in 1997. He already appears to have his party united behind him.

In Virginia, Republican Lt. Gov. John Hager and state Attorney General Mark Earley are expected to have a tough primary battle. The Democrats, meanwhile, are already lining up behind multimillionaire Mark Warner.

Those races will set the stage for 2002, when 36 governorships are up.

Twenty-three are currently held by Republicans. Eleven of those are open seats because of term limits, and Ms. Duffy rates most of those races as "toss-ups." They include Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Tennessee.

Many of the other Republican governors will be running for a third term - a challenge for any politician, except the most popular.

"Just look at history - third terms are trouble," says Maurice Carroll, a New York political analyst. "Maybe in some crazy, nonintellectual way, the [people who favor] term limits ... are right - people just seemed to get tired after a while."

This could be a factor in the New York race. Gov. George Pataki (R) has signaled that he will run for a third term, although he has not yet officially announced. He remains popular in the polls, but if the economy turns, he could be vulnerable, particularly upstate.

The booming economy of the 1990s bypassed the traditionally conservative region. And in the two most recent Senate races, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton made inroads upstate by chiding Republicans for ignoring the region.

That's made it far more competitive for Democrats than in the past.

"If the economy's a little rocky, that will be laid on his doorstep - that's the risk and the chance both the Democrats are taking," says New York pollster and political analyst Lee Miringoff. "If the economy stays good and Pataki stays popular, it's going to be a long campaign."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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