GOP retirees put Midwest governorships up for grabs

The Midwest, usually considered strong Republican territory, may be about to surrender several governorships to the Democrats.

That's the way it looks to some political analysts. But they concede that a lot could happen between now and November.

Over the last three months, four Midwestern governors, all Republicans and all veteran officeholders, have decided not to seek reelection this year. Dropouts include Gov. William G. Milliken of Michigan, Gov. Robert Ray of Iowa, Gov. Albert H. Quie of Minnesota, and Gov. James A. Rhodes of Ohio.

''Obviously it's easier to reelect candidates that have been supported in the past . . . and there's no question but that it's going to be a tougher row to hoe for us,'' concedes Republican National Committee spokesman William Greener III.

Of the retirees, only Governor Rhodes is constitutionally barred from running again. And he recently decided not to run against incumbent Democrat Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum for a seat in the US Senate.

All four gubernatorial dropouts have cited family and personal reasons for their decisions to stay out of the fall elections. Some, like Iowa Governor Ray, considered a shoo-in for re-election if he had run, have gone out of their way to stress that prevailing pessimism about Republican prospects in November did not influence their decision. Still, as a number of political analysts in this region see it, such predictions, plus growing fiscal difficulties in most Midwestern states, played at least some role in each man's decision.

''It's probably hard to be an incumbent governor when things are going this badly,'' says William Flanigan, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. ''People vote on vague feelings sometimes and it doesn't always make any difference who's (really) responsible.''

''It's the governors who've had to pass the bad news along that resources aren't adequate to meet needs . . . and there's a tendency to blame the messenger,'' agrees Richard Elling, professor of political science at Detroit's Wayne State University.

Then, too, none of the dropouts has been an enthusiastic supporter of ''new federalism'' or of the Reagan administration's bid for Defense Department immunity from spending cuts.

''These are moderate Republicans - very concerned about the strong right-wing drift of their party under Reagan,'' says Nicholas Berry, professor of politics at Cornell College in Iowa. ''It seems to me they're distancing themselves from him.''

Budget problems for three of the four manufacturing-belt states have been severe. According to a recent National Conference of State Legislatures survey, the projected balance between revenue and expenses for fiscal 1982 is expected to be minus 2.9 percent for Michigan, minus 5.9 percent for Ohio, and minus 12.9 percent for Minnesota. Only Iowa expects to come out with a relatively balanced ''plus'' 1.5 percent.

Governor Quie of Minnesota has probably taken the sharpest political criticism of any of the four. The criticism stems from the fiscal problems in his state. He is a veteran of two decades of service in Congress but is still in his first term as governor. A 1979 bipartisan move in the Minnesota Legislature to index income taxes - in effect protecting taxpayers from being bumped into a higher tax bracket by inflation - resulted in a $700 million shortfall in revenue and is considered the crux of the state's problems.

But charges of poor money management -- from disbursing funds that the state didn't have to repeated off-target predictions of coming revenues and expenses -- have haunted the Quie administration for much of the last few years.''

I don't think he's had a happy term in office -- it's been really hard,'' observes Professor Flanigan. He says that recent polls in Minnesota suggest that almost any Republican with a different name -- ''who wouldn't be blamed for what's going on'' -- would fare better.

Despite the current preponderance of Republicans in high office (both US senators and the governor), Dr. Flanigan says Minnesota is a ''marginally safe'' state for Democrats. He suggests that a popular and proved vote-getter such as Attorney General Warren Spannaus, who is one of the Democratic candidates for the gubernatorial post, might easily walk off with the job.

Recent polls in Michigan conducted by both Republicans and Democrats indicate that the Democratic Party is currently running ahead in that state. So far, the leading gubernatorial candidate on that slate is US Rep. Jim Blanchard, who was a key drafter of the legislation netting Chrysler its large federal loan.

Governor Milliken, who is in his 14th year in office, has spent much of the last three years trying to minimize the damage to state programs of shrinking revenues caused by that state's high unemployment rate. He opted for belt-tightening rather than a tax hike and has already cut $270 million from this year's budget. He proposes another slash almost as high before the fiscal year ends.

''As a person he continues to be popular here,'' notes Wayne State Professor Elling, ''but as the most visible state official, he's the one who gets the heat.''

Iowa's Governor Ray has been in office since 1969, twice as long as any of his predecessors. In recently repeating his 1978 declared intention not to run for reelection, he left the door open to other political possibilities by saying it was a time to ''try new things.''

Some speculate that he is distancing himself from President Reagan with an eye to a better position in a 1984 primary race for a Senate seat against conservative incumbent Roger Jepsen, Ray's former lieutenant governor.

But University of Iowa political scientist Russell Ross, noting that Ray this week endorsed his current Lt. Gov. Terry Branstad -- also a favorite of the New Right -- as his replacement choice, says he thinks a federal judgeship would be more to Ray's liking. Though Iowa is in better shape fiscally than many other Midwestern states, farm exports are expected to drop this year and manufacturing employment is on the rise. ''Republicans could be in trouble,'' says Dr. Ross.

Ohio's Governor Rhodes had virtually made a career in past gubernatorial campaigns of pledging no new taxes in a low tax state where some have felt progressive tax hikes have been long overdue. This year, in the face of a $1 billion deficit, the governor did support a 1 percent hike in the sales tax. Early indications were that he was relishing a fight for the Senate seat open to election this year. But some political analysts surmise that the combination of Republican Rep. John M. Ashbrook's early declaration of candidacy for that post and rumored strong efforts within the party to persuade Rhodes to make way for new and younger Republican candidates played a role in his decision not to run.

''He's been at the top of the ladder for so long that it's blocked the advancement of other younger Republicans,'' observes Ohio University political science Prof. Alex Prisley.

While the loss of all this collective experience and proved vote-getting ability is one the Republican Party is sure to feel keenly, the gubernatorial dropouts themselves just might find they like the change after so many years on the front lines. Some of them may have been listening as former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, busy since his election defeat giving college lectures and launching a new public interest group, recently pronounced that time ''the happiest year of my life.''

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