GOP Looks to Future, Sees Governors

Statehouse leaders give Republican Party a popular talent pool for 2000 - and beyond.

America's rising economic tide is buoying the political prospects of incumbent governors - and perhaps the Republican Party along with it.

With the Dow Jones stratospheric and state coffers flush, sitting politicians everywhere - including governors - are standing to take credit for tax cuts, rainy-day surpluses, and spending on everything from new stadiums to books and classrooms. Of these governors, 32 are Republicans.

The GOP is expected to tap this reservoir of gubernatorial experience - and public good will - in coming elections. Indeed, some analysts say the GOP's current crop of governors not only will help the party keep its edge in statehouses, but will also be the pool for drawing competitive candidates for the White House through 2000 and beyond.

"The GOP hold on the state executive branch is a very big deal, because they have something they have rarely possessed - a large majority in a period of rising prosperity," says Larry Sabato, a government expert at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "They are likely to have a large majority for 1998, which in turn is important for elections from Congress to the presidency in 2000."

The GOP advantage is even more significant because Republican governors run most of the nation's high-profile, populous states. Indeed, Michigan's John Engler, Texas' George W. Bush, Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, California's Pete Wilson, and New York's George Pataki are enjoying unprecedented popularity ratings, some as high as 80 percent voter approval.

It's probably no coincidence that these states have also posted some of the best economic news in decades. Among them:

* California's mammoth economy has just surpassed a $1 trillion output and created 1.3 million jobs, reversing the state's worst recession this century. Revenue surpluses last year returned $680 million to education; this year another $1 billion will go to a middle-class tax cut.

* Michigan has just announced a jobless rate of 3.7 percent, the lowest in recorded history. The state is boasting the hottest real estate market in the country and a $1 billion rainy-day fund.

* Texas voters just passed the largest tax cut in state history - $1 billion - amid that state's dramatic return from the cellar of oil-business depression.

* Wisconsin has created 600,000 new jobs in five years, the biggest increase of manufacturing jobs in the US. Unemployment is at a 30-year low (3.4 percent).

The popularity of incumbent governors is expected to give Republicans a bigger pool of visible, viable presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The advantage comes, political analysts say, because the pool is filled with more candidates who - unlike senators and congressmen - can claim experience at the helm of state.

"This is a complete turnaround from the earlier gloom of the decade, when voter discontent was pervasive," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "A lot of Republican governors will be reelected handsomely, and when 2000 rolls around will look up and say, 'Hey, I can be president or vice president.' "

In coming gubernatorial elections in all of the 10 largest states, the GOP is considered to have strong candidates and is heavily favored in six. In 36 gubernatorial races next year, 24 states have Republican incumbents.

"It has been a simple equation for these states," says Steve Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "Good economies equal high tax revenue, equals government-without-pain, equals gubernatorial popularity."

Governors elected next year will also be major players in redistricting after the 2000 US census. In that role, they will help draw new party battle lines into the 21st century.

But Democrats are not without their gubernatorial success stories. Jeanne Shaheen, the new Democratic governor of New Hampshire, is rolling along with a 65 percent approval rating, and Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon recently reported a $1.8 billion surplus.

Still, Democratic analysts concede that Republican chief executives have an edge in next year's election cycle.

"They do have the numbers advantage," says Doug Richardson, spokesman for the Democratic Governors' Conference. "But things can happen."

A case in point, he and others say, is the situation of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R). Despite overwhelming popularity after years of pushing through tax cuts, Governor Whitman is embroiled in a tough battle with a relatively unknown Democratic challenger, Jim McGreevey, that centers on the state's auto-insurance rates.

"The Whitman race is a bellwether for what Republicans can expect next year," says Mr. Schneider. "Democrats have done what they will need to do in other states, which is to seize on a high-profile issue that hits voters in the pocketbook."

The other caveat for sitting Republicans is the health of both national and state economies. If either should dip, voters will be inclined to vent their wrath shotgun-style, proportionately hitting more Republicans than Democrats.

"Bad economic news hurts incumbents more than good economic news helps them," says David Liebschutz of the Rockefeller Institute of Government. "George Bush is the classic example. After the Gulf War, his approval rating was 80 percent. A year later, a bad economy drove him from office."

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