Power Surge Coming for Republican Governors

GOP should keep most governorships, and state influence on policy is growing.

As an extraordinarily unsettled election season heads into the final lap, one thing looks certain: continued Republican dominance of the governor's offices.

But unlike four years ago, when the GOP dramatically increased its grip on state capitals, today's power is apt to prove more potent.

First and foremost, there is the "Georges" factor. Big-state Republican governors who polls show are likely to win Nov. 3 include possible presidential contenders, like George W. Bush of Texas and George Pataki of New York. As they begin testing the waters for the 2000 race, their governorships could provide the platform and testing grounds for national campaign themes.

Second, Republican governors will hold the whip hand over the redrawing of electoral districts as a result of the 2000 census, a process that will influence the balance of party power in state legislatures and Congress for the next decade. In particular, most states likely to gain seats in Congress as a result of population growth since 1990 (Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and Montana) are either already in the hands of a Republican or are likely to be so after next month's voting.

And last, the Republican governors are expected to continue to flex their muscle on national policy issues, much as they did on welfare reform after 1994. Political analysts predict that education reform will top the agenda of Republican governors in 1999.

Four years ago, when the Republican Party took control of Congress, it also went from minority to majority status in governorships. The number of GOP governors rose from 19 to 30 and now stands at 32.

This November, "I expect a swing of two or three, either way," says Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, past chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association. GOP gains would push their gubernatorial clout to a level not seen since the early 1900s.

Of particular note is the likely Republican control over most, if not all, the governorships of the largest states. Incumbent Republican governors in Texas, New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are heavily favored in recent polls to win reelection. In Ohio and Illinois, Republican candidates are in the lead according to polls.

The biggest surprises for the Republicans could come in California and Florida. Republican Jeb Bush, son of former President George Bush and younger brother to the governor of Texas, looks likely to supplant Democratic rule in Florida. But polls in California continue to give Gray Davis (D) a slight lead over state Attorney General Dan Lungren.

Individual and collective

Gubernatorial influence on national affairs usually occurs in one of two ways, say analysts. Individually, a figure emerges from the ranks of governors and generates a national-policy debate by virtue of his candidacy. Indeed, three of the last four presidents were former governors.

There is also a more collective process where governors push a similar agenda, much the way Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan, and Mike Leavitt of Utah shaped the 1996 welfare-reform law.

Either way, the trend of gubernatorial influence is increasing.

"In the past 20 years, there has been an unmistakable devolution of power from the federal government to the states. The states are now the engines of innovation, more so than any other time in US history, with the possible exception of the Progressive Era," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. That means states and their leaders can set powerful examples.

"Congress used the states as a road map for federal welfare reform," says Dan Schnur, an adviser to the California Republican Party. "I'll bet the same thing happens with education reform after this election," he says.

One of the salient lessons from the governors' push on welfare reform, though, is that it wasn't strongly ideological and partisan, says Governor Dean of Vermont. Republican governors were "quite helpful," he says, in beating back some of the more extreme welfare measures that arose in Congress before a compromise was passed.

Education, according to some surveys, is the most prevalent theme in campaign advertising nationwide this fall. Texas Governor Bush describes it this way in campaign speeches: "Education is to a state what national defense is to our country. It's by far the No. 1 priority."

Push for education reform

Many other Republican candidates are on the education bandwagon. Mr. Bush in Florida, Mr. Thompson in Wisconsin, and Mr. Lungren in California are pushing education changes, including support for school vouchers, which provide tax breaks for those attending private schools and are vigorously opposed by most Democrats. Also common is Republican support for expanding charter schools, tougher standards, and opposition to national testing standards.

In the big states, governors tend to lobby Congress or the White House directly. But the preeminent vehicle collectively is the National Governors' Association, whose agenda must be supported by two-thirds of its members.

The NGA tends to avoid hot-button, highly partisan issues, says executive director Raymond Scheppach. One party seldomly forces something the other one is united against, he says.

Whatever issues the Republican governors champion, the importance could be mainly as a political rallying cry to help put a Republican in the White House in 2000.

"It's the governors that run the parties in the states and that's very important in a presidential election," says Mr. Scheppach.

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