The too-close-to-call race for Congress may have both major parties on edge this fall, but Democrats are smiling over the governors' races: Nonpartisan analysts predict the party will make a net gain of at least three governorships in November, including some states crucial to the 2004 presidential race.
Governors provide critical "machine" support for their party's presidential candidate activating the grass roots, getting out the vote, raising money and in recent years, they've led the way in policy innovations such as welfare reform.
Governors' seats also represent a training ground for future presidents: Four out of the five most recent presidents, including President Bush, are former governors.
"This new crop of Democratic governors may be the farm team or idea team for the Democrats, if not in 2004, then in 2008," says John Green, a political analyst at the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron in Ohio.
"Historically, it was Republican gubernatorial victories in the early '90s, culminating in 1994, that paved the way for George W. Bush," he continues. "Even though Republicans didn't necessarily win all those states in the 2000 election Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois those states were competitive."
THE latest polls show that Democrats are primed to take over governor's mansions currently held by Republicans in those three big electoral-vote states, as well as in New Mexico.
Other Republican-held governorships that Democrats have a shot at capturing include Tennessee, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Kansas. Republicans could take over Democratic-held governorships in New Hampshire, Alaska, and Hawaii; Maryland is also vulnerable.
Still, the math favors the Democrats: State budget woes have endangered incumbents across the country, and with Republicans controlling 23 of the 36 governors' seats up for election on Nov. 5, they have a lot more ground to cover and defend.
"From the beginning, the assumption was that the Democrats would pick up seats this year," says John Kohut, who analyzes governors' races for the Cook Political Report. "The question was, would it be OK or huge. Now the worse case for Democrats is they pick up three seats. I'd say three to six is certainly reasonable."
In a way, the governors' races more than the races for House and Senate are playing out the typical scenario of a midterm race, in which the president's party almost always loses seats. Governors are dealing with the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, healthcare, and education not Iraq.
"Those are the issues that impact the daily lives of citizens," says B.J. Thornberry, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association in Washington. "The only difference this year is, the issues matrix is playing itself out in states that have significant budget deficits." About 45 states, she says, have deficits.
Red ink could have cost the Democrats their largest plum the California governorship, held by the unpopular Gray Davis but he's flush with record amounts of campaign cash, a well-oiled political machine, a state that leans Democratic, and a conservative opponent, Bill Simon, who has made business mistakes. And so Governor Davis looks poised to win reelection.
BUT Democrats are more excited about some of the new faces getting national attention and a familiar face poised to take over a key electoral state.
The biggest buzz of the season surrounds Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, who polls show is heading for victory. She is one of 10 women this political season nominated by one of the major parties to run for governor and is a relative newcomer to politics, having first run for office only four years ago.
But already, party regulars are bemoaning her biggest drawback as a national political figure: She can't run for president because she was born in Canada.
Still, say Michigan political observers, she can be an effective fundraiser and campaigner for the Democratic nominee in 2004, as well as a role model for women politicians.
Nonpartisan Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus says Ms. Granholm, in her first two years, can pull in a lot of money from Republicans seeking to curry favor with the new governor money that could benefit the 2004 Democratic nominee.
Democrats are also bully on the prospects of Ed Rendell, who appears headed for the governor's mansion in Pennsylvania. He is a seasoned politician, successful former mayor of Philadelphia, and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And he's out of the same mold as former Gov. Tom Ridge. When asked whether he'd consider running for president, he is "very close-mouthed," says Professor Green.
With fewer than four weeks before election day, another factor in governors' races that will rear its head is money. There are relatively few competitive House and Senate races, and so money will be flowing to the state races, says campaign money watcher Ken Goldstein at the University of Wisconsin.
"You have lots of competitive governors' races in big states with expensive markets," he says, adding that viewers can expect a lot of negative ads. "We're in a year when these elections are not about the challengers. It's about incumbents."
Staff writer Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.