Governor changes may be key to 2004

As Democrats surveyed their electoral failures this week, they're finding solace along Route 66.

It's in America's heartland, from Pennsylvania to Kansas to California, that the Democrats made their only significant gains. There, they won and retained governorships that will be crucial in the 2004 presidential races.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are trumpeting their pickups in the South, particularly in the traditionally Democratic strongholds of Georgia and Maryland.

With the GOP firmly in control on the federal level – winning outright the House and Senate in midterm elections for the first time since the 1930s – the geographic shift on the statewide level sets up the partisan battleground for the next two years. That's particularly true since campaign-finance reform will now pour the unrestricted campaign dollars – so-called soft money – to state parties and their workers.

The Democrats see presidential potential in their pickup of the key Midwestern governorships in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin, which have traditionally been held by Republicans. The GOP is just as quick to point out that President Bush didn't win those states in 2000 anyway.

But beyond the partisan angling, analysts say the shifts are more indicative of the painful budgetary crisis facing governors across the country – regardless of party.

"The torch is being passed in a time of economic crisis," says pollster John Zogby. "It's not surprising that some high-profile governors would lose, and because more of them were Republicans, it's not surprising there was a swing back to the Democrats."

Other analysts contend that on a statewide level, Democrats were able to make their case on the economy and offer an alternative to the Republican status quo – something the Democrats failed to do on the national level.

For instance in Michigan, Attorney General Jennifer Granholm pledged to fight for "moms and dads who struggle to balance the needs of their families." Throughout the campaign, she hammered away at the state's sagging economy, promising to expand the state's high-tech base to bring more "high-skill, high-wage jobs." She defeated Republican Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, who had served with Gov. John Engler, the popular incumbent who retired because of term limits.

Political consultant Joseph Mercurio, who works for both Democrats and Republicans, says that in general, the Democratic gubernatorial candidates spent more time talking about how to save their states in the face of the economic plight.

"They made a clear distinction between Republicans who were screwing up and Democrats who were trying to find ways to grow their economies out of their problems," he says.

He also maintains that local Democratic parties tend to be more organized at getting out the vote than they are on the federal level. In the New York gubernatorial race, however, it was Republican incumbent George Pataki who successfully took full advantage of the power of his office to rally supporters and overwhelm Democrat Carl McCall, despite the Democrat's 5-to-3 advantage in numbers of registered voters. While Mr. McCall ran what many state Democrats say was a weak and lackluster campaign, Governor Pataki knew where his power base was and how to rally it, Mr. Mercurio says.

"This is the kind of thing that governors do, and they can do it for presidents as well," he says.

That's why some Democrats are able to see some glimmer of hope in their dismal performance on Tuesday.

In 2000, Democrats governed states that represented 196 electoral votes, and the Republicans controlled states with 328 electoral votes. If Arizona and Oregon, which were still contested as of this writing, go to the Democrats, they'll govern states with 294 electoral votes, compared with the Republicans' 244 electoral votes.

"Just in terms of basic math, it will make a difference," says Ramona Oliver of the Democratic Governors' Association. "Because of campaign-finance reform, the ... campaign of the next presidential election will be run by the governors and by the state party."

But political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia says that governors tend to have more control when the presidential race is for an open seat. Then they can join together and fight to get their favorite nominated, as they did in 2000 with Mr. Bush.

But when an incumbent is running for president, the election tends more to be a referendum on their performance. "In an incumbent president's reelection, it's thumbs up or thumbs down on his performance," says Professor Sabato. "But if there's an open seat, governors are worth one to three percentage points in their states, in terms of money and staff and appointees [they can rally for a candidate]."

During much of the 20th century, Democrats controlled most of the nation's governorships. It was only a decade ago that the Republicans invested time and money in developing "a farm team" in the state legislatures and governors' houses, according to Mercurio.

When the final votes are counted in this year's election, and if the Democrats win where they expect to, there will be a 50-50 split: Each party would control 25 governor's mansions, setting up an even more intense competition for the beginning of this century.

• Ron Scherer contributed to this report.

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