High stakes in governors' races

Democrats have a shot at taking control of a majority of governorships for the first time since 1994.

By many indicators, Democrat Jennifer Granholm should be heading for certain defeat in her reelection race as Michigan's governor. State unemployment is at 7.1 percent, well above the nation's 4.7 percent. Sixty percent of Michigan voters give Governor Granholm a negative job rating. And her Republican opponent, multimillionaire Dick DeVos, can spend freely – and has – to try to unseat her.

For sure, Granholm is in a tough race; she's probably the most embattled Democratic governor in the country. But in a year when Republican candidates nationally are laboring under an unpopular President Bush, an unpopular Iraq war, and negative perceptions about the national economy, even Granholm might survive. The latest polls show her either ahead or in a statistical dead heat against Mr. DeVos.

Overall, the Democratic Party may well emerge from the November elections with a majority of governors' seats for the first time since 1994.

The Republicans are "going to lose governors' seats, there's no question," says Jennifer Duffy, an expert on gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. She predicts a net Democratic gain of four to six seats.

Currently, the GOP majority in governors' mansions stands at 28 to Democrats' 22, but the Republican Party is defending far more seats this fall than are the Democrats. Of the 36 seats on the ballot, 22 are held by Republicans and 14 by Democrats. Among the 10 incumbents vacating their seats, nine are Republicans, including Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, who lost in a rare primary defeat for a sitting governor.

Unlike in the House and Senate, winning a majority of governors' seats holds mainly symbolic importance. But it is still in each party's interest to control as many governorships as possible. Governors' mansions are the training ground of future presidents. (Four of the past five presidents were ex-governors.) Governors who aren't running for president can lend the support of their local political infrastructure to politicians from their party who are.

In the event of a disputed result in a key state, as happened in the past two presidential elections, having friendly statewide elected officials is a bonus.

Governors can also turn their states into laboratories for policy innovations with potential national applications.

New York is the Democrats' top takeover opportunity, with state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer running far ahead of former state Assembly minority leader John Faso to replace GOP Gov. George Pataki.

The Democrats' next best takeover hope is Ohio, where the state's retiring Republican governor, Bob Taft, has been mired in scandal and has at times posted single-digit job approvals. Nonpartisan political handicappers (Cook Political Report, Rothenberg Political Report, and CQPolitics.com) give the edge to Democrat Rep. Ted Strickland, despite the state's close partisan divide, as the beneficiary of a voter desire for change.

Beyond those two, analysts are less in accord, though they all list more Republican-held than Democratic-held seats as "potential takeovers."

Among Republican governors running for reelection, the most endangered is Robert Ehrlich of Maryland. Independent pollster Del Ali, who is based in Maryland, sees the state going back to its "true blue" roots this fall.

"This problem for Ehrlich is he's on the record supporting the war in Iraq, very strongly," Mr. Ali says. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor, "will dig up all the video he had in 2005 talking about standing behind the president."

Among the other biggest Democratic pickup possibilities are Colorado, Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Alaska.

Besides Michigan, Republicans are most hopeful about taking over in Wisconsin and Iowa. In Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle (D) has struggled with ethics charges – and though he has now been cleared of wrongdoing by the state ethics board, the odor of impropriety lingers in a state that prides itself on clean government. Muddying the picture for GOP challenger Rep. Mark Green is a recent judgment that he return $467,844 in donations from out-of-state political action committees, a ruling he is fighting in court. Polls show a tight race – and both men are pounding each other hard in ads.

The Republican Party is not pretending this will be an easy election year, at any level of government. And in races where a member of Congress is running for governor, that link to Washington can be an anchor around the congressman's neck.

Take Iowa, where Rep. Jim Nussle (R) and Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver are dueling to replace retiring Gov. Tom Vilsack (D).

"Nussle's a good guy, but it [being a Republican in Congress] probably at the end sinks him," says Ali, who notes that the popular Vilsack will likely provide coattails for Mr. Culver. Still, Ali adds, the race is "closer than five points."

Phil Musser, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, predicts Mr. Nussle can overcome his Washington label by focusing on Iowa-specific proposals in areas such as the economy, energy, and education.

"It's not the best year to be running as a member of Congress for state office, but in the end it's about local issues," says Mr. Musser.

In Colorado, a Democratic pickup hope, Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) is struggling, too, with his Washington tag – perhaps more than Nussle is in Iowa – as he seeks to replace retiring Republican Gov. Bill Owens.

Independent Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli sees Representative Beauprez losing traction in his governor's race, in a combination of local and Washington-related factors. On the local front, the state's fractured Republican Party has hurt Beauprez, and nationally, says Ciruli, "the war and just general aggravation with Republicans and the president are hurting him."

Still, the anti-Washington model doesn't apply everywhere. In Nevada, Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) doesn't seem to be suffering for his membership in Congress, and is leading in polls to replace retiring Gov. Kenny Guinn (R), whose coattails seem to be helping Mr. Gibbons.

"Guinn is a popular governor, and Gibbons is well known; the good economy in Nevada also helps Gibbons," says Ali. "It's Gibbons's race to lose. If he supports the war, he hasn't said [much] about it."

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