Governors' mansions go blue

Now holding a majority of the posts, Democrats will take the lead on policy innovation.

For the first time since 1994, the majority of the nation's gubernatorial mansions now have a distinct hue of blue – a development that could have a major impact on the 2008 presidential race.

Democrats picked up six seats from Republicans, including in the key swing state of Ohio. Massachusetts elected its first black governor. New York voters put an end to three terms of Republican rule. In Maryland, the Democratic mayor of Baltimore ousted the incumbent Republican.

There was some good news for the Grand Old Party. California reelected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, making the famous Terminator this year's most surprising "Comeback Kid." The GOP also held onto two hotly contested seats in Minnesota and Nevada.

But overall, it is Democrats who are smiling about their gubernatorial triumphs – and for two good reasons. For one, states are involved in a tremendous amount of policy innovation in areas including healthcare.

Now, much of that innovation, which often is the foundation for later federal reform, will have a Democratic angle, says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island. He also notes that parties in control of the governors' mansions are much better able to help their prospective presidential candidates.

"Governors get a lot of media attention, and they really set the agenda in their individual states," he says. "So if you have a strong party base in the governor's office, that's half the battle."

That was evident in Ohio in 2004, one of the nation's most competitive states. Republicans controlled both the governor's mansion and the secretary of State's office. Both state political leaders strongly supported President Bush. Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who ran for governor this year, was cochair of Mr. Bush's reelection committee in the state. His dual roles led to conflict of interest charges, particularly when people had problems voting in mostly black and Democratic areas. Voters filed 16 lawsuits charging they'd been disenfranchised. Still, Bush won the state.

But now some analysts say Mr. Blackwell paid the price. He garnered 37 percent of the vote, while Rep. Ted Strickland (D) took 60 percent.

In California, voters were more forgiving of their Republican leader. A year ago, after losing a slate of ballot initiatives viewed as highly partisan, Governor Schwarzenegger's popularity dropped to an all-time low. But he took the voters' message and began working with Democrats, reviving his political fortunes. He was reelected by a nearly 20-point margin.

In Nevada, Rep. Jim Gibbons won despite what became known as the "Friday the 13th" cocktail waitress debacle, in which he was accused of assaulting a woman with whom he'd been drinking.

But Democrats' pickups mean that 28 governors' offices are in the blue category.

"It means they have immediate executive control of the tens of millions of Americans," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "I think that can help out the Democrats in 2008, but it may also be only marginal, say 2 or 3 percent."

But as 2004 showed, just a few points can make a difference.

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