Democrats aren't going down easy in gov races

Donald Lambro

6/28/2006 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The increasing number of Democratic governorships that are in trouble suggests the Republicans could end up winning more races in this year's elections than previously expected.

Despite the generic congressional polls showing that more voters will vote Democratic in November (though by a margin that has shrunk in the past several weeks), the bigger story may turn out to be that the GOP will recapture some pivotal statehouses in the Midwest and elsewhere that will boost their chances in the presidential election two years from now.

Republicans control a majority of the nation's governorships -- 28 to 22 -- including the four biggest electoral states of California, Texas, Florida and New York. But the large number of GOP governorships at stake in the fall -- 22 out of the 36 seats up for grabs -- has put them at a disadvantage this time around.

Making the GOP's 2006 challenge tougher: they have eight open seats to defend, most due to term limits, to the Democrats' one. It's usually easier to win an open seat than to beat an incumbent.

The Democrats need to win a net four more governorships to capture the majority of statehouses and they are clearly favored in several states -- with New York being the most likely turnover. Republicans do not have a heavyweight candidate there and Democratic state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is a shoo-in to replace retiring Republican George Pataki.

The other big three, Texas, Florida and California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a comeback, will likely remain in the GOP's column.

Democrats say they will pick up seats in heavily Democratic states like Arkansas, Maryland and Massachusetts, but Republicans are much more competitive in all of them, while Democrats there are either divided or far from shoo-ins.

In Ohio, where scandals have made retiring GOP Gov. Bob Taft, the nation's most unpopular governor, Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is running slightly behind Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland. But recent polls show Blackwell could win a large share of the black vote, the core of the Democrats' political base.

Meanwhile, the GOP's focus has turned to four other major states where Democrats have not been doing well and suffer from poor job approval scores. Among them:

Nowhere is the political climate more favorable to the Republicans than in Michigan. Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, once a rising star in her party, has been struggling to overcome the fallout from a weak economy devastated by the auto industry's massive layoffs and a bitter stalemate in the Republican legislature.

Granholm blames President Bush for Michigan's woes, but her GOP opponent, millionaire corporate executive Dick DeVos, says the economy is strong elsewhere in the country, even in neighboring states, and that he has the skills to get the state growing again.

A June 13 EPIC-MRA poll showed DeVos leading Granholm by 48 to 40 percent.

Right next door in Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, who barely won a three-way race in 2002, is also on his party's endangered list. His economy is doing well, but his administration has been tarred by scandal as a result of big campaign contributors reaping major state contracts and voter anger over higher property taxes.

A state procurement official was convicted in the scandal last month, though Doyle has not been accused of wrongdoing. Still, the stories have hurt him politically. A June 15 poll gave him a 49 percent job disapproval score and another poll showed him in a virtual dead heat with his GOP rival, Congressman Mark Green.

Perhaps no other race is giving the Democrats more headaches than the one in Iowa, where retiring Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack has served two terms, but which Democratic campaign officials now concede will be very difficult for them to hold. "Iowa is not an automatic Democratic state. It was always going to be a tough one for us," said Penny Lee, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.

Election analysts now see the state as one of the GOP's best chances to gain a seat in November. Democratic Secretary of State Chet Culver, who narrowly won a bitter party primary fight, faces Republican Rep. Jim Nussle, chairman of the House Budget Committee, who has a united party behind him and is running a near-perfect campaign.

Democratic Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski is also running into trouble in Oregon. He survived a divisive three-way primary, though still faces the prospect of a dangerous multiparty contest in November that threatens to split up the Democratic vote and give his Republican opponent, Portland attorney Ron Saxton, a chance to score an upset. Polls show the race virtually neck and neck.

So take those projections of a Democratic sweep this fall with a large grain of salt. Republicans, who remain the dominant force in the country's governorships, could still add some big victories to their list.