Larry J. Sabato

The Democrats may or may not score real breakthroughs in the houses of Congress in 2006, but it's undeniable that they have opportunities galore in the Governorships this year. Opportunity is not reality, though, and on prior occasions the Democrats have fumbled away some key contests, as Shakespeare once penned, "in the twinkling of an eye." Yet at the starting gate, Democrats appear headed for control of a narrow majority of the statehouses, and it will be a setback for their 2008 presidential plans if they don't get there.
Let's recap where we are at present. The Republicans hold 28 governorships, and the Democrats 22. Of the 36 governorships up in 2006, the GOP possesses 22 and the Democrats just 14, giving the GOP far more territory to defend. Furthermore, eight Republican governors are not running again, either voluntarily or because of term limits, while only one Democrat (Tom Vilsack of Iowa) is stepping down. As is always the case, much of the party change in stateh ouses comes in the open seat races with no incumbent.

These numbers alone set up the scenario for Democratic gains. Add three more factors helping the Democrats:

The overall lean of 2006, the dangerous sixth year election for the Bush administration, gives Democrats a reasonably favorable clima te. Bush's unpopularity, the electorate's view of the Iraq War, the public pessimism about the economy (however unjustified), and the unfolding national scandals that disproportionately affect Republican officeholders give Democratic candidates some added thrust on the campaign trail. Granted, these are mainly national factors that may not dramatically reshape statehouse battles, plus these factors could be altered substantially before election day. Bush does not have to stay unpopular, the public does not have to continue to be sour on Iraq and the economy, and so forth.

The Democrats are coming into 2006 with electoral momentum. The off-year gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia were crowned with Democratic successes. The Virginia result was especially spectacular: This Red state elected a fairly liberal Democrat despite (or perhaps partly because of) an election eve visit from President Bush--not a good omen for the White House in 2006.

Larry J. Sabato

Larry Sabato is the founder and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics as well as author of Divided States of America: The Slash and Burn Politics of the 2004 Presidential Election.

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