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.
A sizeable number of incumbent GOP governors are in trouble because of scandal, unpopular policies, and other reasons, including Frank Murkowski of Alaska, Bob Riley of Alabama, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Bill Owens of Colorado, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, George Pataki of New York, and Bob Taft of Ohio. Depending on Murkowski's forthcoming decision, either four or five of these seven governors are not seeking another term, but usually a party suffers whenever its incumbent is on thin ice with the electorate--whether the name is on the ballot or not. Democrats also have some governors who are shaky (Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, John Baldacci of Maine, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Ted Kulongoski of Oregon, Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, and Jim Doyle of Wisconsin), but all of them can and are running for reelection. The powers of incumbency may give them a pathway to a second term in most cases, which is an advantage not shared on the GOP side in this category.
A large number of statehouses up in 2006 already appear likely to fall cleanly into one party's column or the other. First, let's look at states that probably will not experience any change in party control.
Likely Republican From the Perspective of February
Connecticut - Governor Jodi Rell, who succeeded the corrupt and now incarcerated Gov. John Rowland (R), has been untouched by his scandals and is wildly popular.
Hawaii - Governor Linda Lingle barely made it into office on her second try, but she seems secure despite Hawaii's overwhelming Democratic voter base, and the Democrats cannot even come up with a credible challenger.
Idaho - This Republican bastion is bound to elect Congressman Butch Otter to succeed term-limited Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R).
Nebraska - It's only a question of which Republican will win, Acting Gov. Dave Heineman (who succeeded Gov. Mike Johanns when he left to become President Bush's Secretary of Agriculture in 2005) or legendary football coach and Congressman Tom Osborne.
Rhode Island - You can't find a more Democratic state than this one, but residents seem satisfied with one-term Gov. Don Carcieri. An upset can never be ruled out in these circumstances, though.
South Carolina - Gov. Mark Sanford has not been a roaring success in office or in the popularity polls, but the Democrats are unlikely to find a suitable, credible opponent for him in this strongly GOP state.
South Dakota - Gov. Mike Rounds, first elected in 2002, is one of the surest bets in the nation for reelection.
Texas - If there's a luckier politician around than Gov. Rick Perry, we haven't found him. In office since late 2000 when he succeeded George W. Bush, who took another job, Perry is likely to get his second full term. It's not that Perry is all that well liked or respected, it's just that the opposition in and out of his party is so weak. That includes Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who recently withdrew from the GOP primary to oppose Perry as an independent.
Vermont - Gov. Jim Douglas is a moderate Republican of the old school, and he fits the Green Mountain State well.
Likely Democratic from the Perspective of February
Arizona - Gov. Janet Napolitano won a close election in 2002, but she's a heavy favorite for a second term in this increasingly two-party competitive state.
Kansas - Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is more liberal than the average Kansan, and she isn't of the dominant party. But voters like her just fine, and the GOP can't even get an impressive opponent for her.
New Hampshire - Gov. John Lynch is a hit, and he compares very favorably to the one-term Republican, Gov. Craig Benson, that the Granite State happily ousted in 2004.
New Mexico - It isn't a question of the results, but the margin by which Gov. Bill Richardson is reelected on his way to a possible presidential candidacy in 2008.
Tennessee - Few Democrats win in the Volunteer State any more, but Gov. Phil Bredesen is one of them, and he has a clear shot at a second term.
Wyoming - For one of the most Republican states in the Union, Wyoming sure does like first-term Gov. Dave Freudenthal, whose second term appears assured.
Thus, a total of 15 of the 36 states may be off the table already--9 of them Republican, 6 of them Democratic. The partisan action will be concentrated in the remaining 21 states. (Click here to see longer descriptions of all the 2006 gubernatorial contests.) Here's a shorthand version of the January leanings in these contentious twenty-two:
Competitive States Leaning Republican
Colorado - If the Democrats could convince Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper to run, they'd win this statehouse. But apparently they can't, so GOP Congressman Bob Beauprez has the upper hand to succeed retiring two-term Gov. Bill Owens (R).
Georgia - Georgia's first modern Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, hasn't always had an easy tenure since his 2002 election, but in this GOP stronghold he ought to be able to win a second term against either possible Democ ratic nominee, Secretary of State Cathy Cox or Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor.
Minnesota - Gov. Tim Pawlenty's road to reelection will be rocky, and he knows it, but this Democratic-leaning state will still be inclined to give him a second term.
Competitive States Leaning Democratic
Massachusetts - As one of the two or three most Democratic states, it's been a wonder that Republicans have kept the governorship consistently since 1990. With the decision of one-term GOP Governor and presidential wanna-be Mitt Romney not to seek reelection, that string is likely coming to an end. The probable Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Thomas Reilly, has the edge over Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey. PARTY CHANGE LIKELY
Maine - Gov. John Baldacci's ratings have not been very high, and this will likely be a real race once the Republicans sort out their search for a candidate. Maine is unpredictable, but Baldacci has the early edge given the state's moderate-to-liberal leanings, plus his incumbency.
Michigan - The deep economic troubles in Michigan have depressed the ratings of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and she has to take the well funded challenge of former Amway chief Dick DeVos seriously. In the end, though, we 'll be surprised if voters deny her a second term.
New York - This contest is all but over, and it's a very significant party shift. Eventual Democratic nominee Eliot Spitzer, the state's current attorney general, will handily win over anyone the GOP nominates, ending twelve years of Republican control under Gov. George Pataki.
PARTY CHANGE LIKELY
Ohio - With Republican Gov. Bob Taft's record low popularity ratings, it will be nothing short of amazing if the GOP can hold on here. Yes, the Republicans have two able possible candidates, the favorite, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, or Attorney General Jim Petro, and the nominee may well deny even having met Bob Taft. But the Democrats smell blood with their likely nominee, Congressman Ted Strickland, who must be called the early frontrunner in the presidential Ground Zero state. Strickland has a primary challenger in state Sen. and former Congressman Eric Fingerhut, but we're betting heavily on Strickland. LEANING TOWARD PARTY CHANGE
Oklahoma - This deeply conservative state likes to vote Republican, but Governor Brad Henry (D), who barely won in 2002 with just 43 percent in a three-way race, has become as popular as a Democrat is allowed to be in Oklahoma. An upset is possible, given his Republican foe, Congressman Ernest Istook. Right now, we give the edge to Henry.
Oregon - Gov. Ted Kulongoski has never achieved high popularity, and had he been opposed by former Gov. John Kitzhaber in the Democratic primary, he most likely would have lost. Now that he has avoided the Kitzhaber challenge, however, Kulongoski may get a second term as long as he has a good legislative year. At this early stage, a GOP upset certainly cannot be ruled out, though the GOP nomination is up for grabs.
Pennsylvania - In the end, Gov. Ed Rendell (D) may get his second term, but he's made it tough on himself. His role in a massively unpopular pay increase for the state legislature hurt his standing, and he's in a close race with possible GOP nominee Lynn Swann, formerly of the Steelers.
Wisconsin - Maybe anyone who succeeded Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) would pale by comparison. First Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum (R) who got the post after Thompson joined Bush's Cabinet in 2001 and now Gov. Jim Doyle (D) who beat McCallum in 2002 never connected with the Wisconsin public. Doyle's ratings are mediocre, and while he may win a second term as the incumbent, he'll be hard pressed by either Congressman Mark Green (R) or Milwaukee executive Scott Walker (R). The slightest lean for Doyle as the year begins.
Now we've cut the 21 competitive states by more than half, and we are left with 9 toss-ups. Yes, the Crystal Ball will force itself to make an early guess on the outcome of each of these contests, but we can guarantee you we'll be revisiting them (and some of the ones listed earlier) before much time has passed. Politics is always dynamic, never static--which is why you, dear reader, are as addicted to the subject as we are!
Toss-Ups (With Early February Guesses Included)
Alaska - Governor Frank Murkowski (R) was a highly popular U.S. senator for 22 years, and he's been a highly unpopular governor for 3. Having gotten his daughter appointed and then elected to his Senate seat, he may be willing to call it a day in 2006. If he runs for reelection, the Crystal Ball bets he is defeated, either in the primary or the general election. If he doesn't run, it all depends on the major-party candidates (and the third-party and independents) that run in this quirky state. We wouldn't be shocked to see a Democrat capture the statehouse, maybe even former Gov. Tony Knowles again.
Alabama - What a spectacle. Governor Bob Riley (R), who barely beat incumbent Democratic Gov. Don Seigelman in 2002, tried to raise taxes and isn't conservative enough for some Republicans, who may back ousted Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (of "Ten Commandments" fame--not the movie, the monument). Meanwhile Gov. Siegelman wants his old job back, but he's gotten himself indicted in a cash-for-appointment scandal, which may give the Democratic nod to Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, whose slogan is the wholesome, "I Love Lucy." We'll give a fingernail's edge to Riley, but he'd better review the Indiana Jones films so he can learn to dodge multiple bullets, arrows and boulders with the best of them.
Arkansas - As Governor Mike Huckabee is term-limited out of office, his fellow Republican, former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, squares off against state Attorney General Mike Beebe (D). This is a tight one, but the Crystal Ball thinks the Democrats have a tiny advantage.
California - A year ago few would have believed that Arnold would be in so much trouble, but Schwarzenegger hasn't been able to script his governorship like a movie. He may be on the way back up after hitting rock bottom in November, when his referenda went down to defeat. He also has two unimpressive possible Democratic foes, state Treasurer Phil Angelides and state Controller Steve Westly. Yet this is a deeply Blue state, and while we currently bet a nickel on Arnold, he will have to perform some real political acrobatics all year to keep from being terminated by the sometimes fickle voters of the Golden State.
Florida - Most observers simply assume that the Sunshine State will go Republican again, probably with state Attorney General Charlie Crist, who leads state CFO Tom Gallagher in the GOP primary to succeed term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush. Remember 2000? Florida is more competitive than many acknowledge, at least in Democratic-leaning national years, and the Democrats have two moderates running for their gubernatorial nomination, Congressman Jim Davis and state Sen. Rod Smith. (Davis is favored.) We'll play it safe for now, given the GOP edge in the state and Jeb Bush's lingering popularity. But don't be astonished if this contest takes a turn toward the Democrats, especially given Senator Bill Nelson's probable reelection on the same ticket.
Iowa - Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) is moving on, perhaps to a presidential bid in '08, and the contest to succeed him will be very close in this closely divided state. The Republican nominee will be Congressman Jim Nussle, while perhaps state Secretary of State Chet Culver will capture the Democratic nod. This truly is a toss-up, but Nussle may have a small advantage after eight Democratic years. Being chairman of the House Budget Committee can't help him, though.
Illinois - After a 26-year run for GOP control of the governorship in Illinois, one would have thought that the first Democratic governor would almost automatically get eight years. It may still happen that way, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich is a slight favorite for a second term. But underline slight. Just about everyone seems mad at him now, and many question his executive abilities. Lucky for him that Illinois has taken a sharp turn toward the Democrats, and that the Republicans are deeply split ideologically in their choice of a nominee. There's no question that the strongest GOP opponent for Blagojevich would be state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka.
Maryland - From 1969 to 2003 the Democrats had an uninterrupted stretch of one-party control of the governorship in Maryland, finally broken by GOP Congressman Bob Ehrlich. Governor Ehrlich has had a difficult term, especially given the overwhelming Democratic control of the General Assembly, and he has an equally difficult battle to win reelection. His Democratic opponent will probably be Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, or possibly Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. As the incumbent, Ehrlich is a tissue-paper favorite, but there's a reason so many Democrats won consecutively: This is a Royal-Blue State.
Nevada - The Silver State has a small but fairly consistent Republican lean, and that may be enough to elect Congressman Jim Gibbons (R) as he attempts to follow term-limited Governor Kenny Guinn (R). Still, there's no love lost between Guinn and Gibbons, the state GOP is riven with ideological disputes, and Gibbons has not proven adept as a candidate so far. The Democrats' problem is that their possible nominees are either unknown or too liberal. Nonetheless, this contest is far from settled.
So, in sum, the Democrats have a better than 50-50 shot in 2006 to gain the four statehouses they need for a gubernatorial majority. The margin for error is such that they may gain just a couple governors, or they could go several seats beyond the minimal majority.
Thank goodness, governorship elections are often less ideological than congressional races, centering on the nuts-and-bolts of running a state and the leadership qualities of the candidates. In most cases, political party affiliation will be only one--and not the most important--factor in a state's choice of a governor. However, in a substantial majority of election years, the party doing well in congressional contests will also add a few governorships. At least from our early February perch, that historical norm ought to be the case in 2006, too.
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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