DES MOINES, Iowa – Money, ambition and hype are rising fast for a slew of governors races that voters will decide next year, with allegations in Florida of mismanaging money and charges flying over job losses and outsourcing in Michigan (search).
Presidential politics aside in this state where the first caucuses are held, most of the dozens of governors gathered here for a long weekend looked to 2006, when three out of every four states will elect their leaders.
"People recognize that 2006 is the Super Bowl of governors races," said Iowa's Tom Vilsack (search), a two-term Democratic governor who is not seeking re-election. "You've got governors races in all parts of the country, you've got them in very key, very critical states that will play a crucial role in 2008."
It's not just a numbers game, with two elections this fall and 36 a year later. Governors shape much of the nation's domestic policy and can play key roles in the presidential race, especially if it's close.
Currently, Republicans hold a majority of governors seats, 28-22. Democrats are defending both open seats this fall, in New Jersey (search) and Virginia.
But next year, 24 of the 36 contests will be for seats now held by the GOP. All six of the term-limited seats are held by Republicans. Vilsack's retirement will create the lone open Democratic seat.
That makes the odds likelier that Republicans will lose seats. "There's no question the landscape is not favorable," said GOP Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who is deciding between seeking a second term or making a bid for the presidency.
The largest states will see contests. Florida has an open seat, since GOP Gov. Jeb Bush is term-limited. New York's three-term Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, is exploring a possible presidential bid while popular Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is raising millions for his shot at governor. California GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has seen his popularity numbers drop, giving Democrats hope.
Several freshmen governors will face tough tests, including Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a rising Democratic star. Dick DeVos, the son of a co-founder of Amway Corp. with a personal fortune at the ready, has said he will run.
And governors' impact on presidential politics is never out of the picture, with elections in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Colorado. National and issue-oriented groups are all strategizing.
"We're very focused on these governors races," Karen White, executive director of Emily's List, said from Washington. Her group works to elect pro-choice, Democratic women. "We'll help them with the resources they need early on, and then with their races."
Her group expects to raise more than 2004, when they spent nearly $11 million. The Republican Governors Association aims to spend at least $30 million. Democrats didn't provide a number.
This weekend, governors cross party lines to focus on policy, with Medicaid and improving high school education atop their list. But it began with partisan fundraisers and meetings with political consultants.
Michigan's Republican Party last week began statewide radio ads charging Granholm with failing to stop job losses as unemployment soars. Democrats fired back, criticizing likely challenger DeVos for running a company that laid off 1,000 Michigan workers while investing in China.
Granholm acknowledged the challenge. She said she's focused on helping workers in her state's battered automotive industry adjust to painful changes of globalization. She acknowledged voters might take out their anger at the ballot box.
"They may. But there's no other way to go. You have to be honest with people," she said.
In Florida, fund-raising among GOP candidates are on track to break records, while Democratic candidate Scott Maddox was damaged by allegations of financial mismanagement from his days as state party chairman.
In Texas, Republicans this spring traded accusations about Hillary Clinton, a Democrat conservatives love to hate. An old letter of GOP Gov. Rick Perry surfaced where he complimented Clinton for her work on health care. His campaign had circulated a video of an event where Clinton appeared with Texas GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutcinson, who had briefly considered challenging Perry but then said no.
Perry is facing an intra-party challenge from Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, whose sons both work for President Bush — White House spokesman Scott McClellan and Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Here in Iowa, Republicans governors devoted Saturday morning to strategizing for 2006.
"We spent some time looking at where we're strong, where we need to improve," said Romney, singling out Iowa and its open seat as a top target. "We have some harder work to do."