WASHINGTON – Democrats, hoping their success on the state level may help catapult them to the White House in 2008, have set their sights on grabbing a majority of governorships this fall for the first time since 1990.
Republicans now hold a 28 to 22 majority among the governors, but they are defending more seats than Democrats in November. Out of the 36 states electing governors this year, Republicans are defending 22, while Democrats are defending 14. Eight of the open seats are Republican.
"The Democrats have a definite chance of pulling even, and have a good chance of pulling over 50 percent," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the election oddsmaker, The Rothenberg Political Report.
Democrats' prospects for taking over the House and Senate are considered unlikely, but a takeover of the power base in the majority of states would boost the party's morale and strengthen its network for fundraising and support for the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee.
"Let's say the Democrats do well and they get the bragging rights," said Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs and head of the Keystone Poll at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. "It also helps them build confidence for 2008. It's not altogether devoid of political implications."
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said having a friendly governor in a key presidential state can make all the difference. Governors "are able to mobilize people and have thousands of appointees at their command. If it's Ohio, for example — and the Democrats are favored to win in Ohio — that matters."
Bob Mulholland, a longtime Democratic strategist in California and now a senior adviser to gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, said a Democratic sweep of the governorships in 2006 "would demoralize the Republicans. Most Americans and insiders would conclude that the Republicans are being told to get off the stage."
California Democrats hope to take advantage of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s weak approval ratings, which have placed his re-election race in the spotlight for possible Democratic takeover.
But no broad consensus has been reached on how much of the national mood can be measured by individual gubernatorial races this year. In Ohio, for example, outgoing Republican Gov. Bob Taft is leaving after a parade of state GOP corruption scandals, giving Democrats a good shot of taking that governor's seat. New York and Massachusetts are both leaning Democrat this year, but they are traditional blue states whose moderate Republican governors are retiring.
In two blue states, in fact, Republicans have a chance of picking up seats. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm is suffering a backlash due to the state's slow recovery from the recession. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell is facing a challenge from former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann.
"It's a mix of factors rather than a sweeping reason why these seats are particularly vulnerable," said Gonzales.
Sabato said part of the oddsmaking is based on "happenstance" and the fact that elections are cyclical. "Republicans have had several good election years in a row," he said. "This is going to be a good year for the Democrats."
But Democrats are pointing to more than the normal ebb and flow of gubernatorial election cycles. They point to low approval ratings for President Bush and other Republicans. They say bad news at home and abroad — the response to Hurricane Katrina, Capitol Hill corruption scandals and the war in Iraq — reflect badly on Republicans everywhere.
"I think these are all factors that will help us take back the statehouses in the country," said Ari Amoros, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. "It will be a banner year for Democrats … that creates a very rosy picture for the Democratic nominee for the president in 2008."
Others say that governors' races are probably not be the best way to read the tea leaves for future federal contests. In 2001, red state Virginia elected moderate Democrat Mark Warner for governor, much to the consternation of the national Republican base. That decision prompted speculation about the November 2002 congressional races. But Republicans ended up gaining six seats in the House and two in the Senate in that midterm race.
"There is a debate about whether or not [the 2006 gubernatorial races] will be nationalized, but we just don't know that yet," said Madonna. However, "this is certainly an election cycle that favors Democrats right now … you just can't deny that."
Danny Diaz, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, balked at suggestions that Democrats would sweep the governorships in some sort of mandate against the president and the Republican Party.
“We look forward to a debate on the issues, and ultimately in every one of these races, voters are going to make their choices based on the candidates on the ballot,” Diaz said. “We believe we have candidates who stand for optimistic ideals and reforms that will benefit their constituents while Democrats fail to have a message that resonates with the American people and almost exclusively mistakes an agenda for attacks on Republicans.”
Diaz noted that Republicans are “very much on the offense” to pick up Granholm’s seat in Michigan and retiring Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack’s seat in Iowa. They also have their eye on winning Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s seat in Wisconsin, and on keeping Republican seats in Florida and Colorado.
According to Gonzales, Democrats’ best opportunities to pick up new seats are in New York, Massachusetts and Ohio.
Toss-up states, according to the Rothenberg Political Report, are Maryland and California, both vulnerable Republican governorships, and the Republican open seats in Arkansas and Colorado.
Democrats are also eyeing possible weaknesses in support for Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski in Alaska, and Republicans sense a possible takeover opportunity in Illinois, where Democrat Rod Blagojevich may be showing signs of vulnerability, according to Gonzales.
“I wouldn’t necessary believe that voters who want a change in Washington are going to throw out their governors,” he said, adding that Republicans took over the House and Senate on a message and mood for change in 1994, and the majority of governorships have indeed been held by Republicans since then.
However, he countered, “If people do want change, it could hold water.”