WASHINGTON – Democratic governors who will take over the majority of state capitols plan to use their newfound power to make changes and help put their party back in the White House.
Some of the governors who have won in Republican-leaning states say it will be difficult for a Democratic presidential candidate to prevail on their turf despite their own success. But at least two Democratic governors considering seeking the nomination have an interest in turning state victories into a national one in 2008.
"There's a shift in power and that means that the American people are seeing governors as the instrument of change," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the outgoing chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
His staff circulated a memo noting that states with Democratic governors went from 207 electoral votes to 295 while Richardson led the group. The magic number to win the presidency is 270.
Richardson, who said he has lost 25 pounds as he considers a presidential run, and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack were chummy at a news conference to wrap up a postelection meeting in Washington.
But with Vilsack the first of what promises to be many declared Democratic candidates for president, they could be rivals in the primary contest. Richardson told an audience at Georgetown University Thursday that he will decide in January whether to run.
The Democratic governors' national prospects have spiked from 2004, when no sitting Democratic governors was in the hunt for the White House. Besides Richardson and Vilsack, several others might be considered for the vice presidency because of their proven appeal in GOP-leaning states.
"The framework is in place, I think, to elect a Democratic president," said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who is taking over leadership of the governors' group in 2007. She noted that 54 percent of people in the U.S. will live in states with a Democratic governor next year.
Sebelius and Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Phil Bredesen of Tennessee all have been discussed as potential presidential candidates because they have won where other Democrats could not. All four said Wednesday that they were not going to run for president in 2008, but none ruled out a bid down the road.
Bredesen did say he "would love to be considered" if there were a movement for a Southern governor like him, but he is doing nothing to prepare or promote himself.
Schweitzer, who stood out in the crowd with his bolo tie and penchant for greeting a stranger as "cowgirl," hopes to make a name for himself by focusing on energy independence.
"This place," he said dismissively, gesturing around the hotel lobby where the governors were meeting. "Washington, D.C., is as if everyone has their feet in concrete. OK, the Democrats take back the Senate and the House. Boy, big things are happening. All that's really happening here is that people have to hire some Democratic lobbyists. It just swings the ball back and forth as if it's a big game. And it's not a big game. This is about families across America sending the next generation to secure an oil supply for another dictator."
He said there isn't a single Democratic candidate considering a run for the White House who can win Montana, even though he won in 2004 and Democratic Sen.-elect Jon Tester succeeded last month, because the party nominates candidates who promote gun control and try to appeal to urban voters.
"A Republican will win in Montana," he said.
He said he's been trying to get Sebelius to run. But she said she wants to stay in Kansas and work through the association to elect another Democrat as president, even as she noted a Democratic presidential candidate has only won her state twice in history — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. "Kansas could be icing, but I wouldn't count on it," she said with a laugh after the news conference.
Bredesen agreed that victories in gubernatorial races do not necessarily translate into national politics. He cautioned against reading too much into the 2006 Democratic victories across the country.
"The one concern I see for my party is that I think it was more of an anti-Bush election than the Democrats having something," he said. "I think people are still suspicious of Democrats governing."
Still, he said Democrats can win in the South if they offer candidates who are "centrist and not overly ideological," noting that he ran as a proud Democrat and won every county in Tennessee.
The 2006 election saw the West turn from a Republican stronghold into a new center of power for Democrats. Four years ago they did not hold any governorships, but now control five of eight in the region.
Four — Napolitano, Richardson, Schweitzer and Colorado Gov.-elect Bill Ritter — are leading an advisory council for the Denver-based New West Project, designed to deliver the region to the Democratic presidential nominee. Schweitzer said he signed on more as a way to promote his energy plan than for politics.
Napolitano said the Western governors are building a political network to get out the Democratic vote, which will help in 2008.
"The whole intent of it is to have a Democratic locus in the inner-mountain West that will last beyond the personalities that are there now," she said.