Analysis: Governors' races focus early

By PATRICK REDDY  |  Nov. 4, 2002 at 8:08 PM
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SACRAMENTO, Nov. 4 (UPI) -- Unlike the confused and closely contested races for control of Congress, the 36 gubernatorial races quickly came into focus this year.

In a few states, popular incumbents like George Pataki in New York and Roy Barnes in Georgia were considered unbeatable, while in others like Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, voters seemed eager for change. With no strong national tide for either party, local issues and personalities will determine most state races.

Republicans hold 27 governorships to the Democrats' 21, with two independents. This year, 23 GOP-held statehouses are up, while Democrats have 11 at stake. The nation's two independent governors -- Jesse Ventura in Minnesota and Angus King in Maine -- are retiring. Both the law of averages and the classic political slogan, "it's time for a change," point to Democratic gains.

In 2002, 15 incumbents are running for re-election: 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats. There are 13 Republican-held open seats, six Democratic open seats and two independents.

The Strong GOP Incumbents:

The six strongest Republican governors are Bill Owens in Colorado, John Rowland in Connecticut, Mike Johanns in Nebraska, Kenny Guinn in Nevada, George Pataki in New York and Robert Taft in Ohio. All are sure winners with polling leads of more than 15 points.

Democrats had high hopes for Carl McCall in New York, but the events of Sept. 11, 2001, raised Pataki's job approval ratings over 60 percent, where he has stayed. Pataki may fall below 50 percent due to Independence Party nominee Tom Golisano, but will win a third term easily.

Other GOP governors with solid but not overwhelming leads are Mike Huckabee in Arkansas, Dick Kempthorne in Idaho, and President Bush's successor in Texas, Rick Perry.

In Texas, Democrats had hoped that Tony Sanchez, a conservative Hispanic businessman who had voted for President Bush, could mobilize his fellow Hispanics. He has apparently done so, but will likely fall short because he has failed to crack the urban white vote. But even a 45 percent showing for Sanchez would be a vast improvement over the 30 percent to 69 percent pasting Democrats received here from Bush in 1998.

The Strong Democratic Incumbents:

The two Democratic governors most likely to return to office are Roy Barnes in Georgia and Tom Vilsack of Iowa as both continue to hold double-digit leads. Georgia is the only southern state never to elect a Republican governor and that streak will continue on Nov. 5.

Struggling Incumbents:

In the highly conservative Deep South states of Alabama and South Carolina, Democrats pulled off upsets four years ago with the help of massive black voter turnouts. This year, Don Siegleman in Alabama and Jim Hodges in South Carolina are trailing badly, thus proving that 1998 was a bit of a fluke.

Out in California, Democrat Gray Davis has been bedeviled by severe energy and budget problems (neither of which is particularly his fault). His level of support in media polls has ranged between 41 percent and 46 percent this fall, which is usually fatal for an incumbent.

But GOP challenger Bill Simon has made one rookie mistake after another and hasn't been above 36 percent since Labor Day. Six months ago, I said that Simon had "a puncher's chance" of winning, the idea that he could land the one lucky knockout blow after being behind on points for the entire match.

Simon's only hope is a record-low turnout: if only 6 million people vote (roughly 40 percent of the state's registered voters), Simon can still win. Otherwise, Davis will win based on the million-vote Democratic registration advantage and his incredible campaign war chest of $63 million.

In Florida, Democrats truly believed that the president's brother Jeb was vulnerable after the Florida recounts fight in 2000. Newcomer Bill McBride, a decorated Vietnam veteran, looked strong on paper, but has apparently faded down the stretch.

The smallest lead for Gov. Jeb in the final round of polls is 6 points, while Zogby places the Bush lead at 16 points. Incumbency, a massive GOP fundraising edge, and a lot of federal money, plus the president's post-Sept. 11 surge in popularity won this race in the end for brother Jeb.

Open Seats:

The Democrats' best chance for gains come in the GOP open seats in the Frost Belt. Democrats Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania (53 percent to 36 percent), Jennifer Granholm in Michigan (48 percent to 39 percent) and Jim Doyle in Wisconsin (41 percent to 34 percent) have led their races all the way.

In Illinois, Democratic congressman Rod Blagojevich has led Attorney General Jim Ryan handily in every poll except one. The last Zogby Poll has Ryan shaking off his association with outgoing Gov. George Ryan (no relation) and taking a slight lead. But no other poll has this race even close, so a GOP victory would still be a huge upset.

Democrat Bill Richardson will likely ride the strong Democratic voter registration margin in heavily Hispanic New Mexico to an easy victory in a state that went for Al Gore.

There are several normally GOP states where Republicans will claim open races: former NFL star Steve Largent should win in Oklahoma, as should Craig Benson in New Hampshire, Mike Rounds in South Dakota and Eli Bebout in Wyoming. By the same token, Democrat Ted Kulongoski is ahead in usually liberal Oregon, while Democrat Doug Racine is favored in ultra-liberal Vermont.

It's always interesting when voters choose to play against type. There are several states that may go against their normal (i.e., presidential) leanings. Democrat Fran Ulmer has a surprising lead over Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski in Alaska.

In Barry Goldwater's Arizona, Democratic Attorney General Janet Napolitano and former GOP Rep. Matt Salmon are running even. In Bob Dole's Kansas, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius looks likely to win.

In another conservative state, Tennessee, Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen and Republican Rep. Van Hilleary are running neck and neck.

Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were three of Al Gore's best states in 2000. But in all three, Republican men are locked in desperately close races with Democratic women.

In Maryland, Republican congressman Bob Ehrlich is essentially tied with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (RFK's daughter and JFK's niece). Ehrlich may be slightly ahead due to Kennedy's near universal name recognition.

Massachusetts was the only state to go for Democratic nominee George McGovern in 1972, but Winter Olympics executive Mitt Romney has pulled slightly ahead of Shannon O'Brien in tracking polls.

By percentages, Rhode Island has been the most Democratic presidential state since 1932. But perennial candidate Myrth York narrowly trails Republican Don Carcieri there.

And finally, in Hawaii, one of the last great machines in America is under severe challenge. The Democrats' 40-year hold on the Aloha State could fall to Republican Linda Lingle, who just barely lost to an incumbent four years ago. Only a great get-out-the-vote drive by the Hawaii labor movement can save Democrat Mazie Hirono.

In Maine, Democrat John Baldacci will almost certainly succeed Independent Gov. Angus King. In Minnesota, Democrat Roger Moe and Republican Tim Pawlenty are locked in an even struggle with Gov. Jesse Ventura's independents holding the balance of power.


Since the last four presidents elected (Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush) all served as governors, it quite possible that several of this year's crop of governors will move up to the national stage in 2008 when President Bush retires.

Outgoing Vermont Gov. Howard Dean already is running for the 2004 Democratic nomination, while Gray Davis has put out feelers. The guess here is that we'll be hearing a lot from (if they win, of course) Jeb Bush, Bill Owens, Mitt Romney, Bill Richardson and perhaps, Ed Rendell.

If she were to win in Maryland, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will already be a national figure due to her name.

Michigan's Jennifer Granholm would definitely be a national Democratic rising star, but for the fact that she was born in Canada. It's highly possible that the first serious female and minority candidates for national office could come out of the Class of 2002.

The prediction here is that no Republican incumbent governor will lose (an extraordinary performance for any president's party), while Democratic incumbents in the South won't be able to overcome the conservative tide in Dixie.

Barring an extremely low turnout, Gray Davis will win again in California. Democrats will likely pick up the open seats in Illinois, Kansas, Maine, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin for an initial net gain of four statehouses (minus the anticipated losses in Alabama and South Carolina).

Democrats would likely win at least half of the open seats in Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

However, undecided older white voters have historically tended to break against Democratic female candidates for executive office. Democrats will gain at least five governorships this year, but their victories could be limited by older attitudes on gender issues.

If Democratic female nominees -- Ulmer in Alaska, Napolitano in Arizona, O'Brien in Massachusetts, Kennedy-Townsend in Maryland, and York in Rhode Island -- can get the late undecided vote to turn their way, this will be a breakthrough, the real "Year of the Woman." Final prediction: 27 Democrats, 23 Republicans.


(Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California Democrats).

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