The GOP's Statehouse Blues

Democrats seem poised to grab key governorships

For the past decade, Republicans have used their domination of the nation's governorships to change the face of American politics. They led the way on policy innovations from tax cuts to welfare reform. They lent their organizations to GOP Presidential nominees. And from their ranks sprang the self-described compassionate conservative who reclaimed the White House.

Now, however, Democrats are on the cusp of a comeback. The economic malaise that has left state capitals splattered with red ink--along with the cyclical desire for change--gives Dems a chance to reclaim a majority of governorships for the first time since 1994.

Democrats have the numbers on their side: Republicans are defending 23 of the 36 jobs up for grabs. Many of those at-risk governorships are in key Presidential battlegrounds such as Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Democrats are poised to seize GOP seats in eight states with 95 electoral votes, which would complicate President George W. Bush's 2004 reelection prospects.

The Democratic optimism at the state level contrasts sharply with anxiety about the razor-tight race for Congress. The difference is all in the issues. While Dems struggle to get beyond a debate over Iraq in House and Senate elections, state races are turning on bread-and-butter concerns. "In governors' races, the economy is almost always the most important issue," notes Republican consultant David Carney.

A decade ago, a similar economic slowdown helped the GOP sweep the governorships of the industrial heartland. Now, the worm has turned. In some cases, like Illinois, the desire for change has been heightened by Republican scandals. In other states, such as Tennessee and Michigan, Dems are benefiting as GOP candidates distance themselves from unpopular Republican governors.

Not only could the shift in fortunes change the White House equation in 2004 but it could also alter the political playing field for years to come. Four of the five most recent Presidents first served as governors. So the Dems could wind up with the potential national candidates they have sorely lacked for a decade. "It used to be said that the Senate was the incubator for Presidents," says Trinity College political scientist Diana Evans. "But the governors are really where the victorious Presidential candidates come from."

What's more, because the new campaign-finance law limits the ability of federal candidates to drum up cash, governors "will become very important fund-raisers for the national party," says Ed Rendell, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania governor.

Nowhere are the difficulties Republicans face more striking than in Florida. There, first-term Governor Jeb Bush, the President's younger brother, is facing a tougher-than-expected test from political novice Bill McBride, a wealthy Tampa lawyer. McBride toppled former Attorney General Janet Reno in the Democratic primary with a "man of the people" message that resonates with voters pinched by hard times.

Jon and Noel Cunningham of Jacksonville, who voted for Jeb Bush in 1998, won't back him again. These middle-class suburbanites are mulling bankruptcy because of the health-care needs of their 3-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy. When they turned to the state for help after their insurance ran out in April, the Cunninghams found that the Children & Families Dept. had a waiting list of more than 9,000 people with disabilities seeking aid. The Cunninghams blame Bush for "frivolous" tax cuts that exacerbated the fiscal crisis. "It's irresponsible to cut taxes in the state when you're not funding all your programs," Jon Cunningham says.

Polls show Bush clinging to a lead, but Democrats--eager to avenge George W.'s contested win in the Sunshine State two years ago--sense a vulnerability. After years of surpluses, Florida is facing a $4 billion shortfall. And McBride has pounced, blaming Bush for squandering a $3 billion surplus on tax cuts as per-pupil school spending declined and other programs suffered. "He gave tax cuts to very small segments of the population," says McBride. Part of McBride's solution: a 50 cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes to raise $565 million for education.

State budget woes also have provided an opening for Pennsylvania's Rendell. As mayor of Philadelphia in the 1990s, he earned a reputation as a pro-business maverick willing to take on organized labor. For his efforts, Rendell has won strong corporate support and vehement opposition from the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, which endorsed GOP nominee Mike Fisher. But with Pennsylvania facing as much as $3 billion in red ink next year, voters seem drawn to the ex-mayor who balanced Philly's budget without layoffs or tax hikes. That has boosted his appeal to GOP moderates and suburban swing voters.

A similar pattern is emerging in Illinois, another key industrial battleground. But the state's $2 billion deficit is just a small part of the GOP's woes. The big problem: Republican nominee Jim Ryan shares the same last name as scandal-tarred Governor George H. Ryan (no relation), who has a negative rating near 70%. Amid the confusion, Democratic Representative Rod R. Blagojevich of Chicago has emerged as the front-runner.

In Massachusetts, state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien could provide a bonus Democrats weren't expecting. O'Brien has moved ahead of golden boy Mitt Romney, the telegenic and squeaky-clean CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics who pushed aside acting GOP Governor Jane Swift to take the Republican nomination. Polls show that O'Brien is viewed as the candidate best able to tackle issues like funding education and health care, which have become more important as the state's deficit has spiraled past $3 billion.

If Romney's star is on the wane, Democrat Jennifer M. Granholm's is on the rise. Granholm, the odds-on favorite to become Michigan's first female governor, is a Harvard-educated lawyer and onetime aspiring actress who never held elected office before she became attorney general four years ago. In the Democratic primary, the 43-year-old Granholm defeated 13-term Representative David E. Bonior and James J. Blanchard, Michigan's last Democratic governor, by more than 20 points.

Granholm's centrist philosophy has helped her win the backing of swing voters. And her preternatural ease on the stump has helped her build a double-digit lead over GOP Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus. "Given the current budget situation, you can't promise too much," she cautions. She pledges to cut state spending by 5% to deal with a $1 billion budget gap while expanding pre-kindergarten and after-school programs.

Granholm can only go so far, though. Since she was born in Canada, she is prohibited from running on a national ticket. Still, Democratic leaders figure she'll be a big plus in 2004 as they try to topple a former governor from Texas--state by state.

By Richard S. Dunham and Lee Walczak in Washington, Alexandra Starr in Detroit, Lorraine Woellert in Jacksonville, and William C. Symonds in Boston

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