Post Time in the Gubernatorial Stakes

Some races are tight, and others appear to be shoo-ins, but here's an almost-certain bet: Major gains for Democrats on Election Day

By Richard S. Dunham

Pollster John Zogby has come up with a theme for the 2002 campaign: He calls it "the politics of disappointment." Since September 11, jittery voters have seen no let-up in the unsettling news. The deluge included plunging 401(k)s, corporate corruption, church scandals, the failure to capture Osama bin Laden or prove that he's dead, and an extended period of economic malaise.

Those who believed President Bush's promise of a new era of bipartisanship in Washington have watched the midterm elections degrade into politics as usual. And in state capitals around the country, budget crises have forced governors to slash popular programs. "It's not a good time to be a governor, with the economy and the market where it is," says Zogby.


  That's for sure. Sitting governors in both parties have become sitting ducks as voters take out their frustrations. But it's a particularly bad time to be a Republican candidate. The reason: The GOP is defending nearly two-thirds of the governorships that are up for grabs. Of the 36 states electing governors in November, 23 are governed by Republicans, 11 by Democrats and two by Independents.

If current trends continue, the Democrats will score a net gain of from four to eight governorships. The current breakdown: 27 Republicans, 21 Democratic, and two Independents. If the Democrats pick up four, they'll hold a majority of states for the first time since the GOP landslide of 1994.

Such is the cycle of politics. Eight years ago, voters angry about slow economic growth and gridlock in Washington replaced retiring Democrats with Republicans. This year, the reverse is likely to be true.

Here's my third and final look at 10 of the most closely watched gubernatorial races of 2002, and how the outlook has or hasn't changed since Labor Day:

Pennsylvania: Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell is heading for a landslide victory over Republican Attorney General Mike Fisher -- the first for a Philadelphia Democrat in a gubernatorial race since 1914. He's leading 3-to-1 in the Philly suburbs, which is normally a toss-up area. He's trouncing Fisher among Pennsylvanians earning more than $50,000 a year, a typically solid Republican bloc. And he's leading in the Pittsburgh area, whence Fisher hails.

Rendell even has the backing of 23% of the state's Republicans, according to a Keystone Poll released Oct. 30. By combining fiscal conservatism with social liberalism, strong-willed leadership, and a maverick streak, Rendell is showing Democrats across the nation how it's done. Labor Day: Democratic favored. Current outlook: Safe Democratic.

California: Democratic incumbent Gray Davis remains tremendously unpopular. A recent poll found him trailing former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan by 15 points. Trouble is, Riordan isn't opposing him. Riordan lost the Republican primary to venture capitalist Bill Simon Jr., who has run perhaps the worst statewide campaign in the nation this year.

Case in point: Simon wrongly accused Davis of breaking the law by receiving a campaign contribution in an official state office. Simon's credibility now hovers near zero -- and he's still within reach of Davis in the polls. If "none of the above" were on the ballot, no one would probably win this race in a landslide. But faced with two unpopular choices, Davis seems to be winning by default. Labor Day: Toss-up. Current outlook: Leans Democratic.

Massachusetts: Unlike California, the Bay State contest features two strong candidates. It has been a nail-biter ever since State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien won the Democratic primary in September over a top-notch field that included Clinton Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Despite the state's Democratic leanings, former Salt Lake City Winter Olympic organizer Mitt Romney is holding his own. The Republican is running as an experienced businessman who can clean up the mess on Beacon Hill. Never mind that Republicans have controlled the Massachusetts governor's mansion since the departure of Michael Dukakis in 1990. O'Brien holds a narrow lead in the latest polls, but this will be a nail-biter. Labor Day: Toss-up. Current outlook: Toss-up.

Florida: How scared is President Bush that his little brother could be unseated as governor? Petrified. Here's the evidence: George W. is scheduled to visit Tampa on Nov. 2 in his final campaign fly-around of 2002. The Brothers Bush have stumped together more than a dozen times since George became President. Jeb is clinging to a narrow lead over Democrat Bill McBride, but McBride has had momentum since he beat better-known rival Janet Reno in the primary.

Democratic Party loyalists are itching to beat the Bushes to avenge the disputed 2000 Presidential election. Voter turnout could be the deciding factor in this one. That's why the President keeps dropping in. Labor Day: Leaning Republican. Current outlook: Still leaning Republican.

Texas: This is the other race near and dear to the President's heart. He doesn't want his handpicked successor, Rick Perry, to be defeated by the free-spending Democratic nominee, Tony Sanchez, a wealthy banker. Sanchez has already broken all records for spending his own money in a governor's race, and the bottom line could reach $70 million before its all over.

Unfortunately for Sanchez, money can't always buy happiness. Perry, who has tried to link Sanchez to money-laundering along the Mexican border, has been maintaining a double-digit lead for months. Short of a final-week collapse, Perry should pull it off. Labor Day: Republican favored. Current outlook: Republican still favored.

South Carolina and Alabama: Democratic incumbents are teetering on the verge of defeat in two very Republican Southern states. So it'll be a mild surprise if South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges hangs on in the Palmetto State. His foe, former U.S. Representative Mark Sanford, has run a textbook campaign. He's smart, low-key, issue-oriented, and as conservative as the state. On Election Night, Hodges could be joined in the lame-duck category by Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who has fallen behind Republican congressman Bob Riley. Labor Day: Both were toss-ups. Current outlook: Both leaning Republican.

Wisconsin: The Badger State has been rocked by indictments of leading politicians from both parties. Will incumbent Governor Scott McCallum, a Republican, pay the price for presiding over an unprecedented era of sleaze? Or will his Democratic challenger, Wisconsin Attorney General Jim Doyle, be blamed for failing to uncover the misdeeds?

At this point, voters seem to be blaming both men. A WTMJ-TV poll finds that each candidate has high negatives, but Doyle holds a slim 38% to 36% lead. Like California, many voters would like to choose "none of the above." Perhaps they'll settle on Libertarian nominee Ed Thompson, the brother of former GOP Governor Tommy Thompson. Another nail-biter here. Labor Day: Leaning Democratic. Current outlook: Toss-up.

Michigan: Canadian-born Democrat Jennifer Granholm is the rock star of Campaign 2002. Her fetching photo has been plastered on newsmagazine covers and on national TV under the caption: Rising Star. Oh, and yes, the one-time aspiring actress-turned-prosecutor is sailing to victory over Republican Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus. Michigan voters seem to be ready for a change after 12 years of GOP Governor John Engler. Labor Day: Leaning Democratic. Current outlook: Democrat favored.

Illinois: Chicago Congressman Rod Blagojevich could help the Democrats complete the Midwest Industrial State trifecta, along with Michigan and Wisconsin. Despite the Illinois' traditional reluctance to embrace ethnic pols from Chicago, Blagojevich, a Daley machine prodigy, is poised to perform the Victory Polka on Election Night, defeating hapless Attorney General Jim Ryan.

Ryan has run a weak campaign -- and his probusiness rhetoric hasn't played well in an economically distressed state. His biggest problem is beyond his control. It's his last name, which he shares with scandal-tainted Republican Governor George Ryan. They're not related, but Illinois voters don't seem eager to elect another Ryan. This year, at least. Labor Day: Leaning Democratic. Current outlook: Safely Democratic.

Alaska. Republican Senator Frank Murkowski was heavily favored to reclaim the governorship. But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation: Lieutenant Governor Fran Ulmer, a feisty Democrat with a conservative streak, grabbed the crown from the senator's head. She's running a pro-gun, anti-Washington campaign -- just like the kind Republicans usually rely on to win in the West.

She has also offered Alaska voters a clever bargain: Vote for me, and you get a twofer. I'll run the state, and we can keep Senator Murkowski working effectively for us in the nation's capital. The latest polls give Ulmer a slender lead. But this could be a shocker. Labor Day: Leaning Republican. Current outlook: Toss-up.

Other states to watch: Republicans have a chance to take a Democratic seat in Hawaii, where former GOP State Chair Linda Lingle and Lieutenant Governor Mazie Hirono are locked in a dead heat. Other GOP candidates are within striking distance in the Democratic-held states of Vermont and Oregon.

Democrats are prohibitive favorites for Republican open seats in New Mexico and Kansas. Four other GOP open seats -- Arizona, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Wyoming -- appear too close to call. And there's a wide-open three-way race to replace retiring Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who claims the Independence Party mantle.

Unless the Republicans come up with a huge last-minute surge, it all adds up to major gains at the state level for the Democratic Party.

This is the seventh in a series of previews of the 2002 elections. Next: Final updates on key House and Senate races.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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