With the 2006 battle for control of Congress still fresh in the minds of most political observers, it seems incredible that in a little more than a month, voters will begin casting ballots for races that may well determine which party controls Congress for the next decade. In 2007, three states will select governors who will be in power during the next round of redistricting. Whomever controls these redistrictings could shift three to four seats to either party; a significant difference in a closely divided House.
The battle begins in Kentucky, with scandal-besieged Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Thirteen members of the Fletcher Administration were indicted in a patronage scandal, and Fletcher himself was indicted on three misdemeanor charges. While he later settled with the attorney general, the ordeal saddled him with one of the lowest approval ratings in the country — 32% in the latest SurveyUSA poll, including a weak 46% approval rating even among fellow Republicans.
Fletcher faces a strong primary challenge from Rep. Anne Northup, who represented the most heavily Democratic congressional district in the state before narrowly losing to John Yarmuth in 2006. Northup would likely win a head-to-head fight with Fletcher. But businessman Billy Harper is also in the race, splintering the anti-Fletcher vote. The most recent poll shows Fletcher with 40% of the vote to Northup’s 31% and Harper’s 16%. If a candidate gets to 40% of the vote in Kentucky, he or she avoids a runoff. Hence, the name of the game for Fletcher is to endure the expected onslaught from Northup, who is just now going on the air, and hang on until the May 22 primary.
The Democratic field is crowded, with just about every candidate for statewide office in the last two decades running for governor or lieutenant governor. A runoff is almost ensured. Former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry is currently tied with businessman Bruce Lunsford at 20%, though Lunsford appears to have momentum.
The three top Democrats have serious problems of their own, and could conceivably lose even to Fletcher. Lunsford donated money to Fletcher in 2003 (and to Northup in 2004 and 2005) after losing the 2003 Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Ben Chandler. Henry has come under fire for fraudulent Medicare and Medicaid billings (he settled a lawsuit with the federal government for $162,000 in 2003). Former Lt. Gov. Beshear is without ethics problems, but last held office in 1987 and has lost two statewide races since then.
Only one general election poll has been commissioned, and it showed both Northup and Fletcher losing to the Democrats, though Northup polled better and presumably has room for growth. Republicans have a narrow edge in the state Senate, which could prevent them from being shut out of the redistricting process in the event of a loss. It is unlikely that Republicans will be able to net the 11 state House seats needed to take a majority (after losing five seats in 2006), but if they do they could seriously jeopardize Rep. Yarmuth by adding wealthy Oldham County suburbs to his district, and could weaken Ben Chandler’s central Kentucky district. Democrats probably cannot oust a GOP incumbent, but could further shore up these Democrats.
The race in Louisiana is more important for Republicans. Census data demonstrates that Louisiana lost over 200,000 residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Most hailed from the Democrats’ stronghold in New Orleans. Republicans are running Rep. Bobby Jindal, who lost by 60,000 votes to Kathleen Blanco in 2003. But Blanco came under fire for her handling of Katrina, and recent polls showed Jindal besting Blanco by 25 points, prompting her to withdraw from the race.
All eyes are now on former Sen. John Breaux. Breaux would first have to overcome questions about his residency under state law — he relocated to Maryland — but is attempting to defuse the problem by seeking an “advisory” ruling from the state’s attorney general, who is a Democrat. But even if Breaux is allowed to run, his election is by no means assured, as the only poll in the field shows him losing to Jindal by 30 points. If Breaux does not run, most observers expect Jindal to win easily.
Louisiana will almost certainly lose a seat in 2010. If Republicans lose the governor’s race and fail to pick up the five Senate seats they need for a majority, they would be shut out of the redistricting process, leaving the Democrats free to ensure that the eliminated district is a Republican one, and to wreak havoc generally with the districts (as they did the last time they controlled the process). By contrast, a Republican hand in the process could ensure that the districts of Representatives William Jefferson and Charlie Melancon are combined — the most obvious solution — ensuring a Democratic seat loss.
Finally, little change is expected in Mississippi. Gov. Haley Barbour has maintained a high popularity rating, and has not drawn a serious challenge. Republicans took over the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction in 2006, but are still at a 27-vote disadvantage in the state House. Redistricting can do very little to help Republicans in the state anyway, as one of the state’s two Democrats is in a protected minority-majority district, while the other regularly wins re-election with more than 60% of the vote in the most heavily Republican district in the state.
Governor’s races have less to do with partisan identity and the national political environment than either Senate or House races — witness Democratic victories in Florida and Colorado in 1994 and Republican victories in Vermont and California in 2006. Therefore there isn’t much to be gathered about 2008 from these races. That said, a sweep could provide some psychological benefit for a Republican party that is sorely in need of a win. But in the end, the biggest issue may well be redistricting. With a closely-divided Congress, every seat counts. And a few seats may well be swung on the basis of the 2007 elections.