Unless races for governors involve national political stars such as Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, or George and Jeb Bush, they fail to draw the national press attention in midterm elections that U.S. Senate races do. But “star” candidates aside, the contests for governor held in 37 states this Tuesday will pack a national political punch in terms of who controls the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 and for the rest of the next decade.
With the next census to be held in 2011, redistricting of the 435 U.S. House districts will follow in all 50 states. In most states, governors and state legislatures will oversee this process. Given the likelihood of a GOP sweep of statehouses in 2010, the odds are strong that Republicans will have the upper hand in redistricting and thus maintain the majority in the House they are almost certain to win on Tuesday.
Along with making major gains in governorships, Republicans are also likely to increase their ranks dramatically in state legislatures. Democrats currently control legislatures in 27 states and hold 55 percent of the legislative seats nationwide. As Governing Magazine reported last week, “With just over one-third of the state legislative chambers up this fall considered ‘in play’—that is, rated tossup, lean Democratic or lean Republican—the Democrats are on the verge of losing a net of four to 12 Senate chambers and six to 15 House chambers. In none of the previous five cycles was there ever this wide a difference in projected risk between the two parties.” (Emphasis added).
“If we can get this right in 2010,” former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie told National Public Radio recently, “it’ll have a big impact in 2012, in 2014, ’16, ’18, and ’20.”
Banner Year for GOP Govs
Three days before the balloting, Democrats control 26 governorship and Republicans 24. Of the 37 governorships facing the voters Tuesday, signs are strong that Republicans will increase the 18 they currently hold by at least five, and by as many as ten. Republicans are almost sure to capture the Democrat-held governorships of Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wyoming. In all of the six except Iowa, incumbents either did not run or were “termed out.” In Iowa, embattled Democratic Gov. Chet Culver appears finished at the hands of former four-term GOP Gov. Terry Branstad.
In another six states, Republicans are better-than-even money to pick up Democratic states: Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Democratic governors are stepping down in four of these states, while in Illinois and Ohio, sitting Democratic governors facing financial tumult are trailing magnetic GOP challengers.
It is in those two states that potential Republican stars could emerge if triumphant on Tuesday. Former Rep. John Kasich, famed as a former House Budget Committee Chairman and Fox TV commentator, and State Sen. Bill Brady, often described as a “young, Catholic Ronald Reagan,” are likely to be watched by national political pundits if they become the governors of Ohio and Illinois, respectively.
In only four states where Republican governors are leaving office are Democrats ahead: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Minnesota. In three of the four, however, polls show the contests so tight that Republican victories are very much within the realm of possibility. Only in California, where former Gov. Jerry Brown is now opening up a big lead over Republican businesswoman Meg Whitman, is a Democratic takeover increasingly likely. (Even with a Democratic governor and Democrats ruling both houses of the state legislature, the congressional redistricting in America’s most populous state may not necessarily favor Democrats; on Tuesday, Golden State voters seem poised to approve an initiative that would take congressional redistricting from the hands of state politicians and assign it to a commission of private citizens).
“Too close to call” is the only way to describe contests for governor in Florida and Vermont, where GOP incumbents are stepping down. But in Florida, Republican businessman Rick Scott may have a last-minute edge after revelations that Democratic nominee Alex Sink used “cheat notes” and thus violated rules in their final televised debate.
The Three-Way Thrillers
By far the most intriguing races for governor are those in Rhode Island and Colorado, both of which involve three-way contests featuring former office-holders running as insurgent candidates. Rhode Island’s former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, now running as an independent, has emerged in recent polls as the leader over the GOP and Democratic nominees.
In Colorado, former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo is running as the American Constitution candidate, and there appears to be a stampede toward him by Republicans dismayed with embarrassing revelations about their nominee. Whether Tancredo can close the gap with Democrat John Hickenlooper by Tuesday is the big story in the Centennial State.
But a far bigger story nationally may well be the one whose final chapter has yet to be written: how Republicans began the process to control the House for the next decade.