GOP Starpower in Statehouses

With four races for governor still to be decided, the Republicans made major gains last night in the statehouses.  And much like the gubernatorial elections of 1966 in which Ronald Reagan of California, Paul Laxalt of Nevada first won statehouse races that launched them to national prominence, the races for governor this year gave the Republican Party a fresh injection of political star power.

The contests for governor held in 37 states will have a particular political impact next year, as governors and state legislatures drawn the lines for districts in  the U.S. House of Representatives following the 2011 census. 

In taking at least ten governorships that were in Democratic hands, the GOP now controls a majority of the chief executives of the fifty states.  In addition, Republicans made gains in the state legislatures that could only be called breath-taking:  as of 4:45 AM Wednesday morning, ten state Houses of Representatives and four state senates had flipped from Democratic control to Republican.  Possibly the most dramatic of all was in Alabama, where the state House went from Democratic to Republican control for the first time since 1874. 

At a time when liberal pundits like to say the GOP has a modicum of fresh faces, what seemed to be a bumper crop of new talent for the party seem to have sprung from the new governors.  State Rep. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, conservative and reformer, was elected the second Indian-American governor in U.S. history.  Las Cruces Prosecutor Susana Martinez was elected the first female governor of Latina heritage by winning the New Mexico statehouse.  Nevada’s GOP Gov-elect Brian Sandoval, a former federal judge who is also of Hispanic heritage, defeated the son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a landslide race. 

Twenty years after he left the House and ended a brief presidential run, onetime House Budget Committee John Kasich came back to win the governorship of Ohio.  Kasich campaigned on an agenda of rolling back spending and phasing out the state income tax.

Millionaire businessman Rick Snyder led a Republican romp as he swept to the governorship of Michigan, where Democratic incumbent Jennifer Granholm was termed out.  “Snyder the outsider”, who had neither held nor sought office before, beat four political veterans to win the GOP primary in an upset. 

Other conservative governors-elect including Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rep. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, and former U.S. Attorney Matt Meade of Wyoming, grandson of the late Gov. and Sen. Clifford Hansen (R.-Wyo).  Republicans also picked up Democratic-held governorships in Iowa, Pennsylvania,Tennessee, and Wisconsin. 

Five statehouse contests remained undecided: Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, and Oregon.  But in Florida and Illinois, conservative GOPers Rick Scott and Bill Brady clung to tight leads over Democratic foes Alex Sink and Gov. Pat Quinn respectively. 

In one of the most dramatic political comebacks in recent years, former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown did retake the governorship of California he had held from 1974-82 by beating former eBay chief executive officer Meg Whitman (who spent a whopping $160 billion of her own money.  And in two three-way contests, Republican former Sen. Lincoln Chafee won the governorship of Rhode Island as an independent and Democratic Mayor John Hickenlooper of Denver won the Colorado statehouse over a wounded GOP nominee and former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who ran as the American Constitution Party candidate. 

Interesting, but the big story of the evening is clearly the new class of Republican “statehouse stars” and how they and their legislative teammates deal with redistricting that will sculpt the shape of the House for the next decade.