In Washington, I’m often asked how many seats Republicans will pick up in the House and whether they’ll win a majority in the Senate. But I’m seldom asked anything about the 37 races for governor that will be decided next month (except for Georgia, which will have a runoff if no candidate tops 50 percent).
Yet governorships can be just as important in politics and public policy as seats in Congress. Four of our last six presidents were governors, not senators or congressmen, before serving as chief executive.
Moreover, states have sometimes taken the lead in public policy. Robert LaFollette in Wisconsin, and Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt in New York pioneered progressive and New Deal policies before the Great Depression gave FDR his chance in Washington.
Similarly, welfare reform — one of the great policy successes of the 1990s — was initiated by the likes of such Republicans as Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and John Engler in Michigan and such Democrats as Evan Bayh in Indiana long before it was passed by Congress in 1996.
Going into the election, Republicans hold 18 of the governorships up for grabs, while Democrats hold 19, as well as seven of the 13 not on the ballot.
Coming out of the election, Republicans are likely to be far ahead — but with a few question marks in the very biggest states.
Republicans currently lead in polls in twelve of the 18 states where they have governors now, and all of their incumbents are ahead. They’re behind in five relatively small Democratic-leaning states where Republican incumbents are retiring, but by wide margins only in two, Hawaii and Connecticut.
The big question mark is Florida, the nation’s fourth-largest state. Surprise primary winner Rick Scott is about three points behind Alex Sink, the Democrats’ one current statewide officeholder. The stakes are big. The new governor and the solidly Republican legislature will draw new district boundaries for Florida’s estimated 26 congressional districts.
Democrats are faring worse. Their nominees are currently trailing in 13 of the 19 states where they hold the governorships. Only three of their nominees have double-digit leads — in Bill Clinton’s home states of Arkansas and New York and in Colorado, where the Republican nominee has been disavowed by many party leaders.
Most unnerving for Democrats is that their nominees are currently trailing by double digits in the nation’s industrial heartland — in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. These are states Barack Obama carried with 54, 51, 57, and 62 percent of the vote.
Democrats are not supposed to be trailing there in times like these. The old political rule is that economic distress moves voters in the industrial heartland toward Democrats. Old-timers remember that that is what happened in recession years 1958, 1970, and 1982.
In addition, Democrats are also trailing by margins that have been growing in U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania and Ohio and are running even at best in Illinois. They’re trailing by significant margins in the races for governor and senator in Wisconsin and Iowa, which Obama carried with 56 and 54 percent.