RALEIGH, N.C. – The Republican waves that washed over Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s began as ripples in the states. For many reasons, the period now seems like a distant memory. Today’s political contests are dominated by foreign policy and its domestic repercussions (such as high gasoline prices). Back then, it was domestic issues that propelled most of the GOP advances: tax increases and wasteful spending, welfare, Democratic overreaching on health care, social and cultural concerns. Of 18 specific promises in the 1994 Contract with America — eight pledges to change House rules and budget procedures, plus ten proposed pieces of legislation to bring to the House floor — only one spoke to matters beyond the nation’s borders, a measure to beef up defense spending and prevent U.S. troops from serving under a United Nations banner.
Core elements of this national Republican agenda were based on pioneering reforms enacted by GOP governors working with mixed or Republican legislatures. Budget reform, term limits, tough-on-crime policies, welfare time-limits and work requirements, tort reforms, tax relief — all had state precedents, and some gained traction in Washington as a result. Controlling state governments is not only an important political goal in its own right, so as to influence public policies that affect the daily lives of Americans, but also for the sake of developing and testing new ideas with national significance while grooming the next generation of federal candidates and party leaders.
The national priorities for 2006 and beyond differ significantly from what prevailed in the 1990s. But these bread-and-butter domestic issues still matter a great deal, and the bad news for conservatives and Republicans is that voters seem at least uneasy, and one might even say depressed, about the state of the economy and the direction of the country. It doesn’t seem to matter that, by the numbers, economic growth is solid, widespread, and continuing. It doesn’t matter that past conservative policy successes continue to manifest themselves in prosperity and in positive social trends. Welfare rolls are way down from the mid-1990s, for example, despite an intervening recession. Tough policing and sentencing policies helped cut crime rates, and they remain far lower than a couple of decades ago. The average state and local tax burden is about the same today as it was in 1994, but the states with superior records on cutting taxes have also posted the strongest economic performance during the period.
Pollsters I read or talk to are virtually unanimous in crediting much of the otherwise-inexplicable public despair to gas prices, a very visible if not-very-reliable indicator of economic well-being, and a season of scandal in Washington and many state capitals. Add in overall disaffection with the conduct of the Iraq campaign, which seeps into every political nook and cranny, and you have a recipe for seething discontent. Whatever the explanation you prefer, the resulting voter disapproval is hurting incumbents as a whole, and Republicans disproportionately — in part because that’s what happens when your party holds Congress and the presidency, and in part because at the statehouse level Republicans now own more territory to defend.
In governor’s races, here is where things stand. Nationwide, Republicans enjoy a 28-22 majority. Out of 36 governorships on the ballot this year, 22 are currently Republican, though several are open-seat contests because of retirements. Right off the bat, the GOP can pretty much count on losing two of the biggest prizes — New York, with Eliot Spitzer replacing the retiring George Pataki, and Ohio, with Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland outpacing Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (insert conservative groan here). Another two of the nation’s most-populous states — California and Florida — have serious Democratic campaigns to take currently Republican offices. There are endangered large-state Democratic governorships, too, but fewer, and none are foregone conclusions. At the risk of being overly cautious, I’ll list the following 15 races as competitive or potentially competitive in 2006, each with a brief explanation. Nine are currently Republican governorships, six Democratic.
‐ Alaska: Former Sen. Frank Murkowski may have thought it was clever back in 2002 to run for governor and then arrange things so that his daughter would replace him in the Senate. It was really too clever by half — well, make that by about 99 percent. Murkowski is currently not favored even to win the GOP nomination for a second term in 2006. Democrat Tony Knowles, a former governor, will face Sarah Palin, who chairs the state’s oil and gas commission, or perhaps former state Sen. John Binkley, in a highly competitive general election.
‐ Arkansas: Republican and would-be dietician Mike Huckabee is leaving after the legally permitted two terms. Attorney Gen. Mike Beebe is the Democratic standard-bearer, and enjoys a consistent if not overwhelming lead over former Republican Rep. Asa Hutchinson. Both camps are accusing the other of political flip-flopping, Beebe on gay rights and Hutchinson on the minimum wage. The latter is trying to score points on charter-school expansion, while Beebe seeks to protect his right flank by fudging on abortion and endorsing (as Hutchinson does) elimination of the state’s sales tax on food.
‐ California: Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger got his head handed to him last fall as voters rejected his ballot initiatives. While he has never played Frankenstein’s monster on film, Schwarzenegger certainly seems to be doing a pretty good imitation of a reanimated corpse with a reattached noggin. He leads Democratic nominee Phil Angelides, the state treasurer, in most polls. The Golden State has turned blue, yes, but in Angelides the Democrats selected the more liberal and less salable of the potential challengers. An additional trouble sign is that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa won’t endorse Angelides. The mayor says he is waiting to secure some education legislation out of Sacramento, but he may also expect to be in need of a good working relationship with Schwarzenegger after November.
‐ Colorado: Former National Review cover boy Bill Owens is term-limited. Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez is defending the governorship against Democrat Bill Ritter, a longtime district attorney from Denver. In the last election cycle, Democrats enjoyed surprising success in state races, taking control of the legislature. They hope to sustain the momentum with Ritter, who says he is a pro-life moderate. Early polls have him leading Beauprez, but only drawing support in the low 40s. The Beauprez campaign is aggressively challenging Ritter on gun control, immigration, and gay rights.
‐ Florida: Bush remains very popular. Jeb Bush. In Florida. The nominees to replace him won’t be settled until September 5, but it seems probable that Republican Attorney Gen. Charlie Crist and Democratic Rep. Jim Davis will prevail. Bush would be reelected easily, but Crist will have to work hard to hold the office for the GOP. His campaign speeches quote the mantra of his mentor, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack: “less taxes, less spending, less government, more freedom.” But his specific talking points include run-to-the-middle fare such as teacher pay hikes, smaller class sizes, and support for embryonic stem-cell research. Sounds a lot like what is heard on the stump from Davis, who is coasting to the Democratic nomination at the moment in large measure because he hails from primary-vote-rich Tampa Bay.
‐ Illinois: Here’s a struggling big-state Democratic incumbent, Rod Blagojevich, whom Republicans targeted months ago as a potential offset to GOP losses elsewhere. But so far, scandal in the governor’s administration and division within the Illinois Democratic party have not been enough to put the under-funded Republican challenger, State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, within striking distance. Still, with Blagojevich’s approvals and reelect numbers well below 50 percent, this race bears watching. There may be as many as a dozen debates between the two, a sign the incumbent is worried and sees the need to shake up the dynamics of the race. Topinka is stinging Blagojevich for not seeking a gas-tax reduction (at the state level, this is how you make the gas-price issue work for you) and his abortive attempt to sell or lease the state lottery for a one-time cash infusion.
‐ Iowa: This was another early target for Republicans hoping to buck the expected national trend. Iowa is losing incumbent Democratic Gov. Tim Vilsack, probably to the Democratic presidential field, and gaining one of the nation’s most competitive races. It will pit Democratic Secretary of State Chet Culver against Republican Rep. Jim Nussle. Scandals and ethics top the list of hot issues right now, after revelations earlier this year that a state employment and training agency paid nearly $2 million on bonuses to its executives in a 30-month period and is now the subject of criminal probes. Nussle seeks to broaden the issue to indict pay practices and cronyism throughout the Vilsack administration, while Culver is proposing new state ethics- and lobbying-reform legislation. Culver, a former schoolteacher, also makes the usual Democratic promises on education: raise teacher pay, subsidize new preschool programs, and demand more federal dollars.
‐ Maryland: Republican Bob Ehrlich’s surprising 2002 win in this navy-blue state would make a 2006 loss heartbreaking for the GOP, but it could happen. Democratic nominee Martin O’Malley, the Baltimore mayor, is touting proposals to subsidize more health plans for the uninsured and reduce class sizes. Ehrich is responding by calling attention to existing state health initiatives and attacking O’Malley’s administration of Baltimore’s public schools, which are not exactly a showcase for educational excellence. The telegenic O’Malley leads in all the polls I’ve seen, but don’t count Ehrlich out just yet. For example, O’Malley’s opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage may prove costly even in Maryland.
‐ Massachusetts: I wonder how many political campaigns in American history have been largely about ceiling debris. That’s the case right now in Massachusetts, where three Democratic candidates are vying for the chance to end the GOP’s 16-year control of the governorship. The Big Dig tunnel collapse has not only given outgoing Gov. Mitt Romney another presidential audition on the national stage but also dominated the state political news. Attorney Gen. Tom Reilly, one of the Democratic primary foes, grabbed headlines when he announced a criminal probe into the fatal July 10 accident. Romney gave Republican Lt. Gov. and would-be successor Kerry Healey the role of heading up a study of the Big Dig’s economic implications. And the independent candidacy of Christy Mihos, former member of the turnpike authority, suddenly has a shot of adrenaline, since he gained notoriety years ago by questioning the relationship between the state and a Big Dig contractor. Still, the two Democratic candidates without a clear link to the tunnel story — former Clinton Justice Department official Deval Patrick and previous lieutenant governor candidate Chris Gabieli — poll a bit better than Reilly does, and Massachusetts is, let’s remember, Massachusetts. Mihos is running on a property-tax limitation measure and may siphon fiscal-conservative votes from Healey. The outcome of the Sept. 19 Democratic primary is pivotal, as is how rough-and-tumble the campaign is until then.
‐ Michigan: The old line on Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm was that the former beauty queen would have been a major contender for the White House had she not been born in Canada. The new line is that, come January, she might well have enough time on her hands for extended tours of the White House and Canada. Republican Dick DeVos, of the Amway clan, has spent many millions of dollars building a strong statewide campaign that currently has him leading the incumbent by a modest amount in several polls. Granholm’s difficulty is that Michigan voters know their economy is one of the worst in the country, and not without reason hold state government responsible for at least some of the problem. Her saving grace may be that Republicans control the state legislature; in Democratic-leaning Michigan, in 2006, swing voters may not want to turn all the state-government house keys over to the GOP.
‐ Minnesota: Like Maryland, Minnesota in 2002 gave Republicans a pleasant surprise in the victory of the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Tim Pawlenty, after the Jesse Ventura interregnum. Pawlenty doesn’t face quite the reelection challenge than Gov. Ehrlich does in Maryland, but Democratic Attorney Gen. Mike Hatch will be a formidable candidate. Just to demonstrate how idiosyncratic these races can be, a major issue in the first public debate between Pawlenty, Hatch, Green Party candidate Ken Pentel, and Peter Hutchison of the Independence Party (think Ventura) was whether state or local government should be responsible for regulating and promoting livestock agriculture. Uh, okay. Pawlenty and Hatch are also trading barbs on taxes and ethics. If Pawlenty wins reelection, he is in line to head the National Governors Association and will likely become a presidential hopeful in 2012, if not earlier.
‐ Oregon: A GOP opportunity in the Pacific Northwest? The national red-blue dichotomy leads many to overlook the competitiveness of Washington and Oregon politics at the state level, which is evidenced by Republican Dino Rossi’s narrow “loss” for governor in 2004 and Democratic incumbent Ted Kulongoski’s vulnerability in this year’s Oregon gubernatorial race. After posting a less-than-stellar performance in the Democratic primary, Kulongoski still has a lead over Republican nominee Ron Saxton in most polls, but the governor’s support is only in the low to mid 40s. Saxton, however, ruptured party unity when he came out against a spending-cap initiative on the November ballot that Oregon Republican activists have endorsed. This may confuse voters on the tax issue, which Saxton has tried to use against Kulongoski by criticizing the governor’s support of a failed 2004 tax-hike measure and talk of creating a state sales tax.
‐ Rhode Island: There is something else important going on in Rhode Island politics besides the Lincoln Chafee-Stephen Laffey battle for Republican hearts and minds. GOP Gov. Donald Carcieri faces a spirited challenge from Democratic Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty. The latter is trying to rally labor-union opposition to Carcieri, who sought to deal with state budget woes in part by eliminating some state jobs and changing health benefits for state workers (he got the job cuts but not the benefit savings). But the governor has responded by playing up his outsider status — not a bad idea in these times of disaffected voters — and touting recent pro-business tax reforms.
‐ Wisconsin: Larry Sabato says that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle may be “the most endangered Democratic governor in the country.” I think the distinction belongs to Granholm, but certainly Doyle is pulling out all the stops to rebut Republican Rep. Mark Green’s aggressive campaigning on issues such as wasteful spending, budget reform, and a state bid-rigging scandal. In turn, Doyle is accusing Green of opposing stem-cell research (Green actually opposes state subsidies for companies doing embryonic stem-cell research and would ban therapeutic cloning) and linking his Republican opponent to “big oil,” which is another way (besides gas-tax talk) to make gas prices a state issue (Green has supported off-shore drilling). In the first half of 2006, Green outraised Doyle in campaign donations, which gubernatorial challengers almost never do, though the governor retains an advantage in cash on hand.
In an earlier”>earlier NRO piece, I listed 14 states with important state-legislature campaigns to watch in 2006. The places where the two lists overlap — Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and Oregon — thus represent key battlegrounds where the future of state-level public-policy initiatives such as fiscal restraint and school choice, and the fate of the Republican realignment of the past two decades, may well be decided. Right now, most left-of-center analysts of these races seem ebullient, while most right-of-center analysts either put on a brave face or change the subject. That’s telling. My guess is that incumbents of both parties will tumble, but the net result will be enough Democratic gains to erase the six-state GOP majority, if not flip it over.
The usual hedging statement is required at this point: lots of things could happen between now and November, including national and international events that either accelerate or arrest the overall Democratic momentum. Still, it wasn’t that long ago that some dreamed about a 2006 election cycle of improbable events such as two black conservatives winning governorships in Ohio and Pennsylvania, or Barry Goldwater’s nephew becoming governor of Arizona. Alas, they have indeed proved improbable.
—John Hood is a syndicated columnist and president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina.