Politics & Policy

Further Down the Ballot

The Republicans have lost some of their past momentum in state elections.

The battle for congress is undeniably the main event on Tuesday night, fraught with national and international import, but voters in dozens of states will also be making critical decisions about their futures when electing governors and state legislators. Below is a checklist for tracking state-election results, based in part on previous NRO coverage of key gubernatorial and legislative contests, as well as information gleaned during the last weeks of the campaign.

First, an overview. Starting in the early 1990s, the Republican party made great strides in challenging Democrats for control of state governments. That wave crested in 2004. It may well recede on Tuesday. Right now, there are 28 Republican governors and 22 Democratic ones. Out of 36 governorships to be filled this year, 22 are Republican. In state legislatures, the numbers are even closer. Republicans hold 49 and Democrats 47 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers. Republicans have both chambers in 20 states, Democrats in 19. In sheer numbers, Democrats have slightly more state legislators (3,651) than do Republicans (3,633).

While Republicans entered the 2006 season with high hopes for picking up some Democratic governorships and legislatures, and breaking out in several states with attractive black and female statewide candidates, a disheartening reality has set in. Democrats are aggressively challenging Republicans all over the map. The GOP, though prepared and well-financed, is mostly on the defensive. Democrats are guaranteed to pick up governorships in key states such as New York and Ohio. Republicans have glimmers of hope for pick-ups in Democratic-held states such as Oregon and Wisconsin, but certainly no guarantees. In legislatures, many seats considered in play may end up blowing with the national partisan gust, no matter how much local candidates try to erect windbreaks.

Most analysts expect at least five Republican governorships to revert to Democrats: Arkansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio. That would yield a 27-23 Democratic majority. Of the ten competitive races that remain (by my estimation), Republicans currently hold five. That means they would have to win eight out of ten not to lose a majority of governorships. Among legislatures, many analysts consider ten states to have highly competitive contests for either or both chambers. Only four of these — Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Oregon — also have competitive gubernatorial races.

The state elections to watch most closely on Tuesday are:

‐ Alaska: Republican primary voters turned out unpopular Gov. Frank Murkowski in favor of Sarah Palin, who chaired the state’s oil and gas commission. It was a wise choice. Palin has maintained a consistent lead over Democrat Tony Knowles, a former governor trying to make a comeback in what would seem to be a favorable year. The two candidates have disagreed on what to do about the precarious finances of the state public employee system and have agreed on the need to rethink the specifics of a natural-gas pipeline under negotiation during Murkowski’s tenure.

Colorado: With Democrat Bill Ritter virtually assured to pick up the governorship being vacated by Republican Bill Owen, the action in Colorado has shifted to the state legislature, where Democrats surged in 2004 and captured majorities in both the house (35-30) and senate (18-17). Several Democratic gains were in districts widely considered Republican-leaning, so GOP leaders believe that even with the prospect of a big statewide loss for governor, they have a fighting chance of regaining power. A problem, however, is that two Colorado Republican incumbents in U.S. House races have soaked up a lot of GOP campaign cash to battle surprisingly strong challenges.

Florida: Republicans have solid majorities in the state legislature here, and voters appear to be leaning in favor of unified government by replacing outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush with Republican Attorney Gen. Charlie Crist. Democratic Rep. Jim Davis is trying to challenge Crist as a centrist. At the final debate, moderator and MSNBC host Chris Matthews started off with a question about Iraq. Yeah, in the governor’s race.

Indiana: The GOP senate is safe at 33-17, but the GOP house at 52-48 is very much up for grabs. Indiana’s house has changed party control in six of the past nine election cycles. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is not very popular, and very local controversies about daylight-savings time and leasing the Indiana Toll Road are playing a big role in the competitive races, of which there are many. Another factor is the possibility of increased turnout within three congressional districts with endangered GOP incumbents and energized Democrats.

Iowa: Outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack got 52 percent and 53 percent of the vote in his 1998 and 2002 victories. In presidential elections, Iowa went for Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004. Obviously, the state is competitive, but so far Democratic nominee and Secretary of State Chet Culver has maintained a consistent if modest lead over Republican Congressman Jim Nussle. Neither the 51-49 Republican majority in the state house nor the 25-25 tie in the state senate looks sure to go one way or the other. While Culver and Nussle disagree on taxes, public subsidies for start-up businesses, and other economic issues, GOP activists are trying to turn out their base with appeals to social-issues, particularly in the western part of the state, where voter turnout is critical to any hope of statewide Republican victories. Democrats hope to make inroads in the suburbs with, unsurprisingly, the stem-cell issue. With Nussle’s 1st congressional district also a potential Democratic pick-up, Tuesday’s electoral melee in Iowa extends from flank to flank.

Maine: Early hopes that Republican nominee Chandler Woodcock might be able to take out Democratic Gov. John Baldacci have faded a bit. Baldacci may well be held below 50 percent, but that’s largely thanks to spirited campaigns by independent and Green Party challengers. The GOP continues to see the Maine as its best opportunity for legislative gains, in part because a Taxpayer Bill of Rights is on the ballot and will help turn out fiscal conservatives in this otherwise center-left state. Democrats currently have a 74-73 edge in the house and a 19-16 edge in the senate.

Maryland: A late surge in the public polls by Senate candidate Michael Steele and incumbent Gov. Bob Ehrlich is raising GOP spirits inside and outside the state. Many analysts, however, see Maryland as more of a heartbreaker than windbreaker for Republicans. I admit to having been unduly pessimistic about Ehrlich a month ago — I should have remembered the nature of his come-from-behind win in 2002. His ads skewing Democratic nominee and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s record on crime and the city schools have taken their toll, and the state’s economic momentum has helped keep Ehrlich’s approval rating about 50 percent. Still, O’Malley is a skilled and attractive candidate running populist ads in a fundamentally Democratic state.

Michigan: In August and early September, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos was leading, tied with, or within striking distance of Democratic incumbent Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Then two things happened: Democratic enthusiasm surged and Republican enthusiasm, particularly among religious conservatives, deflated. In the former case, Granholm was able to convince disaffected Dems that President Bush, whom many hate, was more responsible for Michigan’s economic travails than was she, whom they merely doubted. Democrats hope that statewide victories for Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow will translate into enough legislative gains to erase the 58-52 GOP majority in the state house. But don’t count DeVos and other Republican candidates out. Michigan voters have a history of making up their minds late in the cycle. That’s why Spencer Abraham, who took a 17-point lead into the homestretch of his 2000 Senate race, is no longer senator. That’s why former Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard was so surprised in 1990 when his 14-point lead the weekend before Election Day didn’t keep Republican John Engler from sauntering away victorious.

Minnesota: Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty is a conservative standout among the nation’s Republican governors, whose recent records have often disappointed conservatives. That he is currently locked in a tight re-election race against Democrat Mike Hatch, Minnesota’s attorney general, is largely a reflection of the unpopularity, in his somewhat-blue state, of President Bush and congressional Republicans. Hatch has made an issue of Pawlenty’s use of budget savings rather than tax hikes to close the state’s multi-billion-dollar fiscal gap. Pawlenty proudly defends this record. Like Iowa, Minnesota is competitive in multiple places on the ballot: in the 6th congressional district being vacated by Mark Kennedy (who seems doomed in his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar) and in the 68-66 Republican majority in the state house. In addition to the fiscal debate, Democrats have attacked Pawlenty and Republican legislators for easing gun controls and imposing a waiting period for abortions. Which party’s base will turn out on Tuesday? Few state races this year offer as stark an ideological contrast — and few are as hard to call.

Montana: As embattled Sen. Conrad Burns has fought himself to a dead heat with Democrat John Tester, Republicans and Democrats have fought a no-less-spirited battle to resolve the current tie in the Montana house. Democrats won the governorship and state senate in 2004. Both parties are sending out last-minute mailings in competitive races scorching opponents on issues such as taxes and broken promises.

Nevada: This state was on neither of my earlier lists of competitive state races, but late personal hits against Republican congressman Jim Gibbons, seeking to replace Gov. Kenny Guinn, seem to have shrunk his once-sizable lead over liberal Democrat Dina Titus. In the latest story, a cocktail waitress accused Gibbons of assaulting her in a parking garage in mid-October. Gibbons denied he ever entered the garage with the woman, and said he had merely grabbed the woman to right her after she stumbled. A big legal fight ensued about whether the security tapes from the parking garage would be publicly released. A judge ultimately ordered the tapes released, but they showed nothing. It is rumored that there may also be substantive issues in the Nevada governor’s race — including taxes, transportation needs, and school reform — but voters aren’t hearing much about them at the moment.

Oregon: In September, Republican nominee Ron Saxton appeared to be making Gov. Ted Kulongoski one of the few endangered Democratic incumbents in the country this cycle. But since then, there’s been no movement in Saxton’s direction, despite his significant advantage in campaign cash (thanks in part to more than $2 million from the Mitt Romney-led Republican Governors Association), and indeed, Kulongoski has widened his lead in the public polls. In debates and advertising, Saxton has challenged Kulongoski’s management of state departments and his proposal to raise taxes to fund a children’s health-insurance program. The governor has responded by warning that Saxton’s promised search for budget efficiencies would harm social programs. The stakes extend beyond the governor’s race into the Oregon house, where Republicans are seeking to defend their 33-27 majority. In recent days, Washington State Republican Dino Rossi, who “lost” the governor’s race there two years ago, has campaigned with Saxton, while Bill Clinton has done a phone recording for Kulongoski.

Tennessee: When Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen is overwhelmingly reelected on Tuesday, Republicans still have prospects for victory — and not just in the critical U.S. Senate race. Two years ago, the GOP took a majority in the Tennessee senate for the first time in a century. It would take only one seat to flip control back to the Democrats, while Republicans need four seats to win a majority in the state house. With key Democrats having been embroiled in the “Tennessee Waltz” ethics scandal for months, Democratic challengers in two key senate contests have lodged ethics allegations of their own against Republican incumbents. Statewide votes on same-sex marriage and a property-tax exemption for older homeowners may juice turnout a little, but the Corker-Ford race is already high-octane.

Wisconsin: Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle has kept ahead of Republican Congressman Mark Green throughout the race, but in most polls by a small margin. If Green were running in a less challenging national environment, this might be a toss-up race. As things are, Green is hoping that initiatives reinstating the death penalty and placing a same-sex-marriage ban in the constitution will generate a turnout differential that is to his advantage. Abortion is a key dividing issue between the candidates, each accusing the other of extremism (Doyle says Green wants to ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest, while Green criticizes Doyle’s unwillingness to support a ban on partial-birth abortion). The two have also sparred on taxes, immigration, and health care.

The most likely outcome from state elections this year is a reversal of fortune on governorships — something like a 28-22 Democratic majority — and a modest Democratic gain in legislative chambers. Republican strength in state capitals wasn’t built overnight, and it won’t disappear on election night. But the GOP clearly has a lot of work to do in candidate recruitment and organization to regain their momentum down the ballot.

John Hood is a syndicated columnist and president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina.