Democrats Riding Wave to Statehouses

PHILADELPHIA Out of power for years or in some states decades, Democrats are poised to win election as governors of some of the most important states in the country. The shift puts a new generation of Democrats in the spotlight and could end a remarkable period of Republican rule that reshaped national politics.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez addresses voters at a rally in Beaumont, Texas, Monday evening.

States To Watch

Thirty-six states will elect governors on Nov. 5. Twenty-three of them have Republican governors now, 11 have Democratic governors, and two have independent governors.

States where governor's offices may switch parties, and their electoral votes:

Likely Republican to Democrat:

Illinois, 21
Kansas, 6
Michigan, 17
New Mexico, 5
Pennsylvania, 21

Likely Democrat to Republican:

Hawaii, 4
New Hampshire, 4

Likely Independent to Democrat:

Maine, 4

Too close to call, now held by Republicans:

Arizona, 10
Florida, 27
Massachusetts, 12
Rhode Island, 4
Tennessee, 11
Wisconsin, 10
Wyoming, 3

Too close to call, now held by Democrats:

Alabama, 9
Alaska, 3
Iowa, 7
Maryland, 10
South Carolina, 8

Too close to call, now held by independents:

Minnesota, 10

Source: USA TODAY research

Even as opinion polls tighten in the days before Nov. 5, Democrats hold leads of two to 20 percentage points in key states. They are favored to win Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and could win Wisconsin, Arizona and Massachusetts. California Democrat Gray Davis is headed for re-election. Republicans are likely to hold Texas, Florida and New York. But their pickups may be limited to smaller states, such as New Hampshire and maybe Hawaii.

GOP pollster Bill McInturff says Republicans are "in deep trouble" in pivotal states. Their net loss could be small, but "it's not the same when you trade major states for minor ones."

Republicans hold 27 governor's offices, Democrats 21 and independents two. Of the 36 elections this year, Republicans are defending 23 offices and Democrats 11. The other two are those held by independents in Maine and Minnesota. With a net gain of five states, Democrats would hold the majority of statehouses.

Both major parties covet big-state governorships, for good reason:

Governors have a huge impact on people's lives. Often their ideas percolate up to the national level and become models for the federal government. Republican governors have reshaped national education, welfare and tax policies over the past 15 years.

Governors have political networks, they are the top fundraisers in their states, and they dominate local news media markets. That has a practical effect on races from the state legislature to the White House. "Having a governor adds 2 to 3 (percentage) points to a presidential nominee," says B.J. Thornberry, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. GOP governors were key to President Bush's win in 2000.

Governors are both parties' presidential farm team. Four of the last five presidents have been governors. The most viable candidates for president and vice president are those from states with lots of electoral votes.

Only one Democrat of seven thinking of running in 2004 is a governor. He's Howard Dean of Vermont, a state with just three electoral votes. Among the Democratic names to watch in coming years are Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor and national party chairman, who holds a commanding lead in the Pennsylvania governor's race, and former Clinton Cabinet member Bill Richardson, who is leading in New Mexico. Party leaders lament that Jennifer Granholm, who is running strong in Michigan, can't run for president because she was born in Canada.

States set national agenda

Republicans are coming off an era of tremendous influence, best captured by the 1996 federal welfare-reform law. The focus was getting people into the workforce. The model was Tommy Thompson's "Wisconsin Works" program. He and fellow Republican governors "had a big influence on moderates in both parties and significantly changed the mood in Washington," says Stuart Butler of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

Republican governors also set the tone for their congressional allies with tax cuts, student testing, school accountability and school choice.

One reason Republicans are in trouble this year is because they have governed so many states for so long. They won a majority of governorships in 1995 and crested in 1996 with 32. Thompson served from 1987 to 2001, when he became Health and Human Services secretary. Michigan Gov. John Engler steps down in January after 12 years. Illinois has had only GOP governors since 1977. Tom Ridge, now head of the White House Office of Homeland Security, was Pennsylvania governor 1995-2001.

"The longer a party has control of the governorship, the more likely people will say, 'Let's give the other side a chance,' " says former Iowa governor Terry Branstad. After Branstad's 16 years and 14 of another Republican before him, Democrat Tom Vilsack argued successfully in 1998 that it was time to "rotate the crop."

The longevity problem is bipartisan. Republican Linda Lingle of Hawaii tells voters change would be healthy after 40 years of Democratic governors. Maryland last elected a GOP governor in 1966; Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is in a dead heat with GOP Rep. Bob Ehrlich, who calls himself "the change we need."

Regardless of party, this is not a good time to be in charge. "It's a tough year to be an incumbent because of budget shortfalls and the economy," says Ed Tobin of the Republican Governors Association. More Republicans are "holding the bag," as McInturff puts it, because more of them are holding the office.

'Power of personality'

Many of the year's trends are converging in Pennsylvania. The state, now in Republican hands, has a pattern of switching parties every eight years. Rendell has opened a big lead over GOP attorney general Mike Fisher. An evening in Philadelphia makes clear what he and his fans expect to change.

Rendell tells a packed union hall that teachers and their unions will have a friend in Harrisburg, the state capital. Later, at a "Women for Rendell" reception, he reiterates his stalwart support for abortion rights and gay rights. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a guest speaker, says Rendell and other Democratic governors will be "active partners" with her and other congressional Democrats on goals they all support.

The central issue in the race is Pennsylvania's lagging economy. And the main reason Rendell is ahead is his reputation, forged during Philadelphia's fiscal crises and revival, as someone who took risks and made enemies including some unions that now support him.

"Rendell is going to turn the state upside down," Jim Simpson, a Philadelphia ward chairman, says happily.

"People are starving in upstate Pennsylvania. We're losing all our young people. This guy is a visionary."

McInturff cites Rendell and Granholm as examples of "class candidates." He says his Republican Party is struggling in some states because its standard-bearers lack "the power of personality." But the main problem, he says, is that it has held power so long.

"The Republican dominance of the 1990s set a policy agenda that peaked with George W. Bush's election," he says. "Those ideas are tired. When things get worn out, Americans turn to what's new."