2009 Elections — Small But Significant
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
This year may be the quiet before the surge of 36 gubernatorial races in 2010, but the results of the few statewide elections in November could preview what's to come.
Democrats will find out this year whether their sweep of the White House and Congress in 2008 will continue and keep Virginia "blue" at the governor level and give the Democrats control of the statehouse. Meanwhile, New Jersey will vote for a lieutenant governor for the first time, possibly prodding some of the remaining seven states without a second-in-command spot to create one.
Both parties hope wins in New Jersey and Virginia - the only gubernatorial races this year - will provide momentum for next year's 36 contests, with Virginia's open seat drawing the most interest. From a national perspective, the race "is a good test of whether (President) Obama's victory was an aberration or the beginning of a new alignment" in the state, said John J. McGlennon, chair of government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg.
Obama's victory in Virginia, once a GOP stronghold, was the first time a Democrat carried the state since 1964 in a presidential election. Democrats also hold both U.S. Senate seats, one of them by former Gov. Mark Warner, and in 2007 took control of the Virginia state Senate.
Democrats are now eying the Virginia House of Delegates, where all 100 seats are up this fall, but they also must keep the governorship if they want a clean sweep. A December poll from Rasmussen Reports shows that the four leading candidates vying to take over for Gov. Tim Kaine (D) are neck-and-neck and that one-third of voters said they don't know enough about any of them to even have an opinion about them.
The candidates are former House Democratic Caucus chairman Brian Moran ; state Sen. Creigh Deeds, who narrowly lost the attorney general's race in 2005, and Terry McAuliffe , former chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) who headed Hillary Clinton's campaign for president. For the GOP, Attorney General Bob McDonnell is unchallenged.
An early Obama supporter, Kaine was recently tapped to chair the DNC. Virginia is the only state that limits its governors to one four-year term.
History is on the Republicans' side. In every gubernatorial election since 1977, the party that is not in the White House wins the Virginia governorship.
2009: Year of the lieutenant governor?
Making history this year will be New Jersey where a lieutenant governor's race will appear on the ballot for the first time. Voters in the Garden State approved in 2005 creating the No. 2 position after then-Gov. Jim McGreevey's (D) sex scandal left Senate President Richard Codey (D) governor because the state doesn't have a lieutenant governor. It was the second time in three years that New Jersey used this succession plan.
New Jersey's change comes as the role and prominence of lieutenant governors is growing. Just in this decade, 16 lieutenant governors have gone on to become governors, according to Julia Hurst, executive director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association. The lieutenant governor in New Mexico, Diane Denish (D), was on the verge of becoming the 17 th , but New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew as Obama's nominee for Commerce Department secretary, citing an ongoing federal investigation of state contracts.
Now that New Jersey has changed, Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia are the remaining states that put the senate president next in line of succession. Arizona, Oregon and Wyoming put their secretary of state No. 2 behind the governor.
Arizona and Tennessee also may move toward putting a lieutenant governor on the ballot. In Arizona, Jan Brewer, the former secretary of state, a Republican, took over the governorship on Jan. 21, a day after Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to head the U.S. Homeland Security Department in the Obama administration. Brewer has been a proponent of creating a lieutenant governor position, and observers expect legislation there.
Tennessee, which currently gives its senate president the title and duties of lieutenant governor, has studied whether to create a separate lieutenant position. Rosalind Kurita, former speaker pro tempore of the Tennessee Senate, has been a proponent.
In New Jersey, the lieutenant governor will run as a team with the governor - as in 24 other states - and the gubernatorial candidates will select their own running mates. Gov. Jon Corzine (D), a former Wall Street executive, likely will wait until closer to the June 2 primary to announce his pick.
Corzine is besting three potential Republican challengers by double digits, according to poll results released Jan. 9 from Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind . His GOP challengers include Chris Christie , a former U.S. attorney; Steve Lonegan , a former mayor of Bogota, N.J.; and Rick Merkt , who is serving his sixth term in the New Jersey Legislature.
David Winder, professor emeritus at Valdosta State University who has studied the office of lieutenant governor, said he expects states without the post to seriously consider it. As demands on governors have grown, so have voters' expectations that the person first in the line of succession be someone with wide experience who has won office statewide.
Already this year, New York and Idaho named new lieutenant governors - two vacancies linked tangentially to sex scandals. In Idaho, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch last fall ran and won the U.S. Senate seat that was held by fellow Republican Larry E. Craig, who was arrested in a 2007 sex-sting operation inside a men's restroom at a Minnesota airport. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) this month named state Sen. Brad Little (R) to replace Risch.
In New York, David Paterson was elevated from lieutenant governor to the top spot after Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) resigned in March 2008 amid allegations he hired a high-priced call girl. Rather than select a replacement for the vacant No. 2 position, the state designates the senate majority leader as next in line. After a lengthy battle within the party, senate Democrats picked Malcolm Smith as majority leader. Democrats now control the executive and legislative branches for the first time since the Great Depression.
A different kind of scandal could promote another lieutenant governor to the chief executive position. Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn is poised to take over for fellow Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich if the state Senate removes him from office on several charges. Blagojevich became the 14 th governor to be impeached. Separately, federal prosecutors have charged Blagojevich tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat Obama vacated. Blagojevich has denied the charges.