GOP Dominates Governors' Races

Photo by Jay LaPrete, the Associated Press
John Kasich, Governor-elect of Ohio
Editor's note: This story has been updated.

The fortunes of Republicans in state government improved dramatically Tuesday night, as the Grand Old Party's nominees for governor reclaimed vast swaths of territory that Democrats staked out for the last decade. The most striking gains came in the West and the industrial Midwest. In several contests, Republican women and minorities made history by winning in their states.

With 29 governorships under their control and several more still up for grabs, Republicans appeared close to their goal of winning the top office in 30 states. The Republican dominance came even as they lost small states such as Connecticut, Rhode Island and Hawaii, along with population-rich California.

The results cap off a raucous, high-stakes election season that cost nearly $850 million in races for governor and lieutenant governor. It was fueled by an insurgent Tea Party movement, but plenty of other factors added to the intensity. Outside groups made more muscular efforts to weigh in on gubernatorial contests, wealthy candidates bombarded the airwaves with advertisements and independent candidates shook up several races.

Republican victories included ousting the governors in Ohio and Iowa; wresting away open seats currently held by Democrats in Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming; and successfully defending Republican seats in Arizona, South Carolina, Florida and Texas. (See also Stateline 's coverage of state legislative races and key ballot measures .)

Early Wednesday morning, a few races remained too close to call. Illinois was headed toward another drawn-out election contest. Republican state senator Bill Brady said the fate of his challenge to Democratic Governor Pat Quinn would not be resolved Tuesday night. Brady was slightly behind Quinn as the last precincts were being counted. Quinn and Brady are familiar with the routine: Neither secured his party's nomination in February's primary until after Election Night.

Minnesota faces a prospect of another recount, just two years after the state went through an eight-month recount to seat its U.S. senator. On Wednesday, Democrat Mark Dayton led his Republican rival, Tom Emmer, by less than half a percentage point, the range that would trigger an automatic recount. (In the event of an extended recount, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty would stay in office until the winner is declared.)

Oregon's race also remained undecided Wednesday. Sitting governors in North Dakota and West Virginia both won races for the U.S. Senate, but their exit will not change which party controls those seats. 

Two of the most closely watched governor's races came in the traditional presidential battleground states of Ohio and Florida. Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, first won amid a Republican scandal in 2006, and ran his office as if he had a target on his back for 2010. He pushed through one of the country's first state-level stimulus packages, upgraded  his party's voter outreach efforts and welcomed President Obama to Ohio a dozen times. But former Republican congressman John Kasich  pounded Strickland for the 400,000 jobs lost during Strickland's term, and Kasich prevailed.

In fact, Kasich led a Republican sweep of statewide offices in the Buckeye State. The GOP claimed majorities in the Ohio House and state Supreme Court, while one of its congressman, John Boehner, was poised to take over as speaker of the U.S. House in January.

The Florida race had many of the hallmarks of this year's races. Rick Scott, a former hospital executive, spent $73 million of his own money in his bid for governor. He spent most of that money and capitalized on Tea Party enthusiasm to beat out Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary. On Wednesday morning, Alex Sink, his Democratic opponent and Florida's chief financial officer, conceded the race.

But the deep pockets of Republican Meg Whitman, the former CEO of e-Bay, were not enough to secure her California's governorship. Whitman shattered records for the most expensive non-presidential campaign in the country, thanks mainly to the more than $140 million of her own money she contributed to her own cause.  

What's at stake

The capture of so many governor's offices by Republicans gives them plenty of leverage to change policy, even though there is no intrinsic power that comes with winning a majority of governorships. In the first two years of President Obama's administration, those Republicans who have been in power have used their positions to push back against key parts of the Democrats' agenda, including the federal stimulus package and the health care overhaul.

Now Republicans will have an even more visible perch from which to challenge Obama, if they choose to do so, on issues as varied as reducing air pollution and addressing illegal immigration. The new governors also get the political  benefits of influencing how congressional districts are drawn and helping their allies in the 2012 presidential contest.

For the first time since 1938, a majority of governors elected in 2010 will be new on the job. A few, such as California's Jerry Brown and Iowa's Terry Branstad have served as governor before.

But the incoming class must immediately wrestle with persistent budget deficits that threaten to plague state balance sheets for years to come. States face a collective shortfall of $72 billion for the next fiscal year, which in most states starts in July, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The federal stimulus package that softened the Great Recession's blow to state budgets is set to expire at the end of this fiscal year, even though state revenues have not yet caught up to where they were when the recession began three years ago.

A dozen of Tuesday night's winners also vowed not to raise taxes, a promise that could make the task of balancing their budgets even more difficult.

But many members of the new governors will make history simply by taking the oath of office. New Mexico's Susana Martinez, Oklahoma's Mary Fallin, South Carolina's Nikki Haley — all Republicans — will become the first women governors of their states. In fact, Martinez and Fallin won office by beating female opponents.

The incoming Republicans also bolster the party's attempts to reach out with ethnic minorities. Martinez and her lieutenant governor nominee, John Sanchez, are both Hispanic; Martinez will replace the only current Hispanic governor, Democrat Bill Richardson. But Martinez won't be the only Hispanic governor. She will be joined by Brian Sandoval in Nevada. Haley becomes the second governor to claim ancestors from India, along with Republican Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

New dynamics

Just two years ago, Democrats made significant inroads in the West. Democratic governors presided over Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming. When the governors elected Tuesday are sworn in, though, Republicans will be leading all of those states except Colorado.

In the Midwest, too, Democrats had taken the governorship four years ago of nearly every state that touched the Great Lakes, with only Minnesota and Indiana remaining in Republican hands. Tuesday's elections largely reversed the situation. Democrats Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Pat Quinn in Obama's home state of Illinois were holding on to very thin leads Wednesday morning, but the rest of the region turned red.

In many races, Republicans ran as much against President Obama as against their Democratic opponents. Arizona's Jan Brewer, for example, used Obama as a foil as she promoted her state's controversial new anti-immigration law, especially after the Obama administration sued to block it. Rick Perry of Texas, who is set to become the nation's longest-serving governor, railed against all things Washington in his campaign and said Obama was "hell-bent on taking America toward a socialist country." Other GOP nominees in Ohio and Wisconsin scored points by attacking federal stimulus programs, including high-speed rail.

The sudden surge of Tea Party activists, disillusioned by government spending and taxes, played a crucial role in selecting Republican nominees in many states. But that energy was not always enough to help the candidates they backed win office.

Ohio's Kasich and South Carolina's Haley, for example, identified with the Tea Party label early on and won their contests. But Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, a Republican, fell short in his race against Democrat Andrew Cuomo in New York.

And Colorado Republican Dan Maes barely got a tenth of the vote, trailing former congressman Tom Tancredo, who brought in more than a third of the vote as a third-party candidate. The division allowed Democratic Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper to stroll to victory, even as Colorado voters split nearly evenly in a hotly contested U.S. Senate match.

Tancredo was one of several independent candidates to make a splash. Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, a former U.S. senator, won as an independent with Obama's tacit approval. Obama declined to endorse Frank Caprio, Chafee's Democratic rival. In Maine, independent candidate Eliot Cutler narrowly lost to Republican Paul LePage. But elsewhere independents siphoned votes from major-party candidates, as they did in the tight races in Illinois and Minnesota.


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