Governor Races Likely to Turn on Budget Issues
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer; Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
State spending issues, not celebrity, will drive the 2004 gubernatorial races as Republicans try to add to 28 governorships and Democrats hope to increase their ranks of 22.
A year after action-movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, flamboyant Republican lobbyist Haley Barbour and Louisiana wunderkind Bobby Jindal held the limelight, candidates in this year's 11 governors' races will have to fight for voters' attention, said Tim Storey, an elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"Even governors' races can get lost in the blitz of publicity around the race for the White House," Storey said.
The 11 states with governors on the ballots this November are: Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. Only New Hampshire and Vermont elect governors every two years, instead of four.
Budgets, jobs and education likely will dominate all the races while many states are still recovering from the nation's economic recession, experts said. "The issue this year, I suspect, will be money, money, money," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in state issues. "Everything is going to revolve around questions about the budget."
Candidates may be reluctant to raise the issue because it will force politicians to talk about either cutting services or raising taxes to balance their budgets, said Robert D. Behn, who chairs the Kennedy School of Government's executive education program at Harvard University. "The budget is really important ... It's the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the closet, but you're not quite sure if you open the door whether the gorilla is going to hit you or your opponent," Behn said.
Education is always a favorite topic for voters, but this year will be slightly different as teachers, parents and politicians begin questioning the costs and requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates statewide testing and penalties for low-scoring schools.
"It's pretty clear that education is going to be an important domestic issue, and No Child Left Behind -- being the biggest federal intrusion into local education obviously is going to be talked about in every one of the governor's elections," said Dennis M. Friel of the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union and critic of the federal law.
In Missouri, for example, education spending is dominating the political landscape and could determine whether incumbent Gov. Bob Holden (D) keeps his job. Republicans, who control the Missouri Legislature, rejected Holden's two attempts to increase taxes for schools in 2003. Some state Democrats aren't happy with Holden's performance either, making him one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the nation.
Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington, D.C., said that Holden faces a tough primary election against Democratic State Auditor Clair McCaskill. A recent Kansas City Star poll shows the two statistically deadlocked with more than 40 percent of Democratic voters undecided six months before the primary election. If Holden survives his primary challenge, he will face Republican candidate Matt Blunt, the secretary of state and son of U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt Jr. (R-Mo.).
Jobs and the economy will play big in Indiana and North Carolina, two industrial states that have bled manufacturing jobs. Democratic Gov. Joseph E. Kernan is likely to have to fend off GOP charges that he is partly responsible for Indiana ranking high in job losses and personal bankruptcies. Before he took over as the state's chief executive last fall, Kernan was lieutenant governor and headed the state Department of Commerce. This will be Kernan's first governor's race; he inherited the job after Gov. Frank O'Bannon died of a stroke last fall. Kernan will likely face Mitch Daniels, who served as Bush's budget director until June 2003 and who has toured every county in Indiana in an RV.
In North Carolina, the candidate who wins the trade argument may well win the race. Look for Democratic Gov. Mike Easley to make the case that federal trade policy -- not his own -- is to blame for the jobs that have left the state. Easley has scored points for vowing to keep NASCAR in North Carolina and endeared himself to some NASCAR fans after he crashed a race car during a charity-related practice. The leading GOP candidates are: Patrick Ballantine, the state senate minority leader; Bill Cobey, a former state GOP chairman and a one-term congressman; and Richard Vinroot, a former mayor of Charlotte and 1996 gubernatorial candidate.
The eight incumbent governors who want to keep their jobs can't take much comfort from 2003 election results: State fiscal woes prompted voters to dump the incumbent's party in all four governors' elections held last fall. California, Kentucky and Mississippi gave Democrats the boot and now have GOP governors: Arnold Schwarzengger, Ernie Fletcher and Haley Barbour. Louisiana switched over to the Democrats when voters elected Kathleen Blanco as their governor.
At least three states are guaranteed new faces because sitting governors in Montana, Washington and West Virginia all opted not to run.
In Montana, Democrats have the best chance of winning the governor's office for the first time since 1988 with candidate Brian Schweitzer, political analyst Rothenberg said. Schweitzer, a rancher, already is known statewide after losing a close race for the U.S. Senate in 2000 to Sen. Conrad Burns (R). In addition, retiring governor Judy Martz (R) has been unpopular, Republican Party officials concede, and a crowded Republican field may be divisive for the party.
"We have more Republican [gubernatorial] candidates per capita than California," quips Chuck Denowh, executive director of the Montana GOP, referring to the four major party candidates. Secretary of State Bob Brown and self-employed accountant Pat Davison are the likely Republican front-runners, Denowh said.
The races are wide open in Washington and West Virginia where both Democratic governors decided not to run. In Washington, Gary Locke, the first Asian-American governor in the continental states, said he wants to spend more time with his family. In West Virginia, Bob Wise opted not to seek reelection after admitting to an affair with a state employee.
Four of the 11 governors' races are in "battleground-for-the-White-House states," those states where George Bush or Al Gore had winning margins of less than 5 percent in 2000, NCSL's Storey said. These key states -- Missouri, New Hampshire, Washington and West Virginia -- are where the national parties will focus their get-out-the-vote efforts. In 2000 Bush narrowly carried Missouri, New Hampshire and West Virginia, while Gore barely won Washington.
The gubernatorial candidates could ride some coattails. In Missouri, for example, GOP contender Blunt could benefit from Bush's numerous visits to the state, said David S. Weber, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The president has visited the Show-Me state more than a dozen times, he said.
But some gubernatorial candidates may want to distance themselves from the national parties. For example, Montana Democrat Brian Schweitzer will not benefit from sharing the stage with a New England Democrat like Howard Dean of Vermont or U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Rothenberg said. "I wouldn't assume that strength of the top of the ticket filters down," he said.