Obama Victory Crowns Dem Gains
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
(Updated 7 a.m. EST, Nov. 5, 2008)
President-elect Barack Obama's overwhelming win over Republican John McCain topped a historic night for Democrats that expanded their power in Congress while adding to their commanding presence in governors' mansions.
With all 11 governor's races decided, Democrats now hold 29 governorships nationwide, a gain of one. Republicans stand at 21, down from 22 going into Election Day, after seeing the Missouri governor's office change hands. Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) easily won re-election over challenger Dino Rossi, a former state senator, with nearly all of the votes counted.
At the legislative level, Democrats won the New York Senate, which the GOP held for 40 years, gaining control of state government for the first time since the Great Depression. And in the home state of Joe Biden, Obama's running mate, Democrats picked up the Delaware House and defeated its longest-continuously-serving Speaker Terry Spence (R).
Still, Republicans didn't come away completely empty-handed. The GOP gained control of both the Tennessee House and Senate and won the Oklahoma Senate, giving the party control of both statehouses for the first time in history, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "These are historic wins for the Republicans," said Tim Storey, a state elections expert at NCSL.
Votes were still being tallied in several of the 5,824 legislative races on the ballot in 44 states (79 percent of the total seats in legislatures), but Democrats appear to keep the upper hand in the nation's 99 legislative chambers. Going into Election Day, Democrats held a 27-20 lead in control of state senates, with two senates tied, and a 30-19 lead in the lower chambers.
While Obama's victory over McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was evident early election night, two gubernatorial races started out as close. Rossi, the Republican, lost to Gregoire four years ago by just 133 votes after three recounts and a lawsuit but this time Gregoire piled up a 55 percent to 46 percent win with 95 percent of the votes counted. And in a nail-biter, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) became North Carolina's first female governor with a narrow victory over Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R) in the contest to replace term-limited Democrat Gov. Mike Easley.
Benefiting from an unpopular president and a Wall Street crisis, Democrats also boosted their majority in the U.S. House by at least 20 seats and six in the U.S Senate, failing short of a veto-proof margin, according to the latest reports.
The bottom line, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics , is that "Democrats own government. The upside is that they can get their programs passed. The downside is they own every single thing that happens -- good, bad or indifferent."
Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, predicted a bigger influence from Democratic governors in politics and policy. "There's no question that governors will have a bigger role in an Obama administration," he said, noting that shortly after winning the nomination, Obama invited Democratic governors to meet with him in Chicago to discuss strategy and policies. "Governors felt they didn't have a seat at the table with President Bush. We will have several seats at the table now," Daschle said.
The presidential race, with the prospect of the first black president or first female vice president, overshadowed this year's races for state-level office, but controversial ballot measures also forced voters to make choices that could change history. Voters in Colorado and South Dakota rejected strict abortion measures that likely would have set up a challenge to Roe v. Wade , the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established constitutional protections for women seeking an abortion.
In California, voters appeared headed towards stopping same-sex weddings, thousands of which already have taken place since a state high court ruling in May. Florida and Arizona both banned gay marriage. Washington became the second state after Oregon to allow assisted suicide, while Massachusetts voters rejected a proposal to abolish the state income tax. Voters in 36 states weighed in on 153 statewide ballot measures. (See related Stateline.org story .)
Democrats look ahead
Only four years after he left the Illinois Senate for the U.S. Senate, Obama will be the first former state legislator to occupy the White House since President Jimmy Carter, elected to one term in 1976.
Historically, the party that controls the state governorships delivers the state for the presidency, and this year was no exception. In the key battleground state of Missouri, Democrat Jay Nixon, the current attorney general, was the victor over Republican Kenny Hulshof, a six-term congressman. Nixon will fill the seat of retiring Gov. Matt Blunt (R).
In the remaining open seat for governor, Delaware Treasurer Jack Markell (D) easily won over his challengers, Superior Court Judge Bill Lee (R) and independent Mike Protack, to fill the seat of Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who is term-limited. Democrats had been favored to retain the seat even before Delaware's Biden was named as Obama's pick for vice president.
In the other closely watched governor's race, incumbent Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), a former budget director for President Bush, defeated Democrat Jill Long Thompson, a former U.S. House member. During his first term, Daniels took heat for leasing the Indiana toll road and switching the state to daylight-saving time.
The remaining incumbent governors all won re-election: Democrats Brian Schweitzer of Montana, John Lynch of New Hampshire and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Republicans John Hoeven of North Dakota, Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and Jim Douglas of Vermont.
Democrats will have the upper hand going into 2010, when 36 governors face re-election and both parties will seek to solidify their hold on legislatures with an eye toward all-important redistricting after the census. More than 600 state senators elected Nov. 4 will be involved in redrawing the lines of congressional districts in ways that could affect the partisan balance in Congress, said Tim Storey, an elections expert with NCSL. In most states, a congressional map needs approval from both legislative chambers and the governor, although six states empower a bipartisan commission to do the job.
Once the new Congress in sworn in, the nation's capitol will welcome a few former governors and state political leaders. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner easily bested his predecessor, Republican Jim Gilmore, to replacing Virginia's retiring U.S. Sen. John Warner (R) (no relation). Former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) unseated incumbent U.S. Sen. John Sununu (R). In North Carolina, Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan defeated U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R).
See Related Stories:
In the states, an even fight (commentary, 10/30/2008)
Parties battle for control of statehouses (9/12/2008)
Govs' parties to fund 2010 races (9/3/2008)
Missouri primary is a free-for-all (8/4/2008)
Don't forget us,' PA candidates tell voters (4/21/2008)
Presidential calendar boosts '08 govs' races (3/12/2008)
States share national spotlight in 2008 (1/10/2008)
2007 election: Lessons learned (11/08/2007)
Democrats take majority of governorships (11/8/2006)