States Share National Spotlight in 2008
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
While much of the media are focused on this year's presidential election, races with equal or even greater power to impact folks' everyday lives will be decided at the state level, with 11 governors' contests headlining the year.
"One heck of a race, quite possibly the best in the nation," is what University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato calls the 2008 contest in Washington state. It pits Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire against Republican challenger Dino Rossi in a rematch of their 2004 political slugfest. Gregoire won that contest by just 133 votes after three recounts and a lawsuit.
The race in Missouri, a key presidential swing state, shapes up as a knockdown- dragout fight between Republican Gov. Matt Blunt and Jay Nixon, the state's Democratic attorney general. The two have sparred on several fronts, including Blunt's decision to auction off a sizable part of the state's student loan portfolio, a move Nixon's office went to court to block.
Republicans hope to chip away at Democrats' 28-to-22 advantage in gubernatorial control by picking up two open seats. Democrats Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware and Mike Easley of North Carolina cannot run again because of term limits. But both governors' mansions have been occupied by Democrats since the early 1990s.
Five Republican and four Democratic governors are seeking re-election, and the power of incumbency gives them the edge. As the 2008 campaign season began, some didn't even have challengers yet.
Here's how the races shaped up at the start of 2008:
• Delaware's lieutenant governor, John C. Carney Jr., is squaring off against Jack Markell, the state treasurer, for the Democratic nomination to succeed Minner. No Republican candidate had emerged yet.
• North Carolina, the other open seat, has seven candidates seeking to follow Easley. The top two Democratic contenders are Lt. Gov. Beverly Purdue and State Treasurer Richard H. Moore. On the Republican side are Bill Graham, who has campaigned against the gas tax, former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and state Sen. Fred Smith.
• Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) could have a re-election fight on his hands. Hoosier voters are still smarting over his moves to bring daylight-saving time to the state and to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign company. Daniels' Democratic challenger will come from a field that includes Jill Long Thompson, a former congresswoman, and Jim Schellinger, an architect.
• New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) was dubbed "Mr. 70 Percent" to reflect his vote count in winning a second two-year term in 2006, and his approval ratings have stayed in that range. Possible opponents include Kelly Ayotte, the state's first female attorney general, and state Sen. Joe Kenney, a Marine who served in the Iraq war.
• North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R), who in 2006 had the highest approval rating of any governor at 86 percent, is expected to have little problem securing a third term. State Sen. Tim Mathern, a Democrat from Fargo, is running.
• Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) has approval ratings almost as stratospheric, with one 2006 poll showing 77 percent of his constituents liked the job he was doing. The GOP has held the Utah governorship since 1985, and no Democrat had yet emerged to try to deny the former ambassador a second term.
• Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas is looking for his fourth two-year term as a Republican governor in a "blue" state, where Democrats control the Statehouse and traditionally win the electoral votes in presidential elections. A Democrat had yet to get into the governor's race.
• West Virginia's Joe Manchin III, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, appears in a strong position to win a second term with 74 percent job approval. Republican businessman Bob Adams has announced plans to challenge Manchin.
New paper trails from electronic voting machines, for example, were recently adopted in Iowa, Florida, Maryland and Virginia while Colorado, Ohio and California entered 2008 on the cusp of deciding whether to change their voting machines for the November elections.
More is at stake than simply who wins in 2008. Both parties are looking ahead to the 2010 census, seeking to gain political advantages in statehouses that will use the new population numbers to redraw boundaries for congressional and legislative districts.
What could be a record-breaking number of ballot measures also will lure voters to the ballot box in 2008, letting state residents have their say on controversial issues from immigration to affirmative action to the way states elect future presidents.
State party activists know the presidential campaign will overshadow their races, but they are ramping up efforts to draw attention to state-level elections. "So many laws that affect real people's lives are passed at the state level," said Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, formed to win state legislative seats and chambers for Democrats. "We work hard to explain to people that there is a story to be told at the state level."
Eye on redistricting
Democrats hope to build on the "blue" wave that swept them to power in Congress and washed over state offices in 2006, giving the party control of 28 governorships and both legislative chambers in 23 states - the most in 12 years. The surge carried over in 2007, when Democrats wrested control of legislative chambers in Virginia and Mississippi.
Most stunning in 2006 were Democratic victories in New Hampshire, where the party captured the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since after the Civil War, and in Iowa, where it swept the governor's mansion and Legislature for the first time in 40 years.
Spitzer's retraction of a controversial plan to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and his highly publicized quarrel with Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno may end up hurting Democrats, said Maurice "Mickey" Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "The feud is poisoning everything," he said.
Other targets for the Democrats are the lower chambers in Montana, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Republicans hope to win back New Hampshire and Iowa and also are eyeing the Oregon House, currently controlled by Democrats 31-29, and the Oklahoma Senate, which is evenly split 24-24.
"We saw a lot of close chambers in 2006 flip either way, and we think we'll see the same in 2008," said Carrie Cantrell, a spokeswoman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which aims to elect more Republicans to state office.
(There are no statehouse races this year in Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia. This year's contests in Minnesota and Michigan are for the state House only, not Senate.)
State senate races will carry more clout than usual this year because winners, with at least four-year terms, will be involved in redrawing legislative and congressional districts after the 2010 census. In 44 states, legislators are in charge of drawing new congressional boundaries and can leverage their power to help their political party on Capitol Hill. Other states delegate congressional redistricting to independent commissions.
"Once we are in the majority … and draw those lines, we can capture those five (congressional) seats we lost in Texas," said New York Senate Minority Leader Malcolm A. Smith (D), plotting payback for the seats Republicans picked up in Congress in 2004 under a Texas redistricting plan. That plan was engineered by former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and pushed through the Texas Legislature after the GOP gained control there in 2002.
Ballot measures to tackle immigration, elections
Both parties once again will use ballot measures to draw party faithful to the polls in 2008. Conservative groups are likely to turn to abortion or immigration, while progressives may focus on health care and pocketbook issues, said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington, D.C.
Liberal groups used minimum wage hikes as a way to energize their voters in 2006, in the same way conservatives used bans on gay marriage in 2004 and 2006. Jennifer Drage Bowser, an elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the jury is still out on whether ballot measures boost voter turnout. "It's questionable, but it doesn't stop people from trying," she said.
An initiative to change how California awards its key 55 electoral votes for president could end up on the 2008 ballot, despite supporters' problems raising money to gather signatures. Instead of winner take all, electoral votes would be divvied up to whichever candidate won in each congressional district. The change would favor Republicans in a state that has voted to put a Democrat in the White House in the last four elections. It would not apply in the 2008 presidential election if it passed.
California isn't the only state looking to dump the current electoral process. Maryland in 2007 became the first state to approve a "national popular vote" compact that would allocate electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote nationwide. The compact would go into effect if enough states jump on board. The New Jersey Legislature also approved the compact, and Gov. Jon Corzine (D) is expected to sign it into law this month. Such a change would have benefited Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.
Another electoral change could be presented to voters in California and Arkansas: proposals to soften term limits to let state lawmakers serve longer.
Maine voters in 2007 defeated a similar measure to extend legislators' terms. Other high-profile ballot measures also went down to defeat in the off-year election:
• New Jersey voters refused to spend $450 million on stem-cell research, spurning pleas by Gov. Corzine, who put $150,000 of his own money into the campaign.
• Utahns overwhelmingly overturned what would have been the nation's broadest statewide program of taxfunded vouchers to pay for private schools.
• Oregon voters rejected by a 3-to-2 margin a cigarette-tax hike to pay for children's health insurance that had been backed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D).
In other 2007 balloting:
• Oregon voters watered down their landmark land-use law that had required compensation for landowners whose property values were lowered by government regulation.
• Washington state adopted a proposal by political activist Tim Eyman that will make it harder to raise taxes by requiring two-thirds approval from the Legislature or direct voter approval.
• Texans agreed to invest more than $3 billion in cancer prevention - a priority for Gov. Rick Perry (R) that was widely promoted by cycling legend and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong - and OK'd $6 billion in bonds for highway and construction projects.
Strategy: Will Democrats squander gains?
Even many Democrats credit their party's triumph in 2006 to voter frustration with President Bush and the war in Iraq and to Republican scandals, rather than to an endorsement of the Democratic agenda.
"The prospects of building a new and enduring Democratic political and governing majority are the best they have been in more than three decades," Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius wrote in a letter to presidential candidates when she chaired the Democratic Governors Association. "But that majority cannot be built by default. It must be earned by what we offer the American people in the 2008 campaign."
But now that congressional Democrats' approval ratings hover as low as President Bush's, the tables could be turned.
Democrats have one crucial advantage going into the run for the White House. Presidents are elected state by state, not by a nationwide vote, with the winner needing at least 270 electoral votes. Historically, the party that controls a state's governorship can rally its troops to the polls for the presidential contest.
When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, for example, Democrats held most of the governors' seats (27). When George W. Bush took the White House in 2000, Republicans were in charge (31).
Besides a 28-22 numerical advantage in governorships, Democrats also control the governors' offices in the key states of Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Republicans are in state executive suites in the battleground states of Florida, Missouri, Minnesota and Nevada.
"The governor is credited with leading the political machine in the states," said Rhodes Cook, founder of The Rhodes Cook Letter, a monthly newsletter that tracks state and congressional races. "Having a governor in your corner is considered good to begin with; having a governor in your corner and on the ballot trumps even that."
Issues: Will Iraq dominate?
The Iraq war again will figure prominently in national races, less so for state candidates. But the war is expected to be a drag on GOP candidates up and down the ticket.
The economy could be the big wildcard. "If the economy slows, that will dictate a fair amount what happens at the state level," said National Governors Association Executive Director Raymond Scheppach. If job losses mount and the economy nosedives, governors in particular would have to defend their spending of recent robust surpluses and might have to make unpopular budget cuts.
If the economy is doing well, health care and education will dominate followed by energy and the environment, predicted Scheppach, who has led the NGA since 1983.
Efforts to quell illegal immigration are expected to be an issue in federal, state and local races. "As long as Congress continues not to act, immigration will be a major issue for states," said Cantrell of the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Property taxes and tax hikes "will be front and center" in state elections, predicted anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist. Democratic governors in Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who proposed major tax hikes in 2007 are not up for re-election. Still, anti-tax activists are expected to target legislators who supported their governors' proposed tax increases.
Lessons from 2007
Last year's meager number of statewide races may hold a few clues to the mood of voters heading into 2008 elections.
In governors' races in 2007, Democrats regained the Kentucky governorship, replacing scandal-tainted incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) with Democrat Steve Beshear, a former lieutenant governor. But in Louisiana, former U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal reclaimed the governor's office for Republicans, succeeding Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who bowed out of the race after criticism for her handling of Hurricane Katrina devastation in New Orleans.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi easily won a second term over Democrat John Eaves, an attorney and evangelical Christian. Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, had won praise for his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In legislative races, Democrats flipped control of the Senate chambers in Virginia and Mississippi. Republicans made gains to pull to almost even in the Louisiana House, and they gained two seats in the New Jersey Assembly, but Democrats still control both houses there.
"Voters are in a very change-oriented mood," concluded Terry Madonna, a professor and director of the Keystone Poll at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. He said 2007 results gave some hints that Democratic voters may be more motivated, a stance that could modestly increase the party's turnout in 2008.
Both parties are desperate to show they heard voters' complaints about partisan bickering and government gridlock and are ready to produce results.
Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, pointed to Jindal's win in Louisiana as a sign that "a positive, solutionsoriented campaign can bring voters back to the Republican Party."