- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

Republicans head into the 2006 elections with the majority of governorships nationwide, but that advantage is in danger of being trimmed by Democrats in several key states, including New York, California, Ohio and Massachusetts.

For more than a decade, Republicans have dominated the statehouses, and even after losses in recent years in Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia and elsewhere, they enter the midterm elections with 28 governorships, including in the four most populous states, to the Democrats’ 22.

But that gubernatorial majority also carries increased political risks because they now have to defend many more offices than the Democrats.

“The math is not in our favor this cycle,” Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, has said. And that means a net GOP loss is likely, say campaign analysts.

“Republicans are defending 22 governorships, compared to 16 for Democrats, so the GOP will be hard-pressed to keep its overall majority,” elections tracker Stuart Rothenberg said.

Republicans have made major inroads into Democratic territory since the ‘90s and are likely to hold most of their governorships in big states such as Texas, Florida and Georgia, and even in some heavily Democratic states, among them Connecticut, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Hawaii.

Two incumbent Democrats are vulnerable in Michigan and Wisconsin — Midwest industrial states whose economies have been hit hard by manufacturing layoffs.

But GOP fortunes are at risk in some big states in which they have either been unable to recruit a strong candidate where the governorship is open, as in New York, or have run into political trouble, as in California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s job-approval ratings have fallen sharply.

“We are optimistic about what the 2006 cycle looks like. The seats that are open are in states that are trending Democratic or have traditionally voted Democratic in presidential elections,” said Penny Lee, the Democratic Governors’ Association’s executive director.

In California, Mr. Schwarzenegger, who was elected in a rare 2003 recall vote, saw his ratings plunge during and after the failure of his ballot initiatives to take on the state’s most powerful political interest groups.

While the former actor still has his formidable star power, his sinking polls and the increasing erosion of his party base make him vulnerable. State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who has amassed a $12 million war chest, and state Controller Steve Westly, a wealthy former EBay executive, are the Democratic front-runners.

Ohio, which Republicans have ruled for years, is also on the GOP vulnerable list. Republican Gov. Bob Taft, who pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges last year for not reporting gifts, has the lowest job-approval rating of any governor in the country and is term-limited.

Mr. Taft’s ethical troubles and the state’s high unemployment rate has badly tarnished the GOP’s political image. U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland is the Democrat Party’s front-runner. He will likely face Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

Other incumbents who face difficult re-election campaigns include Democrats Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan and James E. Doyle of Wisconsin, and Republican Bob Riley of Alabama.

Almost no elections analyst thinks the Republicans will keep the New York statehouse this year.

Republican Gov. George E. Pataki, who has been experiencing a long slump in the polls, isn’t seeking re-election, and Democratic state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who has built his political reputation on fighting corporate and stock-market fraud, leads all of his potential rivals by better than 2-to-1.

Massachusetts hasn’t had a Democratic governor since Michael S. Dukakis left office in January 1991, but with Mr. Romney leaving office at the end of this year for a likely presidential run, Democrats are favored to recapture the seat.

Lt. Gov. Kerry Healy is the likely Republican nominee, but she trails the Democratic front-runner, state Attorney General Thomas Reilly, by double-digit margins in the latest polls.

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