- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Republican strategists eager to rebuild the party and regain voter confidence see the comeback road running over a number of unpopular Democratic governorships on a playing field that favors making statehouse gains in traditionally Republican red states.

Boosting the Republicans’ potential political appeal in the current two-year election cycle is the Democrats’ tendency to propose higher taxes as the solution to their state budget deficits that has sent gubernatorial polls into a steep nose dive in these tight economic times — giving the Republican Party a potent issue in the contests to come.

That scenario appears to be a work in progress in Massachusetts, where the governor’s mansion would be considered a long-shot in the heavily Democratic state, but where Gov. Deval Patrick’s plummeting approval numbers has become a story line that some political analysts see playing out elsewhere in the country.

The nation’s only elected black governor, Mr. Patrick — who faces re-election in 2010 — saw his unfavorable rating climb to 43 percent last week after he proposed raising gasoline taxes to 29 cents a gallon or turnpike tolls to $7 to pay for the state’s rising transportation infrastructure costs, according to a WHDH-TV/Suffolk University poll of registered voters.

It also found that nearly half (47 percent) think it’s “time to elect someone else,” compared to 34 percent who say he deserves re-election, and that 71 percent now expect Massachusetts will become “Taxachusetts” once again.

“We strongly believe the way to revive the Republican Party is to pick up governorships, because the governors are the party leaders in the state and once voters learn they can trust Republicans to govern effectively, they will start voting for Republicans in federal elections as well,” said Mike Schrimpf, the Republican Governors Association’s communications director.

This year’s gloomy political and economic climate may be having an impact on the only two governor’s races taking place this November — in New Jersey, where Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s approval numbers are in the basement, and in Virginia, where Republican prospects have improved significantly.

Mr. Corzine’s unfavorables have risen to 50 percent among voters overall (54 percent among independents) and recent surveys show he is losing to former U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, a largely unknown Republican, by nine points.

In Virginia, Republicans have united behind former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who “is leading all three of his Democratic opponents in recent polling surveys,” Mr. Schrimpf said.

Meantime, election analysts think the Republican Party’s best opportunities to make gains will occur next year when more Democratic governorships are up for grabs (21) than those held by Republicans (17) as a result of term limits.

Republican Party campaign officials say those gains will come in open governorships in Republican red states that include Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Tennessee, and possibly New Mexico, where Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration is under investigation for a pay-to-play government contract scandal.

They also point to heavily Democratic Michigan, where the unemployment rate is 10.8 percent, the highest in the country, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s outgoing administration is unpopular.

Recent polls show Lt. Gov. John D. Cherry Jr., the presumed Democratic choice, losing to all three potential Republican candidates, including Rep. Peter Hoekstra, who officially entered the race Monday.

Republicans even think they may have a chance in New York, where Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson “is about as popular as athlete’s foot,” writes Hotline elections analyst Amy Walter.

In Massachusetts, Mr. Patrick dismissed last week’s poll, saying through a spokesman that it is “too early to focus on politics.” But gubernatorial election trackers say that while Mr. Patrick appears in trouble now, he has to be favored in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1 and hold all the state offices and all of its seats in Congress.

“I wouldn’t dismiss the numbers out of hand, but we’ve seen governors across the country whose numbers are not in good shape. But we’re still talking about Massachusetts. It’s going to have to be a set of extraordinary circumstances for Republicans to win,” said elections analyst Nathan Gonzales, who closely tracks governorship races for the Rothenberg Political Report.

“If we get to next year and Patrick’s numbers are low, he may have a primary challenger. He’s more vulnerable in a primary than in a general election,” he said.

In fact, Democratic state Treasurer Timothy Cahill has been talking openly about challenging the governor in the primary. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care executive Charles D. Baker, a Republican, is considering the race, but no major Republican figure has come forward as a likely opponent thus far.

Still, Republican campaign officials note that Republicans had a 16-year run of governorships in the state before Mr. Patrick won. “Massachusetts voters are beginning to recognize that Deval Patrick is not getting the job done. The state’s political history shows they are more than willing to go for a Republican governor,” Mr. Schrimpf said.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman, a Boston businessman who is close to Mr. Patrick and met with him Friday, said, “He is far less concerned about momentary blips in the polling numbers and more concerned about people’s lives. I predict he will be re-elected.”

Still, Mr. Grossman acknowledged, “There is a general level of unhappiness in the land and about people’s view of government. Even the president’s numbers have shown significant slippage,” he said.

A Survey USA poll of 600 adults for WBZ-TV earlier this month showed his disapproval rating ballooning to 69 percent, with only 28 percent approving of his job performance.

“His numbers are atrocious. He has the Democratic state Treasurer who is thinking of running against him. He’s in a lot of trouble when he’s not getting respect from his own party,” said state Republican Chairwoman Jennifer Massour.