- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2001

Republican dominance of the nation's governors is facing its toughest Democratic challenge in years, with the Republican Party weakened by the loss of its strongest incumbents and a sluggish economy that usually hurts the party in power.
The lopsided numbers tell the story of the 2002 gubernatorial election cycle: Republicans head into next year's contests defending 23 of the 36 governorships that will be up for grabs.
Further weakening the Republicans is the large number of open seats they must defend as a result of term limits and a handful of governors who left office to take positions in the Bush administration that have robbed them of their biggest stars. Of the 14 open seats at stake, Republicans will have to defend 10 of them, compared with only three for the Democrats, and one independent.
"If they keep anything close to that number, the Republicans should be thrilled. The Democrats should make a net gain of governors, and most of it should come in open seats and in sitting governors who succeeded to that office over the last year," said elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
Republican officials concede that they face huge obstacles next year. "We're looking at a daunting task, but not one that we can't surmount," said Kirsten Fedawa, chief spokeswoman for the Republican Governors Association.
"We've got our work cut out for us in the open seats. I'd never say we're going to lose seats, but if we can just hold our numbers and stay where we are now, I'd be happy as a clam at high tide," Republican Gov. John G. Rowland of Connecticut said in an interview.
Democratic officials predict that they will regain their lost majorities next year.
"There is little question that we'll pick up seats, and it's more likely than not that we will regain a majority of governors for the first time since 1994," said Dan Pfeiffer, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.
Republicans have dominated the governorships for most of the past decade, especially in the traditionally Democratic Northeast and in the Midwest. They now hold 29 state houses, including all of the major electoral states except California. The Democrats have 19, with two states, Minnesota and Maine, held by independents.
But this time the Democrats believe they have a wide array of openings to make a comeback, especially in heavily Democratic states in New England and the industrial Midwest. "Republicans are playing defense in traditionally Democratic states. Our chances look tremendous for us," Mr. Pfeiffer said.
Several political factors have converged on the Republicans to give the Democrats a leg up in a number of key states next year.
The biggest may be the decline in state revenues as a result of the downturn in the economy, which is forcing governors to make difficult and politically unpopular budget cuts as they head into an election year.
"The downturn in the economy means that Republican governors are having to make much harder decisions. We're having to prove ourselves to be fiscal managers and make tough priorities," said Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
The outcome of many of the governors' races "is really going to be dependent on how the economy is performing next year and how people perceive how their governor has handled things," Mr. Huckabee said.
Another major factor is the loss of "some of our best talent," Mr. Rowland said. Republican Govs. John Engler of Michigan, Jane Dee Hull of Arizona, Bill Graves of Kansas, Gary E. Johnson of New Mexico, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Lincoln C. Almond of Rhode Island, William J. Janklow of South Dakota, Don Sundquist of Tennessee and Jim Geringer of Wyoming are all stepping down as a result of term limits.
Other Republican seats have opened up because governors took jobs in the administration. Tommy G. Thompson, who would have been a shoo-in for another term as Wisconsin's governor, became President Bush's secretary of health and human services. Christie Whitman left the New Jersey governorship to run the Environmental Protection Agency. And Paul Cellucci stepped down from the Massachusetts governorship to become ambassador to Canada.
Those governorships are now held by lesser-known acting governors who do not have the same star power of their previous occupants. And they are all states where the Democrats remain strong.
Asked to name the Democrats' best chances next year, Mr. Pfeiffer listed Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

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