- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

Democrats are poised to pick up Republican-held governorships in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, sweeping three of the biggest Midwestern electoral giants, which will be critical to the outcome of the 2004 presidential election.
Making the gubernatorial races look even bleaker for the Republicans, they will probably lose Pennsylvania, too, a major electoral state that could be critical to President Bush's re-election chances.
The biggest reason for this seismic political shift: Republican heavyweights, who for years dominated state house politics in these areas, are not running. This gives Democrats their best chance in more than a decade to retake these open seats.
Missing from the GOP's power lineup: Tough Tommy Thompson, who held Wisconsin's governorship for 14 years before stepping down to be Mr. Bush's secretary of Health and Human Services; Michigan Gov. John Engler, a voracious tax-cutter, whose two-term limit is coming to an end; and Pennsylvania's popular Tom Ridge, who is now Mr. Bush's Homeland Security adviser.
Barring some political upheaval, they will be replaced by a phalanx of Democrats who are going to change the political makeup of the electoral map.
In Michigan, the Democrats' telegenic state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm is leading Republican Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus by 12 points. She would not only be the state's first woman governor, but she would likely be catapulted into the party's future presidential sweepstakes.
In Wisconsin, Mr. Thompson's Republican successor, Gov. Scott McCallum, was slammed by the state's fiscal crisis and plunging polls, from which he has not recovered. He trails state Attorney General Jim Doyle by 9 points.
Mr. Ridge's departure left Pennsylvania's governorship in the very capable hands of Republican Mark Schweiker, who was favored to win election. But he bowed out, boosting Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell's chances of taking an open seat. Mr. Rendell has a double-digit lead over Republican Attorney General Mike Fischer.
As if matters were not bad enough for the GOP, it looks like the Democrats will take over the Midwest's richest prize of all, the Illinois governorship. Republicans have held the statehouse since 1972, but Gov. George Ryan chose not to seek a second term after being tarred by a licensing-bribery scandal that has bitterly divided the GOP.
Making matters worse for Republicans, some voters confuse the GOP's nominee, Attorney General Jim Ryan, with the governor. Democratic Rep. Rod Blagojevich is leading Mr. Ryan, 51 percent to 35 percent.
At present, Republicans dominate the nation's governorships, as they have since the 1990s. They hold 27 seats in all including all the major electoral states except for California to the Democrats' 21. Two states, Minnesota and Maine, are run by independents.
This time, though, the GOP's long run of successes has turned into a mathematical albatross. Thirty-six seats are up for grabs, but 23 of them are held by Republicans, giving Democrats many more opportunities for upsets. Worse, 11 of the GOP's 23 are open races where no incumbent is on the ballot.
The result: Democrats are also poised to take over in New Mexico and in Kansas, of all places. In heavily Republican Arizona and Tennessee the races are dead even.
Still, Republicans are going to hold on to several major electoral states, including New York, Texas and Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush continues to hold on to a slim but tightening lead over challenger Bill McBride.
Republican Bill Simon's once-promising campaign to beat California Gov. Gray Davis has collapsed under a pile of campaign blunders. But the GOP is expected to take over Democratic-held governorships in Alaska, New Hampshire, Hawaii and possibly Alabama.
And the GOP's prospects are improving in Maryland, where they have not won the governorship since Spiro Agnew in 1966.
Earlier this year, no one gave Republican Rep. Bob Ehrlich much of a chance to beat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. But she has been hurt badly by her mishandling of the state's anti-crime programs and by complaints in her black voter base that she has taken them for granted.
It did not help matters when she chose an unknown, white running mate, while Mr. Ehrlich chose the GOP's articulate black state party chairman to be on his ticket and has been campaigning in black neighborhoods.
The race is a dead heat, an embarrassing situation for a Kennedy in a Democratic stronghold where Republicans are nearly invisible.
Despite a huge voter registration advantage, the Democrats have been unable to win the Massachusetts governorship since Michael Dukakis in the 1980s. The contest between liberal state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien and Republican Mitt Romney is a tossup right now.
The bottom line: The Democrats will score some major gubernatorial victories on Nov. 5. The GOP is going to pick up some new states, too, possibly resulting in a very nearly even split among the 50 states with a huge leftward shift in the politically pivotal Midwest.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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