- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

The decade-long Republican hold on a majority of the nation’s governorships is in jeopardy in states from New York to Alabama, though some of the Democrats’ stars in the Midwest also are running into political trouble.

Republicans have held a majority of the governorships since 1995 and outnumber Democrats 28-to-22. But election analysts say Democrats could cut deeply into that lead in 2006 because Republicans have to defend many more governorships at stake in the election cycle. Several of those Republican seats are in heavily Democratic states such as New York, Maryland and Massachusetts.

“Given the number of governorships at risk in 2005-06 (22 Republican and 16 Democratic), Democrats should have a good gubernatorial cycle,” veteran elections tracker Stuart Rothenberg said last week in his Rothenberg Political Report. “Democrats ought not be satisfied with anything less than a net gain of at least a couple — and probably four or five — governors.”

Republican strategists don’t see it that way. They cite stronger candidates and a drop in the political fortunes of the most prominent Democratic governors, including Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan, where the unemployment rate has risen to 7 percent because of a deteriorating economy, and Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, who has been hurt by ethical questions.

“I don’t disagree with Rothenberg, but the fact is that we’ve got great candidates and really good incumbents and, as in past years, I think we’re going to wind up doing better than people expect,” said Michael Pieper, executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Mr. Rothenberg lists five Republican-held governorships that he sees as vulnerable.

• In New York, three-term Gov. George E. Pataki, who isn’t likely to seek a fourth term, has seen his job-approval ratings plummet into the mid-30s. Polls show Democratic state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer easily beating all comers.

• In Alabama, Gov. Bob Riley’s prospects have remained uncertain since he sought a $1.2 billion tax increase that angry voters rejected by a 2-1 margin. Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in a race that remains volatile at best.

• In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. faces a tough re-election fight in the heavily Democratic state against one of two top-tier Democratic hopefuls, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley or Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

• In Massachusetts, Gov. Mitt Romney, elected in 2002 with just 50 percent of the vote, faces a daunting task if he decides to run again. Recent polls show state Attorney General Thomas Reilly beating him by nearly double-digit margins.

• In Ohio, two-term Gov. Bob Taft is term-limited, but his trouble-plagued governorship, bearing one of the lowest job-approval scores in the country (34 percent), could help Democratic efforts to win back the seat. Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell is the Republican front-runner. A bevy of Democrats are vying for the nomination, including Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman and U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland.

Republicans say Democrats are on the defensive in a number of states or face divisive party primaries.

• In Iowa, where popular Gov. Tom Vilsack is not seeking re-election, at least a half-dozen Democrats are exploring candidacies, including state Attorney General Tom Miller. U.S. Rep. Jim Nussle is the clear front-runner on the Republican side.

• In Wisconsin, Gov. James E. Doyle’s job ratings have sunk to 38 percent. One private Democratic poll has him losing to a generic Republican.

However, Democrats remain hopeful about their chances in 2006.

“In the 2004 cycle, we were able to win governorships in places such as Montana and West Virginia, which overwhelmingly voted for George Bush,” said Penny Lee, executive director of the Democratic Governors’ Association. “We hope to make those same inroads in other states that have Republican governors.”

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