Monday, June 26, 2006

Republicans face a daunting challenge in this year’s gubernatorial races because they have many more seats to defend, but Democrats have run into trouble lately in several state capitals that could minimize the Republicans’ expected losses in November.

Republicans control the majority of governorships — 28 to 22 — including the four biggest electoral states of California, New York, Texas and Florida. But the large number of Republican-held governorships at stake in the 2006 elections — 22 of the 36 seats up for grabs — has put the party at a decided disadvantage this year.

Making things even more problematic for Republicans is the fact that they have eight open seats to defend, mostly because of term limits, while the Democrats have only one. It is tougher to defeat an incumbent and easier to win an open race, thus adding to the Republicans’ vulnerabilities.

Democrats need a net gain of four governorships to capture a majority of the state houses, and there are several states where they are favored to pick up Republican seats, with New York being the most likely. Republican Gov. George E. Pataki is retiring, and without a heavyweight Republican candidate in the running, Democratic state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is considered a shoo-in.

In another time, Democrats would ordinarily be favored to reclaim governorships, now held by Republicans, in heavily Democratic states such as Massachusetts, Maryland and Arkansas. But polls in those states suggest those races could go either way.

Republicans are in trouble too, in some of their traditional states. However, in Ohio — where scandals have made retiring Republican Gov. Bob Taft the least popular governor in the country — Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is running slightly behind Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland, 50 percent to 44 percent, and recent polls show that Mr. Blackwell could win a large share of the black vote, the core of the Democrats’ political base.

In Alaska, Republican Gov. Frank H. Murkowski’s popularity has dipped, and he faces a divided party and a bitter primary challenge in which some say he is the underdog. If he survives, he could face former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, who lost a 2004 Senate challenge against the governor’s daughter, Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

But Republican campaign officials, who have been privately pessimistic about their chances this fall, say the political tide has turned in their favor.

“Clearly, the last couple of weeks has been great from the macro-environment standpoint with respect to the good news in the war on terror and clear shift to an offensive political message from the White House,” said Phil Musser, the Republican Governors Association’s executive director.

Nowhere is the climate more favorable to Republicans than in Michigan, where Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, elected in 2002 with 51 percent of the vote, has been struggling to overcome the political fallout from an economy devastated by the auto industry’s massive layoffs.

An independent June 13 EPIC-MRA poll showed her Republican opponent, businessman Dick DeVos, leading the governor by 46 percent to 44 percent. Election analyst Jennifer E. Duffy, in the Cook Report’s election preview for the National Journal, rates the contest “one of the most competitive races of the cycle.”

In neighboring Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. James E. Doyle, who narrowly won a three-way race in 2002 with a 45 percent plurality, has faced ethics questions as a result of big campaign contributors reaping state contracts, as well as voter anger about higher property taxes.

A June 15 Survey USA poll found that 49 percent of voters disapproved of the job he was doing, while 45 approved. A June 8 Strategic Vision poll showed Mr. Doyle in a virtual dead heat with his Republican rival, Rep. Mark Green.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, Democrats concede that Iowa is one of their toughest challenges. Retiring two-term Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack “had difficult elections both times. … It was always going to be a tough one for us,” said Penny Lee, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. Election analysts see the state as one of the Republican Party’s best opportunities for a pickup.

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