JACKSON, Miss. — Democrats, who just a year ago were talking about winning a majority of governorships for the first time in a decade, are much farther from that goal after Tuesday’s elections.
The victories of Republicans Ernie Fletcher in Kentucky and Haley Barbour in Mississippi cost Democrats two governorships, just a month after Arnold Schwarzenegger captured California’s top post for Republicans.
But Democrats say the Republican victories are only a trend of voters bucking the status quo and they hope it will continue through next year’s presidential election.
If Republicans hold onto the Statehouse in Louisiana, where Republican Bobby Jindal faces Democrat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco in a Nov. 15 runoff to succeed term-limited Mike Foster, the party will control 29 states next year.
“We are emerging, obviously, as the dominant party, not just in the South, but a party with the presidency, with the Senate, with the U.S. House, with a majority of governorships,” said Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. “I think it reflects well on our party and our ability to reach out to the electorate.”
Republicans netted 11 governorships in 1994 then gained two more in 1996 to hold 32. But Democrats then began to chip away, picking up slots every year since 1998 and reaching 24 after 2002.
Democrats on Tuesday regained control of the New Jersey Senate, ending what had been a tie between Republicans and Democrats, and now control the state’s executive and legislative branches.
The Democrats also retained several high-profile mayorships, including Philadelphia’s. And though they lost a seat in the Virginia Senate, they won several seats in the House of Delegates, the first time they have seen a net gain there in a quarter-century.
Gary Locke, governor of Washington state and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said Tuesday’s gubernatorial races show there is a nationwide anti-incumbent sentiment.
“States are in the midst of the worst financial crisis since World War II. Unemployment remains unacceptably high in almost every state,” Mr. Locke said. “National Republicans should take no joy in what was really a vote to change the status quo. This is an unsettled electorate looking for change, and that mood is likely to linger through next year’s presidential election.”
Mr. Locke also downplayed the significance of the two races, saying they needed to be put in context.
“Mississippi and Kentucky are two of the most Republican states in the country,” he said.
But Mr. Barbour, at his postelection news conference yesterday, said keeping Democrats from claiming momentum is a win.
“Churchill said there’s nothing so exhilarating as to be shot at without results,” Mr. Barbour said, adding he didn’t see other national implications to the race.
One issue his opponent, incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, had some success with was tying Mr. Barbour to free-trade agreements, which have cost manufacturing jobs across the South. Some Democrats say the trade issue could be potent against President Bush in 2004.
Mr. Barbour’s campaign said Mr. Musgrove’s trade attacks did seem to resonate with voters, particularly in the northeastern part of the state, but that Mr. Musgrove overplayed the issue.
“The trade issue — I think there’s something there if the Democrats can figure out how to package it,” said W. Martin Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.
While Mr. Fletcher’s 10-point victory in Kentucky was convincing, Mr. Barbour’s eight-point victory represented a solid defeat of an incumbent.
This means in the last year, three incumbent Democratic governors have lost re-election bids in the South. In 2002, voters in Georgia and Alabama ousted incumbent Democrats. Meanwhile, one Republican incumbent in Wisconsin lost in the same year.
Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University who specializes in Southern politics, said Mississippi’s election may be a pivotal moment in a state where voters’ support for Republicans at the national level never really translated to the local level.
“I think with Haley Barbour you’ve got a different type of Republican governor, somebody who wants to build a party at the local level,” he said.
Although both states lean Republican at the presidential level, Mississippi elected only one Republican governor in the 20th century, and Kentucky Republicans last won the Statehouse in 1967.
One area that’s bound to gain national attention is the get-out-the-vote operation. Mr. Barbour’s campaign had thousands of volunteers knock on 230,000 doors on Friday, Saturday and Monday before the election.
And Mr. Barbour said they used the president’s visits to the northern and southern tips of the state this weekend to energize those volunteers.
“There’s no doubt over the last 10 days we focused almost exclusively on energizing and activating our volunteer base,” Mr. Barbour said.
Observers said it worked like magic.
“Whatever he did in that 72 hours — if you can bottle it, you can sell it,” Mr. Wiseman said. “I had a guy tell me it looked like trick-or-treat” with all the volunteers going door to door.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie called Tuesday’s results historic.
While saying he didn’t want to “overstate [Mr. Bushs] impact,” Mr. Gillespie said “the president had a very positive effect on turnout.”
Democrats tied both Mr. Barbour and Mr. Fletcher to the president during the campaign, and Mr. Gillespie said that was a mistake.
“This is a combination of what we did right and they did wrong,” he said. Tuesday’s elections “makes a forceful case for the president and his policies.”
Mr. Black said one question now is whether the president will stump for Mr. Jindal in Louisiana.
In Mississippi, some voters complained Mr. Barbour brought in too many outside Republican notables, and Mr. Black said Mr. Jindal may want to avoid that charge.
James G. Lakely contributed to this report from Washington.