Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Fresh from their historic victory in the California recall election, Republicans appear to be on a roll with gubernatorial candidates running ahead in the polls in three Southern states that have elections next month.

Wins in all three states would allow Republicans to say with some credibility that they are not only holding their own in the South, but actually gaining votes and power in a region that was once solidly Democratic — and still is, at the local and state level.

“It would continue a trend we saw last year in the South, when we unseated Democratic incumbents in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama,” said Ed Tobin, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. “Taken together with the win earlier this month in California, it could be another big year for Republican governors.”

If the latest public polling holds up, Republicans now look like they will pick up governorships in Mississippi and Kentucky, and keep the Statehouse in Louisiana.

All three states have voted Republican in presidential elections, but Democrats rule at the local and state levels and, in the case of Louisiana, have two Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Kentucky hasn’t elected a Republican governor in 32 years.

Victories in Kentucky and Mississippi would boost the number of Republican governors to 29, just three short of their 1996 high of 32.

In Mississippi, former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour has a 5 percentage point edge over Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. But state Democratic Chairman Rickey Cole isn’t predicting a Republican win or ruling it out.

“We are completing the transition to a two-party state in Mississippi, and it’s a good thing for democracy,” said Mr. Cole, recalling that when he “was a kid, there were zero Republicans in the state Legislature. Since then Republicans, have gotten 30-plus out of 122 in House and about 23 out of 52 Senate seats. So we are headed toward a competitive situation.”

In Kentucky, Rep. Ernie Fletcher, a conservative Republican, has a 9 percentage point lead over Democratic Attorney General Ben Chandler in the Louisville Courier-Journal’s latest Bluegrass Poll.

Last year, Republicans beat expectations by preserving their majority of statehouses, 26-24, with upset victories in the traditionally Democratic states of Maryland and Hawaii.

And in the Nov. 15 Louisiana runoff, voters will pick for governor either conservative Republican Bobby Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants and a Catholic convert, or Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat.

Mr. Jindal has a 5 percentage point lead over Mrs. Blanco in a Republican Governors Association poll conducted last week. He received nearly twice as many votes as Mrs. Blanco in the primary earlier this month.

RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie acknowledges his party appears to have the edge in all three contests, but he remains as cautious in predicting the outcomes as he is in assessing the effect wins would have on President Bush’s run for a second term next year.

“We always would rather have a Republican governor going into a state for a presidential year, but it’s not the kind of thing that can’t be overcome,” Mr. Gillespie said. “Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected governor California doesn’t make California a lock, obviously, for us.”

Conversely, having “a Democratic governor doesn’t mean we’re not going to carry the state, and it varies state to state,” he said. “Some states the Republican governor has sets up a strong party apparatus that can help get out votes and deliver votes on Election Day in 2004, and that’s helpful. But in some places, they really aren’t that involved in the party, and I could give you specific examples, but that’s probably not in my interest or in those governors’ [interests.]”

Mr. Bush will make campaign stops in the three states before the November elections.

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