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Jewish World Review July 30, 2001 / 10 Menachem-Av 5761

Bill Schneider

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Will the GOP's mandate of 1994 finally runs out? -- IN Washington, a midterm election is all about which party controls Congress. For most voters, however, the main event in a midterm election is the vote for governor. After all, governors don't just cast votes. They run things. And governors tend to become Presidents -- like Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

With 38 states electing new governors in 2001 and 2002, what can we expect? The answer is, big gains for Democrats. Not because of any big swing to the left in the country. Just because of the normal workings of the electoral cycle.

Go back to the antediluvian period in American politics, before the Great Republican Flood of 1994. Here's where the 38 states electing governors in the current cycle stood in 1992: 14 had Republican governors, 22 were governed by Democrats and two by Independents.

Then came the flood. In the 1993-94 cycle, Republicans picked up twelve new governors, giving them 26 out of the 38. Democratic governors fell by half, to just 11. All but one of the nation's ten largest states had a GOP governor (Georgia was the exception).

What happened in the next midterm cycle four years later (1997-98)? Not much change. With the economy booming, 1998 was a good year for incumbents. All those GOP governors first elected in '94 were running for a second term. Almost all the party changes that did occur happened in open seats where no incumbent was running, and they pretty much balanced out. The standings after 1998: 25 Republican governors (down one), 11 Democrats (unchanged) and 2 Independents (up one).

Now comes the moment of truth. The '94 cycle may have run its course. In the elections for governor this year and next, Republicans are likely to have trouble holding on to their lead. The Democratic Party, which is desperate for new faces unconnected to the Clinton years, is going to find a lot of them in statehouses around the country after next November.

As many as 13 Republican governors may be running for re-election. But for many of them, incumbency may not be much of an advantage. Three incumbent Republican governors have never been elected. In Texas, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry took over when George W. Bush became President. In Massachusetts, Jane Swift succeeded Gov. Paul Celucci, who was named ambassador to Canada. And Scott McCallum took over in Wisconsin when Gov. Tommy Thompson joined the Bush Cabinet. Unelected incumbents simply don't have the same standing with voters as incumbents in whom voters already feel invested.

Two GOP governors, George Pataki of New York and John Rowland of Connecticut, may run for a third term. Third terms are always a little dicey.

At least one Republican governor running for a second term could be in trouble. That's Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, site of the recent unpleasantness. Revelations ®MDNM¯about his behind-the-scenes role in last year's presidential election -- letters to voters soliciting absentee ballots, telephone calls to his brother's campaign during the recount -- are likely to sustain resentment. It would be quite a coup for Democrats to reclaim the governorships of Texas and Florida next year. Talk about beating the Bushes.

No fewer than 12 states have GOP governors who are not running for re-election. Most of them are term-limited, like John Engler in Michigan and Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania. Those are big states with high-stakes races. The two states electing governors this year both have Republican governors who can't run, or aren't running, for re-election -- Virginia and New Jersey. The outlook is for tight races in both states this fall.

Democrats are far less exposed in the current cycle. Of seven Democratic governors who may run for re-election, only two look like they may be in trouble -- Jeane Shaheen of New Hampshire, who may run for a fourth term, and Gray Davis of California, who's experiencing a power shortage in more ways than one. Only four states have term-limited Democratic governors.

Two states now have Independent governors. Maine has an Independent governor who's term limited. That's a good chance for a Democratic pick-up. Minnesota has an Independent governor who's a bone-crusher. Jesse Ventura is eligible to run for a second term next year.

If he does, Minnesotans will be called on to decide whether their colorful governor is a source of pride or embarrassment for their state. But it's Republican governors who are really on the line. Every one of the nation's ten largest states will be electing new governors this year or next. Republicans will be defending eight of those states: first-term incumbents in Florida, Illinois and Ohio (highly troubled ones in the first two states), a second-term incumbent in New York, an unelected incumbent in Texas and open races in New Jersey this year and in Pennsylvania and Michigan next year.

In the governors' races as well as congressional elections, 2002 could be year when the GOP's mandate of 1994 finally runs out. Look for early warning signs in Virginia and New Jersey this November. Back in 1993, both states switched from Democratic to Republican governors. That was a early warning sign of what was about to happen in 1994. If Virginia and New Jersey switch back to Democratic governors this fall, it could be a leading indicator of serious trouble ahead for the GOP.

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© 2001, William Schneider