Cover Story


"Catch-23" Continued...

Issue: "GOP: No room for error," Oct. 19, 2002

For the GOP, that's where the good news ends among the nation's gubernatorial races. In a year of budget crises at the state level, Republicans are likely to be a victim of their own success. They currently hold 27 governorships, compared to 21 for the Democrats. (Maine and Minnesota have independent or third-party governors.) Republicans are the incumbent party in 23 of the 36 races on the line next month, while Democrats have just 11 states to defend.

In 12 of those Republican states, the incumbent governor is retiring, often leaving his party's nominee with a financial disaster to clean up. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, total budget deficits at the state level will reach $57 billion next fiscal year. Because most state constitutions require a balanced budget, governors and legislators can't simply keep throwing money down a hole the way Uncle Sam does. When deficits appear, they have to be fixed in one-or at most, two-years. Short-term fixes like borrowing against a state's tobacco settlement or dipping into a rainy-day fund can only mask the problem for so long. Sooner or later, governors face the painful choice of raising taxes or cutting spending. So far, 16 states have taken the former route, while 26 have chosen the latter.

Neither choice, of course, is popular with voters. Even middle-of-the-road types who support the president's war on terrorism and want to see a get-tough majority on Capitol Hill may not be inclined to support GOP governors who've run up budget deficits closer to home. Because Republicans have more seats to defend this year, they have more to lose than Democrats, who haven't held a majority of governorships since 1994.

When it comes to governors' races, 2002 is starting to look a lot like 1994. Back then, there were 29 Democratic governors, 20 Republicans, and one independent. Bill Clinton was midway through his first term, the economy was shaky (inflation was the worry back then), and Congress was bitterly divided. By the end of election night that year, the GOP had pulled off an electoral coup, capturing 30 state capitals and grabbing the majority of governorships for the first time in nearly a quarter century.

Today's numbers are practically a mirror image of 1994: 27 Republicans, 21 Democrats, and two independents. This time it's George W. Bush who's halfway through his first term, but the economy is once again shaky, and the Congress is divided as closely as ever. No one is predicting the Democrats will pick up 10 seats like the Republicans did in 1994. President Bush, after all, is infinitely more popular than his predecessor was at mid-term. Still, a net Democratic gain is all but in the bag, and they'll likely re-take the title of majority party at the National Governors Association.

Although governors' races draw less attention, they look every bit as volatile this year as the bare-knuckled brawl for control of Congress. With less than a month to go before Election Day, 15 gubernatorial races are still within the margin of polling error, making them too close to call. Even more amazing, in 24 out of 36 races, the leader still polls less than 50 percent, meaning a late surge by the challenger could result in an upset.

A Democratic takeover in a majority of states would certainly upset TeamBush's plans for an easy reelection in 2004. Because they run statewide every four years, governors typically maintain a tighter political machine than officials at other levels. An incumbent governor's grassroots organization can turn out huge numbers of party-line voters, potentially tilting the scales in swing states with a rich cache of electoral votes. Among the races keeping the White House on edge:

Florida For TeamBush, no other race is as personal as this one. Taking down the president's brother Jeb Bush would be huge for the Democrats. He's had a target on his back ever since the voting-machine debacle of 2000, and a $1.4 billion budget deficit threatens social services important to the state's large retiree population. Democrats also have an edge in voter registration, so Republicans never feel completely safe in Tallahassee.

Besides his natural skills as a campaigner, Gov. Bush's biggest advantage may be lingering divisions within the Democratic Party. Janet Reno lost her primary bid to attorney Bill McBride by fewer than 6,000 votes, and both candidates spent heavily in the intra-party battle. The most recent Zogby poll shows Mr. McBride trailing Mr. Bush by 10 points, but the Republicans are still running scared. Mr. McBride, after all, has already shown he can come from behind: Just weeks before the primary, he trailed Ms. Reno by 13 points.


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