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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

States' fights

Campaign 2010 | While House and Senate races are getting a lot of attention, this year's gubernatorial races may do more to shape American politics over the next decade; right now, many of those races look good for the GOP

Issue: "2010 Election: The Governors," Oct. 23, 2010

Carl Paladino isn't afraid to insult voters who likely oppose him. The Republican candidate for New York governor told the New York Daily News that his least favorite part of the state is Manhattan-"home to smug, self-important, pampered liberal elitists." It's no surprise that Paladino probably won't win the borough of Manhattan. The real surprise: He could win the state of New York.

Paladino isn't the only potential upset for Democrats. With 37 states holding elections for governor this fall, Republicans look poised to recapture the majority of governorships. RealClearPolitics-with its average of handfuls of polls-projects the GOP will control at least 27 governor's mansions after the November elections. The New York Times predicts Republicans will control 30.

If they do regain the majority, the GOP governors would capture something else: the opportunity to shape national politics for the next decade. While Senate and House races may be the prizefights in the November elections, the state-by-state battles for governor remain a crucial part of the main event.

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For the GOP, some gubernatorial wins may come in unlikely places: Republicans are running strong in the so-called Rust Belt-manufacturing states like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania that all have Democratic governors. If Paladino wins his formidable battle for New York, he would defeat Democrat Andrew Cuomo-the state's attorney general and one of the most recognizable names in the state.

In some places, game-changing candidates are prevailing: Nikki Haley, the Republican candidate for South Carolina governor, is an Indian-American and a woman with a double-digit lead in a state that has never had a governor who wasn't a white man. Haley, 38, toppled four Republican rivals-all white men-to win the GOP nomination.

Over a dinner of pulled pork and boiled peanuts at a campaign stop in Lexington, S.C., the former state assemblywoman and daughter of Indian immigrants told supporters: "South Carolina showed that it's going in a different direction."

If the rest of the country goes in a different direction, it would mean more than bragging rights for Republican governors: In a census year like 2010, it would also mean the opportunity to wield substantial influence over the re-districting process for congressional seats that begins next year.

"If you can only win one year in the governorship races, you want to make it a census year," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "Because once you control re-districting, you influence politics for 10 full years."

The once-in-a-decade process of re-dividing the country into 435 congressional districts begins after government officials release census results in 2011. The bureau assigns the number of seats each state will claim in the House of Representatives for the next 10 years, based on population. Though laws vary by state, local legislatures or commissions usually oversee the complex process for re-drawing boundary lines for districts, and plans are often subject to a governor's approval. The party in power usually holds an advantage, and the new divisions impact the makeup of Congress until the next census.

That's not lost on either party. Nathan Daschle-executive director of the Democratic Governors Association-told liberal convention-goers at the Netroots Nation conference that the contests are the most important gubernatorial races in a generation. The Republican Governors Association showed its zeal with a massive fundraising effort: The group bagged its largest-ever fundraising quarter, pulling in $18.9 million between April and June.

But re-districting isn't the only advantage for the gubernatorial majority. Michael Barone-co-author of The Almanac of American Politics-says governors have another important opportunity: to show that they can govern.

Barone notes that states-for good or ill-often take the lead in public policy before it hits the national stage. For example, Franklin Roosevelt forged New Deal--style policies as governor of New York before ever landing in the White House and dramatically broadening the scope of the federal government. Republican governors like Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and Democrats like Evan Bayh in Indiana started welfare reform in their home states before a Republican Congress passed similar legislation in 1996. Four of the past six presidents served as governors first before taking the Oval Office.

"Do you have public policies that work? Can you do experiments in public policy that are of national significance in application?" asks Barone. "I think the more governorships you have, the better chance your party has to show that kind of thing."

For voters in the 37 states choosing governors in November, a more visceral force may drive their decisions. Ohio Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland-who won his office in a landslide in 2006-told The Washington Post that his Republican opponent wasn't his biggest problem in a race he might lose: "I have been running against the economy."

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