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.
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."
Widespread angst with how a Democratic president and Congress have handled the wounded economy may drive voters to Republicans in congressional and gubernatorial elections. A dramatic example is in the Rust Belt states-where Democratic governors and persistent unemployment have a stronghold. The once reliably Democratic states may turn to the GOP.
Strickland's opponent-Republican John Kasich-has equated his fight against Strickland to a fight against President Obama. "Stop Ted Strickland, Stop Barack Obama," says his campaign website. Wisconsin Republican front-runner Scott Walker features Obama on his website, criticizing the stimulus plan for creating "unnecessary boondoggles." In a close race in Texas, Republican Gov. Rick Perry says Democratic opponent Bill White will follow an Obama slogan when it comes to raising taxes in the Lone Star State: "Yes We Can."
The Democratic counterpunch: Equate Republicans with Wall Street. Strickland has pounded Kasich for once working for Lehman Brothers. In California, Democrat Jerry Brown underscores that his Republican opponent, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, once worked for Goldman Sachs.
Another national thread runs through this year's gubernatorial contests: presidential elections in 2012. Sabato downplays the presidential significance of potential Republican wins in swing states like Ohio, saying there's little relationship between the party that controls the governorship and the party that wins the White House in each state. But party operatives say gubernatorial wins in swing states strengthen their hand in presidential contests. GOP consultant Curt Anderson told the Post: "the industrial Midwest is the measure of success or failure for the Republican Party."
In Ohio, Strickland is directly tying his contest to the 2012 presidential election. "We are coming after you, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty and all of the right-wing extremists," he shouted at a campaign stop in Akron. "We are coming after you in 2012, and we will reelect Barack Obama to be a second-term president of the United States of America."
That may be a risky strategy for Strickland and other Democrats looking for wins: With the president fighting his own growing disapproval ratings, a battle cry for a second term in office may pack the wrong kind of punch.
Democrats currently hold the majority of governorships, 26 , and Republicans control 23. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist-who left the Republican Party for his Senate run-is the only independent governor.
Thirty-seven states will hold elections for governor in November. Of those races, 24 are open seats-no incumbent is running. With so many open seats, a majority of governors next year are likely to be newly installed executives.
RealClearPolitics projects that Republicans will control at least 27 governor's mansions after the elections and that Democrats will control at least 14. Another nine races are toss-ups. Here are some to watch:
The Rust Belt
States in this manufacturing strip of the Midwest and Northeast may turn to the GOP out of economic frustration. In Michigan, Republican Rick Snyder has enjoyed a 22-point lead over Democrat Virg Bernero in a state hit hard by the auto industry's decline. Republican Tom Corbett is leading Dan Onorato in Pennsylvania, where current Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell has vociferously supported the president.
In President Obama's home state of Illinois, Republican Bill Brady has led Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn-a candidate plagued by the taint of impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In Ohio, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland has remained in a tight race against Republican candidate John Kasich.
The tight spots
As many as seven states are still toss-ups, including three of the biggest states in the country: In California, Democrat Jerry Brown is in a tight race with Republican Meg Whitman-a candidate battling both her opponent and the unpopularity of current Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In Florida, Republican Rick Scott stunned the GOP by defeating state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the primary. He's been in a dead heat with Democrat Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer.
Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry is in a tight race with Democrat Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, in a state that hasn't had a Democratic governor in nearly 15 years. Though Perry began closing the gap in late September, the race remains too close to call.
Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is finding a tighter race than he expected against Republican Charlie Baker. A handful of polls heading into October put Baker slightly ahead. A Republican win would add insult to injury for Democrats in Massachusetts still smarting from Republican Scott Brown's unexpected Senate win to replace former Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Republican Carl Paladino may have an uphill battle to defeat Democrat Andrew Cuomo in New York, but many pundits say Paladino may be closing the gap. The no-holds-barred Republican is a Tea Party favorite for his stance on smaller government, but Paladino's brash style and harsh language may hurt his prospects with moderates. The real estate mogul-who defeated former Republican Rep. Rick Lazio in the primary-called former Gov. George Pataki "a degenerative idiot" in an interview. And despite the remark, Pataki looked ready to endorse Paladino.