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October 25, 2006

Will the Democrats Take Back the Statehouses As Well?


With the Democrats poised to recapture one or both houses of Congress in midterm elections in two weeks, one area that has gotten less attention is a possible shift in the majority of governorships. Republicans have held the majority of statehouses since 1994, and currently control 28 of the 50.


In their quest to get some of those back, the Democrats are counting on three strong candidates in states that, despite being deep-blue, have not had Democratic governors in many years.


New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota are all currently governed by Republicans, and have been since the early 1990s. This has mostly been because of entrenched Republican incumbents, party infighting that has led to a paucity of effective Democratic candidates and Republican coattails in the strong GOP years of 1994 and 2002. But 2006 is looking like a Democratic year, and as red states have gotten redder, blue states have gotten bluer.


Of the three states, New York is the most likely to flip this year. George Pataki, a Republican known less for conservatism than for changing his politics, chameleon-like, in every situation, has been the governor since defeating Mario Cuomo in 1994, but is neglecting to run for a fourth term in favor of mounting a quixotic run for the presidency in 2008.


Pataki has essentially taken the New York GOP down with him, leading to the almost-certain re-election of Hillary Clinton to the Senate, and the rise to the governorship of Eliot Spitzer. The state attorney general for the last eight years, Spitzer had made a name for himself bringing high-profile prosecutions against various business titans such as AIG insurance, earning him the wrath of Wall Street. Spitzer led opponent John Faso by 46 points according to a Siena University poll taken Oct. 17.


Further up I-95 is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As the home of Harvard, Cambridge and Ted Kennedy, the Bay State may be a conservative punchline. But, with a large plurality of socially conservative, working-class Catholics, Massachusetts is not nearly as liberal as its reputation would suggest.


Since Michael Dukakis left office in 1990, Massachusetts has had four consecutive Republican governors. William Weld was elected to two terms, before resigning in 1997 in an ill-fated bid to become ambassador to Mexico. He was replaced by Paul Cellucci, who was re-elected in 1998 but resigned himself not long after, this time for the ambassadorship to Canada. He was succeeded by America’s first pregnant governor, Jane Swift, but Swift declined to seek re-election in 2002 and was replaced by the arch-conservative Mitt Romney.


Romney also is planning to run for president in 2008, so he dropped his re-election bid. His Lieutenant Governor, Kerry Healey, is running to succeed him. She is facing a significant challenge from Deval Patrick, a former Clinton Justice Department official who defeated two strong candidates in a September primary. Patrick, who would be the first African-American governor of the state, has had to face numerous attacks on his associations with past clients, and was even criticized when it was revealed that his brother-in-law was an unregistered sex offender. But despite all that, Patrick led Healey by 13 points in a Suffolk University poll taken Oct. 11.


A much closer race is taking place in Minnesota, a state that has not had a Democratic governor since Rudy Perpich was defeated in 1990 by Arne Carlson. Carlson served two terms before he was succeeded in 1998 by former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, who was elected as an independent. In 2002, State Rep. Tim Pawlenty took the governorship, defeating veteran Democratic legislator Roger Moe and former Congressman Tim Penny, who ran as an independent.


Pawlenty is running for re-election against state Attorney General Mike Hatch, who had previously run in primaries for governor on two occasions. The two have run neck-and-neck most of the way, but an Oct. 11 Star Tribune Minnesota Poll had Hatch leading by 9 points (Peter Hutchinson, a former Minneapolis schools superintendent, is running as an independent.)


Minnesota’s metropolitan areas are known for their staunch liberalism, while much of its rural areas are staunchly conservative. The battleground in the last few elections has been the rising “exurbs” around Minneapolis and St. Paul, which broke for Pawlenty and Sen. Norm Coleman in 2002. If Hatch can draw well there, he can probably end the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s gubernatorial drought.


New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota are all blue states in which I’ve lived. Other blue states, such as Maryland, seem likely to follow that pattern as well. An underrated part of the Democratic resurgence in 2006 is that they have finally begun picking strong candidates. In all of the states mentioned, that may make the difference this year.

© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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