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Democrats Get A Bench

Dotty Lynch is's Political Points columnist. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points.

With all the hoopla about the Democrats taking control of the Congress, the 36 elections for governor received short shrift in the national media. But the Democrats made some significant gains in the statehouses as well, adding six to 22 they already held. All 13 Democratic governors running for re-election won, and Democrats now hold 28 of the 50 statehouses.

This week, Iowa's outgoing Gov. Tom Vilsack will be the first candidate to formally declare his candidacy for president in 2008. Vilsack just finished two terms as governor and saw himself succeeded by another Democrat, Chet Culver. In the 2004 campaign cycle, Vilsack ran the Democratic Governors Association, where he set fundraising records; in 2006, he ran a PAC that also focused on electing Democratic governors. TV comedian Jon Stewart likes to snicker about Vilsack — but governors who have a lot of friends in statehouses around the country have done pretty well in presidential bids recently. Do the names of Reagan, Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush ring a bell?

Governors are not only important as a source of Presidential candidates and for formulating and executing public policy, but they provide a bench of public officials who will be contenders for federal offices in the future. In 2006 the Democrats elected a number of interesting prospects. Here are a few to watch:

  • Elliot Spitzer: The former New York Attorney General who took on Wall Street was elected with 69 percent of the vote — running slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton's re-election to the Senate. Expectations are high for Spitzer, who has a track record of bold action and is likely to a high-profile governor.
  • DeVal Patrick: Massachusetts' first African-American governor is only the second in U.S. history. (Douglas Wilder of Virginia was the first in 1989.) Patrick, a deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Clinton administration, beat Democratic Party favorite Tom Reilly in the primary and won a three-way race in November with 56% of the vote. Patrick succeeds Republican Mitt Romney in this very blue state and promises to do things differently from the old boy establishment. If Illinois Sen. Barack Obama decides to sit out '08 and get some seasoning in the Senate, look for Patrick to emerge on some vice presidential shortlists.
  • Martin O'Malley: The 43-year-old mayor of Baltimore has been described by the Washington Post as "A politician molded by Irish rebels, Jesuit ideals." He's been labeled a rising star since he was a volunteer in Gary Hart's campaign in 1984. O'Malley beat popular incumbent Republican Robert Ehrlich with 53 percent of the vote and has received national attention as co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Task Force on Homeland Security.
  • Kathleen Sebelius: Kansas' governor since 2003 has turned a very red state a bluish shade of purple. In 2006 she got 58 percent of the vote. As the daughter of former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan, Sebelius has a number of friends in national politics. If Hillary Clinton hesitates or falters, Sebelius' name is sure to crop up as a strong contender for the No. 2 slot.
  • Janet Napolitano: Arizona's governor is another VP shortlister if Hillary isn't on top. (The idea of putting two women on the 2008 ticket would upset establishment just too much.) In 2006 she received 63% in Arizona, the state that sent Barry Goldwater and John McCain to the Senate, and navigated the thorny immigration issue with finesse.
  • Jennifer Granholm. Strong communication skills allowed her to prevail in Michigan with 56% of the vote while running against a multimillionaire in a state with a lousy economy. She was born in Canada and can't be elected president, but she is a popular national spokesperson and has not been shy about seeking national platforms.
  • John Lynch: New Hampshire's Lynch topped all the governors by garnering 74% of the vote and carrying two new Democratic members of Congress and both houses of the state legislature — which is Democratic for the first time since 1874. He will be actively courted by Presidential contenders … and reporters who follow their scent.
  • Bill Richardson: Like Vilsack before him, Richardson made a lot of friends this cycle as head of the Democratic Governors Association. He also got 69% of the vote in his reelection contest in New Mexico. Richardson is one of many potential 2008 presidential hopefuls, and he brings his Hispanic heritage and foreign policy credentials to the table.

    Some Republicans withstood the tide. Arnold Schwarzenegger reinvented himself in California won with 56% and Jodi Rell in Connecticut got 63% of the vote while the Republican candidate for Senate was receiving a mere 9.7%.

    During the 1980s and early 1990s, governors were the silver lining for Republicans when they were out of power in the Congress. Democrats now have an opportunity to look to the statehouses for new talent and fresh ideas.

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