Here Come The Govs

The Early Show's Dave Price was quite the cutup (OK, cut out) with Melina and Emma Cronin at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on July 16, 2006.
CBS/Jack Halsbond
In her latest commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch charts the field for the 2002 gubernatorial elections.

The nation's governors are meeting in Washington this week and they are not happy campers. Many of these governors came to office in 1994 and have run their states with nice surpluses. Now that has changed. The surpluses are gone, the federal government is being stingy and many state constitutions now require the governors to balance their budgets. Unlike the fed, they can't run deficits.

That leaves two solutions, both of which politicians hate: They can either raise taxes or cut services.

They come to Washington for the National Governors Association meeting united on a bipartisan proposal to get more money for their states for welfare reform. As the federal government shifted this and other programs to the states, governors, who like their autonomy, complain that they have not received adequate financing to run these programs. Medicaid funding is always on the agenda and this year so is more money for education. Republicans have made great headway with voters as the party that is best for education, but President Bush's budget has given Democrats a target to get the issue back.

In fact, Democrats are feeling pretty optimistic about their chances of recapturing a number of state houses this year and believe the issues and the political landscape favor them. There are 36 states holding gubernatorial elections and Republicans now hold 23 of them. Of the 18 open seats, Republicans have to defend 11.

The GOP had some big wins in the 1990s, but since 1999 the Democrats have been making a comeback. In 2001, despite the overwhelming popularity of President Bush and the overarching trauma of the September 11 attacks, Democrats won governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey. Their hope is that the issues that worked for them in the past – the economy, education and health care – will get them the majority of governors' slots in 2002. They also say these favorable factors have enabled them to recruit some good candidates, especially in the "red states" like Kansas, South Dakota, Tennessee and Arizona, where national Democrats have fared poorly.

The Republicans, of course, think differently. They believe that, unlike 2001, President Bush will get involved in these races and that his popularity and his programs will help statewide candidates. The education issue has worked for them in the past and they believe tax relief and fiscal responsibility are also winning issues.

Most of the big states have gubernatorial races this year and many involve some big names. Here's a rundown of some states to watch:

The Big Four:

  • California. Incumbent Democrat Gray Davis has trailed in the polls since the energy "crisis" last year. Davis was also accused of letting his national ambitions overpower his attenion to running the state. Since then he has dropped (at least for now) those national plans and focused on the state and on re-election. He claims that once the voters hear his story he'll score a double-digit win. He may get some help from the Republicans. They're in the midst of an incredibly fractious primary as former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan, who continues to best Davis in general election trial heats, tries to beat off a strong challenge from conservative businessman Bill Simon, who received the endorsement of the California State Committee. Riordan was recruited for the race by White House guru Karl Rove but is a bit of a loose cannon and many believe he's not a sure bet to beat Davis even if he gets through the March 5 GOP primary.
  • Florida. Democrats once salivated about going back to Florida and settling old scores from the 2000 election, but since September 11, the wind has gone out of their sails. In addition, former Attorney General Janet Reno, who inspires great passion, both positive and negative, has run a very spotty campaign and was unable to clear the primary field. Her recent public fainting spell has caused even more doubts among Democrats about her ability to win, and there is increasing interest in Tampa attorney Bill McBride. McBride has started to pile up some significant endorsements from labor, and the AFL-CIO Convention on March 23 may send an important signal about what traditional Democrats are thinking. There's some speculation that if Reno fails to get that endorsement that she could drop out of the race. That would be good news for Rep. Lois Frankel, the Florida House Minority leader, who would get significant support from women's groups if Reno bowed out.
  • New York. This is another place where September 11 helped an incumbent Republican. Gov. George Pataki was seen as quite vulnerable last year but his performance and visibility in the aftermath of the attacks solidified his support. There is also a nasty Democratic primary going on and on between State Comptroller Carl McCall and former HUD Secretary, and son of the former governor, Andrew Cuomo. New York has a September primary and the late date, plus the Democratic fighting, should help Republican Pataki keep his advantage in this very Democratic state.
  • Texas. Gov. Rick Perry, the lieutenant governor under George W. Bush, may face a Hispanic Democrat in November, presenting the GOP with a big challenge to hold onto the 49 percent of Hispanic voters Bush got in 1998. The front-runner in the March 12 primary is businessman Tony Sanchez. Drawing even more attention to the Democrats' Hispanic ties, Sanchez and primary opponent Dan Morales will hold the first-ever Spanish language gubernatorial debate on March 1. Perry is favored but this could be closer than expected.

    The M States

    Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maryland and Maine all have lively contests with colorful candidates. In Minnesota, independent Gov. Jesse Vetura has been fighting again, but this time with the local media. His popularity is down and a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune poll had his re-election rating at 29 percent. He hasn't officially announced whether he'll run again. In Massachusetts, acting Gov. Jane Swift, dubbed "Calamity Jane" by the local press, should face a tough challenge in this strongly Democratic state. But the Democrats haven't solidified behind any one candidate and now former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has jumped into the fray.

    In Michigan, the Democrats have a wealth of particularly strong candidates. Former Gov. Jim Blanchard, former House Minority Whip David Bonior and up-and-coming Attorney General Jennifer Granholm are in a tight race for the nomination to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. John Engler. Most believe that the Democrats have a good shot at taking back Michigan. In Maryland, Lt Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is in good position to become the first of her generation of Kennedys elected to statewide office, although the popular young mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, is itching to get into the primary against her.

    Finally, in Maine, Democratic Rep. John Baldacci has a clear primary field and a good shot at defeating whichever opponent emerges from the contested GOP race. But there are a number of independent and Green Party candidates looking to repeat the win of outgoing Independent Gov. Angus King.

    There are also competitive races in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Charlie Cook, the respected election analyst, says it's "hard to see the Democrats not picking up some governors' mansions." The current lineup is 27 Republicans, 21 Democrats and two independents. But Cook thinks that even if the Democrats wind up with the majority, it won't be a huge one.

    This week, the governors and some gubernatorial challengers will be in Washington raising money, lobbying and trying out their messages for the fall. Usually these NGA meetings are very substantive, but this year there's likely to be plenty of politics mixed in.

    E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

    A veteran of the Washington scene, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch provides an inside look at the issues and personalities shaping the political dialogue in the nation's capital and around the country.