Union Tribune

November 4, 2002 

Governors in 36 states' face testy voters
Slumping economy, deficits may bring historic turnover


ANNAPOLIS, Md. Serving eggs at her restaurant just two
blocks from Maryland's Capitol building, Beth Levitt was talking
about her own state. But she could have been talking about
almost any one of the 36 states voting for governor this year.

"I just want some change," Levitt said as she stood behind the
counter at Chick & Ruth's Delly on Main Street beneath a large
sign touting sandwiches named for the dozens of politicians who
have frequented the restaurant over the years.

With a slumping economy and rising state deficits, it is a
sentiment that is echoed in gubernatorial races from Maine to
Alaska and from Florida to Hawaii. Almost unnoticed with the
heavy focus on the congressional campaign, it is endangering
incumbents, threatening entrenched party strongholds and
presaging a possibly historic generational transformation of the
nation's leadership at the state level.

In Maryland, "change" means the unthinkable: a Republican
might be elected governor. That would mean beating a Kennedy,
making victory even sweeter for the GOP.

Here, Levitt has named a sandwich for Lt. Gov. Kathleen
Kennedy Townsend, eldest daught er of the late Robert F.
Kennedy. It is the Number 7, a kosher hot dog with raw onion
and relish. But even though she is a lifelong Democrat, Levitt,
45, these days is pushing the Number 2, a kosher hot dog with
melted cheese and bologna named after Townsend's Republican
challenger, Rep. Robert Ehrlich.

Across the nation, other voters are looking for fresh choices on
their state electoral menus.

As one measure of this political appetite as the campaigns head
into their final hours, the state that has gone the longest without
a Democratic governor Illinois is poised to elect a Democrat.
And in the two states that have gone the longest without
Republican governors Hawaii and Maryland Republicans are
leading in the polls.

Illinois has not elected a Democrat since 1972. Hawaii has not
elected a Republican since 1958, and Maryland has not elected a
Republican since Spiro Agnew in 1966.

"We could have almost one-half of the states with brand-new
leadership," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "That is a
remarkable transformation. I can't think of when that ever
happened before in America."

For Republicans, that is terrible news. Because so many
Republican governors were elected in 1994 and now face term
limits in so many big states, a hunger for change works against
the GOP.

But the anger is not directed against Republican candidates
simply because they are Republicans.

"This is not an anti-Republican election at the governors' level,"
McInturff said. "It is an anti-whoever-is-left-holding-the-bag in
the incumbent party."

But he ruefully acknowledged that this works mostly against
Republicans, primarily because the GOP is defending more turf.

Republicans are defending 23 governorships, the Democrats 11.
The other two seats are held by independents who are retiring.

"Let's be honest," McInturff said, "Republicans are in deep
trouble in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and other
major states. . . . Where a Republican is left holding the bag, we
have our candidates in trouble."

"Holding the bag" mostly means trying to explain to a skeptical
electorate what happened to the budget surpluses almost all
states enjoyed a few years ago. In 46 of the 50 states, those
surpluses have become deficits. But the television commercials
being aired against the incumbent party almost all suggest that
only in that state has a governor squandered a surplus.

"It's a tough time to be a governor," said independent pollster
John Zogby. "There is not enough revenue being generated to
meet the demand for services like education and health care that
voters depend upon."

The heady days of the 1990s when governors could offer tax
cuts and still increase spending on popular programs are gone.
And most governors are having a difficult time even estimating
the extent of their deficit.

"Nobody looks good when they are consistently saying, 'Oops!
We have to cut even more money,' " McInturff said.

After being swept out of most statehouses in the 1994 GOP wave,
Democrats have fought back and now hold 21 governorships.
Heading into the final weekend, they are favored to gain at least
five on Tuesday to once again give them a majority of the states,
a critical ingredient to the party's hopes to regain the White
House in 2004.

The shift is particularly pronounced in the biggest states.
Democrats currently hold only one governorship in the eight
most populous states, Gray Davis in California.

All eight seats are up for grabs, with the Republicans favored to
hold onto only three New York, Texas and Ohio. Democrats
are expected to retain California and pick up Illinois,
Pennsylvania and Michigan.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, is ahead in the
polls but no one is certain if the lingering anger over the voting
controversies of 2000 will increase Democratic turnout enough
to shift that seat to Democratic challenger Bill McBride.

Other states possibly switching to the Democrats include
Massachusetts, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Arizona, Minnesota and
Kansas. Possible pickups for the Republicans include Georgia,
Maryland, Alabama, South Carolina, Oregon, Hawaii and Iowa.

Democrats have the edge in the two states now run by
Independents Maine and Minnesota.

In Vermont, a Democratic stronghold, the Democratic candidate
is favored to poll the most votes in a multicandidate race, but
most likely will fall below 50 percent. In that case, Vermont law
requires the legislature which is Republican to pick the next
governor, raising the possibility of the Republican candidate
vaulting above the Democrat, who got more votes.

Further complicating projections is uncertainty over turnout.
Democrats out-hustled Republicans in get-out-the-vote
operations in 1998 and 2000, but GOP operatives insist they will
match them dollar-for-dollar this time.

"The turnout is one of the things that Democrats are most
worried about as we come to the end," said Democratic pollster
Celinda Lake.

She said the party hopes to persuade more unmarried women,
young women and blacks to go to the polls. Those groups, she
said, could be the key to several tight races.