Can Dems seize the initiative?

Democrats hope for major gains in statehouses in upcoming elections, setting the stage they believe for a return to power in Washington by 2008.

Writes Dan Balz in The Washington Post:

Republicans face a potential upheaval in the states this November, with Democrats positioned to capture a majority of the governorships for the first time since 1990 and seize an early advantage in the 2008 presidential contest.

While the battle for control of Congress has drawn more attention, the states may be the most competitive arenas in this midterm election year. Historically, shifts in power in the 50 capitals have held long-term implications for both parties, and control of statehouses can give parties tangible organizational advantages during presidential elections.

Republicans hold a 28 to 22 advantage among the governors, but they begin the campaign year on the defensive. Thirty-six states will elect governors in November, and the GOP must protect 22 of them to the Democrats’ 14. Of the nine states where the incumbent governor is either term-limited or retiring, eight are held by Republicans.

The National Governors Association winter meeting has drawn most of the state executives to Washington this weekend. The governors will discuss health care, education, homeland security and the role of the National Guard, meet with President Bush on Monday at the White House and hear from former president Bill Clinton on Tuesday.

But the backdrop for the usually bipartisan gathering is the partisan competition back home in what could be the most consequential year for governors’ races in more than a decade. In a year when fewer than one in 10 House seats appear to be in play, thanks to the power of incumbency and gerrymandered congressional districts, about half of the 36 gubernatorial contests appear to be competitive — many of them clear tossups eight months from Election Day.

Democrats thought they would win a majority of governorships four years ago but fell just short. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said this year’s contests look like fertile ground for his party.

"Potentially, we could go from 22 Democratic governors to 27 or 28 after the ’06 elections," he said. "The real reform and the real action in the Democratic Party is with governorships. It’s a good omen for strengthening the Democratic Party for ’08."

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), chairman of the Republican Governors Association, offered a more cautious, and vaguely worded, assessment. "The math is daunting," he said. "The math would say we will lose quite a few seats. I think we’ll do better than that."

Adam Norgourney of The New York Times sounds a similar theme:

At a time when considerable political attention is focused on the Democrats’ uphill struggle to recapture Congress, leaders of both parties say Democrats appear to be in a much stronger position on another pivotal battlefield this November, the contests for governors.

Democrats have a strong chance to pick up a number of seats held by Republicans while keeping seats even in states that President Bush won in 2004, potentially allowing Democrats to put their view of government on display across a bigger swath of the country and strengthening their position for the 2008 presidential race, party officials said.

Among the states that could flip to the Democratic column are Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Ohio, all general election battlegrounds carried by Mr. Bush, as well as New York and perhaps California.

"From a math standpoint, we’ve got a tough row to hoe this year," Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the head of the Republican Governors Association, said as the National Governors Association gathered here this weekend for its annual Washington meeting.

Mr. Romney, whose decision not to seek re-election as he explores a run for president has put his own state in play for Democrats, said Republicans could suffer a net loss of as many as four governorships if the political environment for his party did not improve.

Some Democrats and independent analysts said the shift could end up being even more pronounced if the problems that have plagued Republicans in Washington continue to mount and Mr. Bush remains politically weakened. They said the furor over a Dubai company’s taking over some operations at six American ports had provided them another opportunity to put Republicans on the defensive. They noted that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland, a vulnerable incumbent, was among the first Republicans to step forward to question the deal, which includes the Baltimore port.

"I think we can pick up between five and seven," said Howard Dean, the Democratic national chairman. "This is going to be a national election if I have anything to do with it: a national referendum on whether you want Republicans to keep running this country and whether you want them to keep running your state."

Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for The Cook Political Report who tracks national races, said of Democrats, "If they don’t get a majority, they are going to come awfully close." The Democrats would need a net gain of four governorships for a majority.