Dems Hope Gubernatorial Wins Will Mark Prelude to 2004

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - Democrats seem poised to make gains in this year's gubernatorial races, leading some analysts to speculate about how much influence those Democrats might wield in the 2004 presidential election.

"The most important aspect politically is the implication for presidential elections," said Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political scientist. "Having a governor of your party in charge of a major state is extraordinarily useful to a presidential candidate," especially in terms of fundraising.

As a presidential candidate, "you have to win the state on your own, but you're swimming against the tide when the governor of a major state is strongly supporting your opponent," said Sabato.

The Cato Institute's John Samples agrees. "You have a much more focused, much greater ability to project your message because, [especially] if the governor is popular, he's got all the advantages of focus and office in bringing the message," said Samples.

Without the bully pulpit of the governorship, you're stuck with a party leader or legislator as the party's mouthpiece, said Samples. "It's the same problem [Senate Majority Leader] Daschle (D-S.D.) has, in a way, with [President] Bush," Samples explained.

Sabato predicts Democrats will have a net gain of three to seven seats from this year's 36 gubernatorial races. Similarly, analyst Charlie Cook predicts a Democratic gain of two to six seats.

Thanks in large part to its 1994 Election Day sweep, the Republican Party now has a majority -- 27. But it's defending a record 23 seats this year, with just 11 incumbents eligible to seek re-election. Democrats now hold 21 seats, and Independents hold two (Maine and Minnesota).

A majority of the races are considered competitive, with about four seats complete toss-ups. Public opinion polls show gubernatorial candidates in Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota (a three-way race), Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming and South Carolina all within four points of one another.

Democratic wins in Texas and Florida would be considered losses for the president, who hails from Texas and whose brother, Jeb Bush, holds the Florida governorship.

Analysts say Democratic gains could produce other presidential benefits for the party.

Presidential hopefuls like House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senators John Edwards (D-N.C.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) are "all Washingtonians," said Samples.

With the exception of George Bush, Sr., 20 of the last 24 years, it's governors who have won the presidency, he noted.

"Running Washingtonians in an era when people don't trust Washington is a recipe for disaster," said Samples. "We're living in an outside-in era, and the Democrats are running insiders. They really need somebody like [Bill] Clinton, a governor that's doing something to capture national attention to be a viable candidate. I think they're dead with the guys they've got now."

"Governors provide a good bench for future candidates, either for president or for Senate," agreed John Fortier, American Enterprise Institute political scientist.

On the other hand, Democrats should be careful what they wish for, said Fortier.

With national security issues on the front burner and budget deficits in most states, "it's not as good a time to be governor now," said Fortier. "Budget crises are everywhere and those who win election might not get all they bargained for." And because most states have a balanced budget requirement, that will make the governors' challenges even greater, he added.

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