CHICAGO – For all the talk of midterm elections and control of Congress, the political parties are obsessing this year more than ever over the nation’s 37 races for governor.
The Republican Governors Association has already poured $11 million into these campaigns and halfway through the year had raised $28 million – more than its entire budget for 2006 election season – bringing its current reserves to $40 million.
The Democratic Governors Association says it intends to devote $50 million to these races, nearly three times more than ever, and the Democratic National Committee has dedicated as much direct financing to governors’ races as it has to Senate and House campaigns.
The White House is also pitching in. President Barack Obama is scheduled to fly to Wisconsin on Monday to raise money for Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, who is trying to keep the governorship in Democratic hands, and, two days later, the president will do the same in Ohio for Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat in a tight re-election race and someone for whom the White House has already dispatched others, including the vice president, four times this year.
There is ample cause for so much attention. At stake is far more than local policy making in a few state capitals. The new crop of governors will play a major role in deciding which party benefits from the pivotal redrawing next year of congressional and state legislative districts, a once-in-a-decade occurrence.
Across a swath of states here, near the Great Lakes, especially, Republican leaders sense a rare opportunity to seize key governorships that have been dominated recently by Democrats.
The results in the Midwest will also help to define crucial party organizing efforts leading up to the 2012 presidential campaign in some of the most coveted, up-for-grab states – like Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. A governor, the thinking goes, can open fundraising doors, get-out-the-vote operations and volunteer lists for his or her party’s presidential candidate.
"Looking through the scope of national politics, I would make the case that the governors’ races this year are as important as the federal races, if not more important," said Nick Ayers, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
In a year with an especially large number of governor elections – made even larger by a special election in Utah – an unusually high portion of them, 24, are for open seats, meaning that nearly half of the states (and probably more) will have new leaders after the midterm elections.
For those running in these governors’ races, the national ramifications rarely seem far from view.
"This is really a 10-year election," Tom Emmer, a Republican candidate for governor in Minnesota, said as he rode toward Duluth in a 32-foot RV while campaigning recently before Tuesday’s primary.
Some Midwestern states are expected to lose seats in Congress under the redrawing of political districts that will follow the 2010 census, making the decisions about how these districts are redrawn of particular concern.
"If the Democrats win the governor’s office, they will be in charge of redistricting Minnesota, and you can almost guarantee that they will try to squeeze out Michele Bachmann’s congressional district in that equation," Emmer said, referring to Bachmann, a conservative Republican who recently started a Tea Party Caucus in Congress.
So focused are party leaders on the redistricting fight ahead that Democrats have created a small donor fundraising program – called Project Surge (for Stop Republican Gerrymandering) – aimed around the remap ahead.
As it stands, 26 governors are Democrats and 24 are Republican. Of the 37 seats up for election this year, just more than half are held by Democrats. And of the 24 incumbents who are not running for re-election – because of term limits, poor odds of winning or something else entirely – the political parties are evenly split.
But in a moment of anti-Washington, anti-incumbent sentiment, grim economic times and a Democratic administration, most agree that the odds do not favor Democrats. A president’s party generally loses five or so seats in a midterm election, said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.
"As difficult as we knew this year would be, given both a historic midterm effect and a Bush economic hangover, voters still want to move forward to a brighter future," Daschle said. "What they do not want is to go back to the failed Republican policies that created this mess."
Some nonpartisan observers, however, are predicting a modest but potentially important shift to the Republicans. Jennifer Duffy, who tracks governors’ races for the Cook Political Report, said that she expected the parties to swap governors’ seats here and there in November, but that, in the end, Republicans would probably gain three to five seats.
Karl Rove, the Republican strategist, said he saw opportunities for sweeping gains through the industrial Midwest and into other national battlegrounds – like Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon – all of which would create new obstacles for an Obama re-election bid.
Months of campaigning, of course, still loom – which Democrats are quick to point out.
"I think the GOP insiders are so cocky and overconfident right now that they are acting like they have won all these," Barrett, the Democratic candidate in Wisconsin, said last week after speaking at opening ceremonies of the State Fair in West Allis. "By the time we get to November, the voters are going to want to change again."
Barrett’s likely Republican opponent, Scott Walker, the executive of Milwaukee County, has been crisscrossing the state for months, talking to factory workers in dozens of brown bag lunches, and cautioning that a Governor Barrett would mean four more years of the same economic policies as Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat who, amid anemic approval ratings, decided not to seek a third term.
"Austerity is in," said Walker, who regularly reminds audiences that he has for years carried brown-bag lunches (two ham-and-cheese sandwiches) to his office and is pledging to shrink the size of state government. "For me, the ultimate question I tell voters is: If you feel like the last eight years of Jim Doyle has helped the economy of Wisconsin, then you should vote for Tom Barrett."
While issues like education, illegal immigration, same-sex marriage, high-speed rail and energy have emerged in some of the races for governor, the conversation this season in nearly every state almost always swiftly returns to the economy: the mostly dismal state budget deficits, disappearing jobs and high unemployment.
"I hear it in virtually every part of the state," said Barrett, who said he himself was "not happy with where things are," and sometimes imagined arriving at the governor’s office to find, among the welcome baskets and flower bouquets, an unwanted gift – a $2.5 billion to $2.7 billion deficit, the size of Wisconsin’s budget gap.
"There is dissatisfaction and uneasiness," Barrett said. "That’s real."
Barrett, who has proposed a "Put Madison on a Diet" program, has notably not campaigned with Doyle (although the two have appeared together at times), nor, Barrett says, does he agree with all of the governor’s programs.
Perhaps in a reflection of unease, another trend has emerged in the governors’ races: a wave of nontraditional campaigns. In three New England states, independents are seen as true contenders. Elsewhere, business people who have never (or rarely) sought political office are emerging as nominees. Last week, Rick Snyder, who once led Gateway Inc. and has never won public office, beat two longtime elected officials for the Republican nomination for governor in Michigan, a state held by a departing Democrat and which Republicans have high hopes of capturing in November.