Is the Mandate of '94 Finally Running Out?

In Washington, a midterm election is all about which party will control Congress. For most voters, however, the main event in a midterm election is the race for governor. After all, governors run things. And many Presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, used a governorship as a springboard to the White House.

With 38 states electing new governors in 2001 and 2002, what can we expect? The answer is, big gains for Democrats. This will not be because of any big national swing to the left, but because of the normal workings of the electoral cycle.

Go back to the antediluvian period in American politics, before the Great Republican Flood of 1994. Here's where the 38 states electing governors in the current cycle stood in 1992: 14 had Republican governors, 22 had Democrats, and two had independents.

Then came the flood. In the 1993-94 cycle, Republicans picked up 12 governorships, giving them 26 of the 38 contested seats. Democratic governorships fell by half, to just 11. In the end, all but one of the 10 largest states had a GOP governor. (Georgia was the exception.)

In the next midterm cycle, 1997-98, there wasn't much change. With the economy booming, 1998 was a good year for incumbents. All the GOP governors first elected in '94 ran for a second term. Almost all the party changes involved open seats, where no incumbent was running, and these split fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats. The standings after 1998: 25 Republican governors (down one), 11 Democrats (unchanged), and 2 independents (up one).

Now the 1994 cycle may have run its course. In the elections for governor this year and next, Republicans are likely to have trouble holding on to their advantage. The Democratic Party, desperate for new faces unconnected to the Clinton years, is going to find a lot of them after November 2002 in statehouses around the country.

As many as 13 Republican governors may seek re-election. But incumbency may not be much of an advantage for three of them. In Texas, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry took over when Bush became President. In Massachusetts, Lt. Gov. Jane Swift succeeded Gov. Paul Cellucci, who became ambassador to Canada. And Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum took over in Wisconsin when Gov. Tommy G. Thompson joined the Bush Cabinet. Unelected incumbents simply don't have the same standing with voters as incumbents.

Two GOP governors, George E. Pataki of New York and John G. Rowland of Connecticut, may run for a third term. Third terms are always a little dicey.

At least one Republican governor running for a second term could be in trouble: Jeb Bush, of Florida, the site of the recent unpleasantness. Revelations about his behind-the-scenes role in last year's presidential election—about, for example, letters to voters soliciting absentee ballots, and about telephone calls to his brother's campaign during the recount—are likely to sustain resentment. It would be quite a coup next year for Democrats to reclaim the governorships of Texas and Florida. Talk about beating the Bushes.

No fewer than 12 states have GOP governors who are not running for re-election. Most of those governors, including Michigan's John Engler and Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge, cannot run because of term limits. Michigan and Pennsylvania are big states with high-stakes races. Meanwhile, Virginia and New Jersey, the two states electing governors this year, both have Republican governors who can't run, or aren't running, for re-election. The outlook is for tight races in both places this fall.

Democrats are far less exposed than Republicans in the current cycle. Of seven Democratic governors who may run for re-election, only two look as if they may be in trouble—Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who may seek a fourth term, and Gray Davis of California, who's experiencing a power shortage in more ways than one. Only four states have term-limited Democratic governors.

Two states now have independent governors. Maine has an independent governor whose term is limited, and Democrats have a good chance of picking up Maine's governorship. Minnesota has an independent governor who's a bone-crusher. Jesse Ventura is eligible to run for a second term next year. If he does, Minnesotans will be called on to decide whether their colorful governor is a source of pride or embarrassment.

But it's the Republican governors who are really on the line. Every one of the nation's 10 largest states will be electing a governor this year or next, and Republicans will be defending eight of those governorships: first-term incumbents in Florida and Illinois (whose candidacies are troubled), and Ohio; a second-term incumbent in New York; an unelected incumbent in Texas; and open races in New Jersey this year and in Pennsylvania and Michigan next year.

In the gubernatorial races as well as congressional elections, 2002 could be the year when the GOP's mandate of 1994 finally runs out. Look for early warning signs in Virginia and New Jersey this November. Back in 1993, both states switched from Democratic to Republican governors. That was a sign of what was about to happen in 1994. If Virginia and New Jersey switch back to Democratic governors this fall, it could be a leading indicator of serious trouble ahead for the GOP.