As Washington contemplates the fast-approaching midterms, much attention is focused on a possible Republican takeover of one or perhaps both houses of Congress. Lost amid the hullabaloo is the vast swath of governor's races across the country, where a combination of the bad economy and high unemployment rates, term-limited and unpopular incumbents, and a strong crop of challengers make it almost certain that Republicans will capture a higher rate of governor's races than their likely advances in either the House or Senate.
Coming off of Barack Obama's victory in 2008, Democrats held a commanding 29 governorships, to just 21 for Republicans. Within a year, this advantage was split to 26-24 from Obama's appointment of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to the cabinet, and the loss of both New Jersey and Virginia, as Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell romped amid early, anti-Democratic sentiment which has since gone from a percolating simmer to an unstable boil today.
Republicans are all but a lock to snag eight new governorships. In Kansas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the outgoing regimes are brutally unpopular and Republicans have recruited particularly stout nominees while the opposing Democrats are weak second or third tier nominees. Govs. Brad Henry in Oklahoma, Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, and Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming all remain popular, bur their red states have thin Democratic benches, ensuring GOP takeovers. In Illinois and Iowa, Pat Quinn and Chet Culver are toast.
Democratic fortunes are in slightly less precarious shape in six other states, but their diminished strength in these blue and purple areas is no less alarming. Despite winning a landslide in 2006, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is hobbled by Ohio's roiling unemployment and behind, while Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley faces a tough rematch from former Gov. Bob Ehrlich who he had surprising trouble dispatching four years ago.
In open seats in New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin, Democrats recruited their best possible nominees, but still face problems: once- favored Lt. Gov. Diane Denish has been hurt by outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson's ethics troubles and is now in a toss-up contest; former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is knotted in a tougher-than-anticipated race with the cash-rich Chris Dudley; and Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett is hobbled by the immensely unpopular outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle.
Democrats' chances in Republican-held seats is a mixed bag. Despite his undistinguished Senate career, Mark Dayton should prevail in Minnesota because of his deep pockets and his opponent's extreme conservatism. California Attorney General Jerry Brown is a slight favorite over retired eBay executive Meg Whitman, but Whitman has seemingly bottomless cash reserves, making Democrats' chances unclear.
In Florida, Georgia, and Texas, Democrats face uphill Southern battles. In Florida, Alex Sink is Democrats' only remaining statewide elected official, but Florida has become increasingly Republican, while former Gov. Roy Barnes faces hurdles in retaking his old job in Georgia as a retread ousted in 2002; both are underdogs. In Texas, former Houston mayor Bill White gives Democrats' their best statewide nominee in years and Gov. Rick Perry has long inspired outright disdain for his over-the-top conservative antics, but it will take an equivalent triple bank shot for White to prevail.
As for the remaining states up this fall, Republicans will easily hold Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Vermont; and Democrats will retain Arkansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York; they are only in solid shape to take back Connecticut, Hawaii, and Minnesota, while Arizona, Maine, and Rhode Island are still developing.
Collectively, this spells out GOP gains of an aggregate of six to 10 or more seats -- a massive two year turnaround, and a more impressive rate than even the rosiest Republican House and Senate forecasts.
Importantly, Democrats' problems have little to do with poor recruitment or fundraising, as they have put up good nominees and raised money well. Rather, the most vulnerable races have unpopular incumbents and sit a host of open naturally red states. Poor timing, environment, and economy have conspired against Democratic gubernatorial nominees this year.
There are three critical areas that will be negatively impacted for Democrats by a fall gubernatorial washout. First, the loss of several governorships will either set back or stunt the growth of state party organizations which have either seen gains in recent years, such as in Ohio or Pennsylvania, or have been anticipating growth, like in Texas.
Second, this year's crop of governors will play a critical role in congressional redistricting. With Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and possibly Iowa slated to shed seats, the loss of those governorships could lead to the imposition of harsh Republican-friendly lines. In California and Illinois, Democrats have long aimed to pare down large GOP delegations, but may still be stuck with GOP-friendly maps for the next ten years.
Finally, this year's races have implications for 2012. Barack Obama was able to capture Ohio's 20 electoral votes, Virginia's 13, and Pennsylvania's 21 with assists from sitting Democratic governors with large state organizations which provided friendly terrain and manpower. Republicans governors in swing states won't prevent Obama from capturing any of them in a closer re-election campaign, but they will make these states more inhospitable on the ground, making Obama's mission more difficult.
So, while sleepy state contests might not be as sexy as marquee Senate races, they are equally if not more critical to Democrats' long term picture. As things stand, that picture is very dark.