Kansas, Michigan Primaries Define GOP Battle Ground

When voters cast their ballots Tuesday in the Kansas and Michigan primaries, it could be a defining moment for Republicans fighting to maintain their fragile hold on the governors' offices in those two states.

The outcome in the Republican and Democratic primary contests won't decide the next governor; that won't happen until the November general election. But the Democrats have fielded some strong candidates, including two women who stand a good chance of becoming their state's chief executive.

In Kansas, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, the state insurance commissioner, is already her party's undeclared nominee because she's running without a primary opponent. She'll face off this fall against one of four Republicans vying for the GOP gubernatorial nod.

Sebelius has banked nearly $2 million for the race, far outdistancing any of the GOP candidates - Wichita Mayor Bob Knight, Kansas Senate President Dave Kerr, State Treasurer Tim Shallengburger and businessman Dan Bloom.

Kansas political watchers predicted earlier this year that Sebelius would go up against Republican Carla Stovall, the state attorney general, in the fall election. But Stovall abruptly quit the primary race in the spring to get married, a move that one political analyst observed may have made her happy but brought "great misery" to the party.

Republicans had been counting on Stovall to help them retain the governor's seat held by Bill Graves for eight years. Polls indicate that none of the GOP men in the running have a clear advantage going into the Tuesday election, an indication that no one candidate has been able to fill the vacuum left by Stovall's exit.

In Michigan, Republicans seem to have their nominee lined up. Polls show Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus way ahead of his lone opponent, state Sen. John Schwarz. But Posthumus has had a difficult time attracting the kind of support from the party faithful that Gov. John Engler enjoys.

Engler, the longest-serving governor in the country, has held the seat for nearly 12 years and Republicans are scared to death that a Democrat will be elected this November to take his place. They have reason to be concerned. Recent polls show that any of the three Democrats vying for the nomination are likely to beat the lieutenant governor this fall.

Which Democrat it will be is the question, although odds seem to favor state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm. Polls show her leading her opponents - Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard and former U.S. House Minority Whip David Bonior.

Missouri is the only other state that will hold a primary this Tuesday, but only for legislative and local races. The gubernatorial election won't be held until 2004.

There are 36 gubernatorial races up for grabs this year. Republicans control 23 of them and Democrats 11. Two - Maine and Minnesota are held by the Independence Party. The Republicans are defending 12 of 20 open seats where an incumbent is not running, making their job this year all the more difficult. As things stand now, Republicans hold 27 governorships and the Democrats 21. A shift of only four or five would give the Democrats control of a majority of executive offices.