Stateline Story

GOP Gains Power, Looks for More in 2004

  • November 30, 2003
  • By Jason White

Fresh from victories in three of four gubernatorial races, Republicans enter the presidential election year in command of 28 governorships and hoping to build on that momentum. Although the country remains narrowly split between the two major parties, GOP chief executives preside in states with 59 percent of the population and the biggest Electoral College prizes.

Americans will go to the polls in 2004 not only to elect a president, but to choose governors in 11 states, legislators in 44 states, 33 U.S. senators, and all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The GOP went into the off-year elections occupying 26 of 50 governor mansions, their narrowest margin since the 1994 elections swept Republicans to majorities in both the U.S. Congress and state capitols.

They made their first gain in California, where more than 8 million voters went to the polls on the first Tuesday in October to turn Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, out of office and elect as his replacement Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican movie star who supports gay rights and a woman's right to choose an abortion. It was only the second recall of a sitting governor in U.S. history.

As political theater, the Davis recall was impossible to top. But November's three regular gubernatorial elections were not without drama. Republicans won in Kentucky and Mississippi, while a Democrat captured the Louisiana governor's job, which had been held by the GOP.

While the GOP gained bragging rights and appeared to gain momentum heading into 2004, the outlook for both state and national elections is not so clear. The electorate appears as deeply divided as in 2000, when George W. Bush captured the White House despite losing the popular vote and only after the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in the Florida outcome.

Recent polls corroborate how closely Americans are split. Among registered voters, 34 percent are Democrats, 33 percent Republicans and 33 percent independent or other, according to a recent survey by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The public split evenly when asked whether they prefer President Bush or a Democrat in 2004.

North Carolina, the 11th most populous state, is the largest choosing a chief executive in 2004. Three of the states choosing governors are among the smallest: Delaware, North Dakota and Vermont. The others are Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.

"We are America's majority and we are a growing majority. We're very hopeful that we can expand and grow our numbers from the 28 out of 50 states we now hold," said Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R), chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

The Republican gains in Kentucky and Mississippi were not surprising given that these states have evolved into GOP strongholds. The Davis recall, while a huge victory for the GOP, was a rare event. George W. Bush lost California by more than 1.2 million votes to Al Gore in 2000, and few analysts give the president any chance of capturing the state's 54 electoral votes next fall.

The California recall a political extravaganza that attracted a pornography mogul, a former baseball commissioner and the Austrian-born bodybuilder-turned-action movie star played out in a state with deep economic woes and a speedy mechanism for getting rid of unpopular elected officials.

Few states have a trap door that operates as quickly as California's. Indeed, a few days after Schwarzenegger took the oath of office in Sacramento, an anti-tax group in Nevada threw in the towel on its attempt to recall Gov. Kenny Guinn (R), admitting it could not gather enough signatures.

With the switch in Sacramento, the four most populous states California, Texas, New York and Florida all have GOP governors.

Democrats stemmed the political bleeding in Louisiana, where Kathleen Blanco (D), the state's lieutenant governor, defeated Bobby Jindal, a 32-year-old policy wonk and wunderkind backed by term-limited Gov. Mike Foster (R).

While Democrats lost ground in the governor's races, they gained in legislative races.

The claimed the New Jersey Senate by picking-up two seats and breaking a 20-20 tie in Trenton. They also padded their Assembly majority by six seats. No other legislative chambers changed head in the other three states that elected legislators in 2003 Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia.

Virginia Democrats gained three seats on Republicans in the House of Delegates, although Republicans maintained control by a comfortable 61-37 margin. Virginia Republicans added one seat to their Senate majority.

Republicans now control legislatures in 21 states, Democrats hold both chambers in 17 states, and 11 states have split control. The Nebraska Legislature is nonpartisan.

In Kentucky, U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), a physician and former fighter pilot, defeated Attorney General Ben Chandler (D), in a race that turned largely on misconduct by outgoing Gov. Paul Patton (D). The conservative Fletcher, the state's first Republican governor in 32 years, pledged to bring integrity back to Frankfort.

"It was a referendum on the good-old-boy Kentucky political system, the worn out politics of a bygone era," Fletcher told Stateline.org.

In Mississippi, Republican power broker Haley Barbour defeated incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D). Barbour, former GOP party chairman and head of a powerhouse lobbying firm in Washington, becomes Mississippi's second Republican governor since Reconstruction.

The Louisiana governor's race was the tightest of the four, with Blanco defeating Jindal, the Rhodes Scholar son of immigrants from India, 52-48. Blanco trailed heading into the campaign's final week, but she turned the tide with a barrage of ads accusing Jindal of cutting health benefits for poor Louisianans during his tenure as the state's health care chief.

"People in Louisiana were seeking a change a change in their state's economy, a change in their state's schools and a change in leadership," said Washington Gov. Gary Locke, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

Five states with gubernatorial elections in 2004 have Republican governors: Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah and Vermont. Democrats hold governorships in six: Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Washington and West Virginia.

Incumbent governors are likely to run for re-election in six of these states. They are: Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D), Missouri Gov. Bob Holden (D), New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson (R), North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D), North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) and Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R).

Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan (D), a former lieutenant governor who advanced to the office after the death of Gov. Frank O'Bannon (D) in September, is running for a full term.

Three incumbent governors two Democrats and one Republican have chosen not to run for re-election next year.

Montana Gov. Judy Martz (R) chose not to run again after a single term. Martz has had a difficult tenure as the state's first woman governor and has been plagued with plummeting popularity, acknowledged Chuck Denowh, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. She had a 66 percent disapproval rating in a recent Montana State University-Billings poll.

Gary Locke (D), the son of Chinese immigrants and the first Asian-American governor in the continental states, is stepping down as Washington's governor after two terms, saying he wants to spend more time with his family. And West Virginia's Gov. Bob Wise (D), a popular governor, will not run again after admitting an extramarital affair with a state employee.

Utah Gov. Olene S. Walker (R) has not decided whether to run. Walker, who was lieutenant governor, is finishing the final 15 months of the second term of Michael O. Leavitt (R), who vacated the post to join the Bush Cabinet as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

"It's great to be in a position where I don't have to run to complete my political career," Walker told Stateline.org.

While 2003 boasted many high-profile candidates, including Schwarzenegger and Barbour, few big names have emerged in state-level races in 2004.

Republican Mitch Daniels, who left his position as President Bush's budget chief, is running for governor of Indiana.

Although most state races turn on local issues and personalities, some national themes are already emerging, including the economy, ongoing state budget problems, and the high costs of health insurance and prescription drugs.

"Jobs have superceded education as the No. 1 priority across the country," B.J. Thornberry, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said. She predicted strong Democratic showings in Montana, Utah and Vermont, all now in GOP hands.

Ohio's Taft said Missouri, Washington and West Virginia, all now with Democratic governors, will be prime targets for Republicans.

The closeness of the two parties can be seen in the nation's statehouses, where Republicans control just 60 more seats than Democrats out of 7,382 state legislative seats, an advantage of less than 1 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Forty-four states elect new legislators in 2004. Even though redistricting has left many incumbents challenger-free, the narrow margins in many legislative chambers could lead to significant power shifts.

Tim Story, a NCSL staff analyst, said races to watch include battles to control the state senates in Colorado, Illinois, Maine and Oregon, the state houses in Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Vermont, and both chambers in Washington.

With a strong anti-tax sentiment still coursing through the country, lawmakers are unlikely to pass major tax increases, even if budget problems persist in 2004. Two of 2003's most closely watched referenda pointed that way.

In September, Alabama voters rejected by a 2-1 margin a plan to make the state tax code less regressive by raising taxes on wealthy residents and cutting them for the poor. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) had championed the change, arguing the state needed to spend more on schools and health care.

In January, Oregon voters rejected a 5 percent increase in state income taxes. Lawmakers had placed the proposal on the ballot, giving voters a stark choice: Raise your taxes or lose services. Voters chose the latter by a 55-45 margin.

But Oregon lawmakers later bucked voters' wishes and passed an $800 million tax increase, leading to another statewide referendum this Feb. 3 on whether to overturn that hike.

"We have the highest unemployment and the worst job creation in the nation. I think most people know it's bad policy to raise taxes in that kind of environment," said Russ Walker, spokesman for Taxpayer Defense Fund, which led the anti-tax campaign.