Democrats and Republicans already are looking ahead to November 2006, when 36 states will choose leaders and nationally known governors such as Jeb Bush (R) in Florida and New York's George Pataki (R) will end their gubernatorial careers.
The election also will test the staying power of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R ), who is running for his first full term after ousting Democrat Gray Davis in a 2003 recall election. Schwarzenegger's prospects are uncertain: In the 2005 election, voters shot down four ballot initiatives backed by the governor, and his popularity ratings have plummeted.
Overall, Republicans hold 22 of the seats up for election next year, and at least seven of those will be open races. Bush, brother of the current president, is one of five term-limited GOP governors who cannot seek re-election, and Republican Pataki is stepping down voluntarily to gauge the viability of a White House bid. Idaho's Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) also is stepping aside after two terms. Democrats occupy 14 of the governorships up for election next year, but only Iowa's Gov. Tom Vilsack is not running again. Vilsack is also considering a presidential campaign.
Other governors have to think more about their own re-election hopes than higher office. Republican governors in Alabama, Alaska and Nebraska face serious primary challenges. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski is, so far, alone among the Democratic incumbents in facing a challenge within his party. But scandal is dogging first-term Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in Illinois, and high unemployment in Michigan could be a drag on the re-election hopes of first-term Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D).
In addition to gubernatorial races, 84 percent of the nation's state legislative seats are up for election in 46 states next year -- New Jersey and Virginia held their statehouse elections this year, while Mississippi and Louisiana hold legislative and gubernatorial elections in 2007. Referendums affecting illegal immigration, tax and spending limits, the minimum wage and gay marriage also are expected to make political waves during the 2006 gubernatorial elections.
"You have the equivalent of a national election," Vilsack told Stateline.org . "Governors races in all parts of the country give both political parties the opportunity to test market ideas, concepts, values and message for 2008," he said.
Democrats, who occupy 22 of the nation's governors seats to the GOP's 28, are hoping to capitalize on the 2005 gubernatorial victories of U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine (D) in New Jersey and Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) in Virginia.
The goal in 2006 is to pick up seats in swing states that could benefit the party in the next presidential election, said Vilsack, who has launched his own political organization to help fund Democratic gubernatorial candidates. "There are some who suggest that having a governor makes a 2 percent difference in voter turnout. And if that's true, in a tight presidential election, Ohio, Florida, Arkansas or Nevada may become very, very important," Vilsack said.
Florida will hold the first gubernatorial election since 1994 without Jeb Bush, who failed that year to unseat incumbent Gov. Lawton Chiles (D). Bush won in 1998, and has weathered numerous storms during his two terms, including voting irregularities in the 2000 election that sent his brother, George, to the White House. In 2004, he tried to keep severely brain-damaged Terri Schiavo alive, despite court orders to remove a feeding tube. State Attorney General Charlie Crist, state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings are vying for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, while U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and state Sen. Rod Smith are hoping to represent the Democrats in the general election.
In addition to Bush, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Bill Owens of Colorado, Kenny Guinn of Nevada and Bob Taft of Ohio are barred from serving another term in their states. Huckabee, considering a 2008 presidential bid, also has launched a political organization to help GOP gubernatorial candidates.
Another state government stalwart is choosing to step down. New York's Gov. Pataki -- a former mayor, state assemblyman and state senator -- is leaving office 12 years after upsetting incumbent Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo. Along with New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Pataki's reputation was burnished by his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The state's high-profile Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is the front-running Democrat to succeed Pataki. Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld has announced he will compete for the Republican gubernatorial nomination..
After 15 years of Republican leadership, Democrats also are gunning for the governor's office in Massachusetts, where Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is widely expected to forego a second term to run for president. Lt. Gov. Kerry Healy (R) is expected to run and could face Democratic state Attorney General Thomas Reilly or former U.S. Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick.
No Democratic governors are term-limited, and only Iowa's Gov. Vilsack is stepping down -- fulfilling his promise to serve only two terms as he also considers a bid for the White House. U.S. Rep. Jim Nussle (R) and 2002 gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats (R) are vying to take on one of a half-dozen Democratic candidates.
The year's most spectacular gubernatorial contest may be in California, where Golden State voters will get a chance to reconsider their political romance with action-hero Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). After his victory in the 2003 recall election, Republicans opined that the U.S. Constitution should be amended to allow foreign-born citizens, such as the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger, to run for president.
But two years after winning his first elected position, Schwarzenegger's popularity has plummeted. Voters soundly rejected a package of government reforms proposed by the governor in a special election that he called to enact changes that he could not pass in the Democrat-controlled state Assembly. State Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly are expected to wage a costly battle for the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Other Republicans in trouble include Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) , who is being challenged by former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore (R). Moore was removed from the bench after he defied a 2003 federal court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the lobby of the state's judicial building. "The Moore-Riley primary could prove to be an interesting fight between the religious and business wings of the state's Republican Party," said Patrick Cotter, a political scientist at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Alaska's Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), who has not announced a re-election bid, also finds his political fortunes fading due to administration scandals and unpopular cuts to senior benefits and the state pension system, said Carl Shepro, a political scientist at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Murkowski could face at least three credible challengers from within his party
And Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R ), who ascended to his position in 2004 after then-Gov. Mike Johanns (R) was appointed U.S. secretary of agriculture will have to defeat U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne (R) -- known statewide as the legendary football coach of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Oregon's Kulongoski is the only Democratic governor facing a primary challenge in 2006. Former state Sen. Pete Sorenson (D) and current state Sen. Vicki Walker (D) are among several candidates hoping to knock off Kulongoski. The Republican primary will be a rematch of 2002 candidates Kevin Mannix, the state GOP chair, and attorney Ron Saxton.
"Kulongoski has offended his base -- Portland liberals. If he were popular that wouldn't matter. Unfortunately, he's not. So his problems reflect his standing both in the party and with voters generally," said Fred Thompson, professor of public management and policy at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.
Republicans also hope to topple Illinois' Democratic governor, Blagojevich, who has been linked to a scandal over management of a state pension fund. Blagojevich's record fund-raising will make it hard for a relatively weak Republican field, said Chris Mooney, editor of State Politics and Policy Quarterly at the University of Illinois in Springfield, Ill. But the governor has low poll numbers currently, and any deeper connection to the scandal "will give the GOP excellent traction," Mooney said.
Michigan's Gov. Granholm (D), another Republican target, finds herself lagging in the polls primarily because of the the state's sagging economy, said Jim Penning, who teaches political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. She likely will face wealthy West Michigan businessman Richard DeVos Jr., husband of the former state GOP chairwoman.