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updated 10/23/2006 4:22:24 PM ET 2006-10-23T20:22:24

This year's 36 gubernatorial contests continue to take a backseat to the battle for control of Congress, yet Republicans appear headed for significant losses in those races as well. They hold 28 governorships, and the anti-GOP climate nationally may well cost them their majority.

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The Achilles' heel for Republicans is their open seats. Of the 22 governorships that Republicans must defend, nine are open -- five of them because of term limits. (Democrats have just one open governorship.)

Three of the nine -- the governorships of Colorado, New York, and Ohio -- are lost causes for the GOP.

In Colorado, a red state where Democrats are gaining ground, Democratic nominee Bill Ritter, a former district attorney of Denver, is 15 points ahead of GOP Rep. Bob Beauprez. In New York, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the Democratic nominee, holds an insurmountable lead over former state House Minority Leader John Faso. In Ohio, the combination of Republican scandals at the state level, the national political climate, and a perception that Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is too conservative to be governor has stalled the Republican's efforts, giving the lead to Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland.

2006 key races

Democrats appear likely to capture two other GOP-held governorships as well -- those of Arkansas and Massachusetts. In Arkansas, state Attorney General Mike Beebe, the Democratic nominee, had a nearly 20-point lead over former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who is also a former undersecretary of the Homeland Security Department. Republicans contend that Hutchinson was hampered by his late start and is beginning to close the gap. But time is running out, and Beebe's support is hovering near 50 percent while Hutchinson is not yet much above 30 percent.

Republicans have held Massachusetts' governorship since 1990, but their streak may be coming to an end. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval Patrick easily defeated two better-known candidates, including the state attorney general, to clinch the Democratic nomination. The size of Patrick's victory boosted his momentum coming out of the September 19 primary, and his message of change and optimism has won him broad support. At the end of September, he had a 25-point advantage over GOP Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, retiring Gov. Mitt Romney's heir apparent. Patrick isn't the only threat to Healey; businessman Christy Mihos, a moderate Republican, is running as an independent and will siphon votes away from her.

Healey has worked to portray Patrick, who is African-American, as soft on crime. She has highlighted his involvement in the case of a convicted rapist; the Democrat wrote letters of support on the convict's behalf and helped pay for DNA tests. Patrick has since apologized for playing down his role in the case. The DNA test results convinced him that "justice has been served," he said. A recent Healey-sponsored television ad focused on another case, in which Patrick defended a man convicted of killing a Florida state trooper after escaping from prison. The killer received a death sentence, but according to the spot, Patrick got the penalty reduced, making the man eligible for parole. At the end of the ad, a voice-over says, "While lawyers have a right to defend admitted cop killers, do we really want one as our governor?" The ad raises a lot of questions, but the most relevant is whether it will hurt Patrick the way then-Gov. Michael Dukakis was hurt by George H.W. Bush's 1988 ads about paroled killer Willie Horton.

A Suffolk University poll taken after Healey's advertising began showed her closing the gap to 13 points and Patrick's support dropping below 50 percent. Mihos took 7 percent in the survey.

In this political climate, Patrick is on track to win, but Healey's efforts to depict him as an unacceptable choice are worth watching.

Not all the news around the nation is bad for Republicans. Although Gov. Frank Murkowski of Alaska placed a dismal third in the GOP primary, that, ironically, was good news for his party because the outcome boosted its chances of holding on to the office. GOP nominee Sarah Palin, a former mayor of Wasilla, is running 11 points ahead of former Gov. Tony Knowles, the Democratic nominee. Sixty-seven percent of Alaska voters express positive feelings about Palin, a strong indication that they are attracted to her message of reform and fiscal conservatism.

Republicans are also favored to retain their open governorships in Florida, Idaho, and Nevada. In Florida, state Attorney General Charlie Crist had a tough primary but won a solid victory and is now running ahead of Democratic Rep. Jim Davis, whose campaign is not well funded. Rep. Jim Gibbons, the GOP nominee in Nevada, looks poised to defeat Democratic state Senate President Dina Titus. And in Idaho, Republican Rep. Butch Otter is running ahead of two-time Democratic nominee Jerry Brady, who took 42 percent of the vote in 2002.

In the run-up to this year's gubernatorial elections, the GOP's biggest success story has been the remarkable comeback of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Just a year ago, many in the media were poised to write the movie star's political obituary. Now he has a solid lead over Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who has gained no traction since winning his party's nomination in June.

With just over two weeks until Election Day, Republican governors look vulnerable in Maryland, Minnesota, and Rhode Island. Democrats likewise have three vulnerable incumbents -- Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Ted Kulongoski of Oregon, and Jim Doyle of Wisconsin. Democrats are in danger of losing Iowa, where Gov. Tom Vilsack is retiring. And they must also keep an eye on developments in Illinois, where Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich is under an ethical cloud, and in Maine, where Democratic Gov. John Baldacci may be punished for his state's weak economy.

Here is a rundown of the most competitive races.

Iowa
The Democrats' only open governorship -- Iowa's -- is one they worry about losing, although they have been encouraged by the most recent public poll.

The Democratic nominee is Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver, a former teacher and the son of former Sen. John Culver. Chet Culver's campaign emphasizes four goals: creating more jobs, making sure those new jobs come with good benefits, improving public school education at all levels, and ensuring that everyone in the state benefits from Iowa's economic progress. Culver says that his administration would build on the successes of retiring Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack. While promoting his own plan, Culver is tying his Republican rival, Rep. Jim Nussle, to President Bush and the unpopular GOP-controlled Congress.

Nussle's platform covers many of the same issues but a bit differently. He talks of making ethanol-loving Iowa into "the renewable-energy capital of the world." He has sought to capitalize on a recent scandal in state government by calling for a restoration of voters' trust. Nussle has attacked as dangerous a Culver proposal to invest a portion of state employee pension funds in Iowa start-up companies.

He has also accused Culver of being "reckless," citing a decision to post some residents' Social Security numbers on the Web site of the Office of the Secretary of State.

Given the national political climate, which is hurting Republican candidates across the board, Nussle's 16 years in Congress and his chairmanship of the House Budget Committee are his greatest liabilities in this race. At least until recently, he seemed to be coping with the nation's anti-Republican, anti-Congress mood better than some House members running for governor elsewhere. Part of his success may be due to his ability to win eight terms in a Democratic-leaning district.

Nussle's campaign has seemed more aggressive than Culver's. Until last week, polling indicated that the race was a dead heat: Two polls taken in mid-September put the contest within the margin of error. A survey taken October 8-11 for The Des Moines Register, however, gave Culver a 7-point advantage, 46 percent to 39 percent. While each candidate appears to be holding his own party's base, Culver's standing among self-identified independents has improved dramatically. In a mid-September Des Moines Register survey, Culver trailed Nussle by 2 points among independents. In the most recent poll, Culver was ahead by 10 points.

Republicans have viewed this race as one of their best opportunities to snatch a governorship away from the Democrats and help offset inevitable losses elsewhere. If the Democratic wave continues to build, however, GOP hopes -- even in races like Iowa's, where the Republican nominee had been running even or slightly ahead -- could be dashed.

Maryland
The gubernatorial contest in Maryland serves as a good example of what Republican candidates in blue states are up against this year.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich was elected in 2002 with 52 percent of the vote, becoming the first Republican to lead Maryland in 32 years. He ran a strong race that year, but the contest was then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's to lose -- and she did, by running a dreadful campaign.

In office, Ehrlich has battled with the Democratic-dominated Legislature, which has repeatedly overridden his vetoes. The governor has won some fights, though. Courts ended up siding with Ehrlich on two bills that were vetoed and overridden -- one to force Wal-Mart to provide health insurance to its employees and the other to open some polling places before Election Day.

A mid-September poll for The Baltimore Sun pegged Erhlich's job-approval rating at 51 percent. Nevertheless, he trails his Democratic challenger, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, in every recent survey. In the Sun poll, O'Malley was 6 points ahead, 50 percent to 44 percent. A Mason-Dixon survey for MSNBC showed O'Malley leading by 4 points, 47 percent to 43 percent, while the most recent survey, a USA Today/Gallup poll taken in late September, put O'Malley ahead by 12 points, 53 percent to 41 percent.

While touting his record as mayor and emphasizing job creation and education, O'Malley has adopted the national Democratic strategy of linking Ehrlich to Bush and his agenda. The Democrat has started suggesting that there are two Bob Ehrlichs -- one who runs as a moderate and the other who governs as a conservative. Ehrlich has attacked his challenger about Baltimore's crime rate and its struggling schools, forcing O'Malley to spend valuable advertising dollars defending himself.

Running as a Republican in a very Democratic state is not easy. And Ehrlich always knew that his bid for a second term would be difficult. What's more, in elections dominated by a wave that benefits the other party, even reasonably popular incumbents can get washed away. Ehrlich is in the fight of his political life in a contest headed for an ugly finish.

Michigan
This race between Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Alticor (Amway) Chief Executive Dick DeVos has raged on television for months. The challenger went on the air in February with ads designed to introduce himself to voters while highlighting the centerpiece of his campaign: the need to improve the state's economy. Michigan's 7.1 percent unemployment rate is the worst in the nation, and the state ranks near the bottom in job creation. According to a study by United Van Lines, Michigan accounted for more out-of-state moves in the first five months of 2006 than any other state. DeVos says that his success in business will help him turn things around.

By summer, DeVos was blaming the state's economic woes on Granholm, arguing that she has not done enough to keep jobs from leaving the state or to attract new ones. The Michigan Democratic Party went on the air to defend Granholm and attack DeVos. Granholm was conserving her financial resources because DeVos has the ability to inject millions of his own money into the race. Although the governor has been a successful fundraiser, she can't compete with DeVos dollar for dollar, or TV ad for TV ad.

Granholm has defended her record, blaming Michigan's problems on trade agreements passed over the last decade and on President Bush's economic policies. She also touts every bit of good economic news for the state.

Democrats have spent most of their time and resources attacking DeVos. The first line of criticism is that DeVos has sent jobs to China, where Alticor has made a significant investment in its business. DeVos counters that the overseas jobs did not throw any of Alticor's Michigan employees out of work. The second line of attack ties DeVos to Bush's agenda. Finally, Democrats have criticized the Republican for his views on social issues such as abortion and for his affiliation with conservative organizations.

Polls indicated that heading into summer, DeVos had opened up a bit of a lead over Granholm, but Democrats closed the gap with their attacks on him. Since early August, Granholm has been consistently ahead by single digits. The anti-Republican climate that now pervades much of the nation surely helps her.

In the end, this race could hinge on the state's economy rather than on Bush's performance, the war in Iraq, and other national issues, so it's too early to declare the contest over. DeVos and the Republican Governors Association have worked to use Granholm's words against her in recent TV spots, and that might allow him to regain some ground. This race should be a battle until Election Day.

Minnesota
Six months ago, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty wasn't expected to face a strong challenge, but the political environment has turned particularly toxic for Gopher State Republicans. The incumbent is now in a very tough race with state Attorney General Mike Hatch.

Hatch easily won the Democratic nomination, defeating state Sen. Becky Lourey, 73 percent to 25 percent. Since the primary, Hatch has run ads that call him "tough enough to be governor." He has played up his support for gun ownership and his effort to crack down on sexual predators. In other spots, he has talked about needing to cut health care costs, accusing Pawlenty of not heeding his advice on the subject. The ads have also criticized the rising cost of a college education, noting that tuition at Minnesota's public colleges and universities has increased 50 percent over four years -- in other words, on Pawlenty's watch.

Pawlenty has aired his own television ads. One touted his record as governor; his administration has created 120,000 jobs, balanced the state budget, cut crime, and increased funding for education. In another ad, Pawlenty called for yet more funding for schools. He also advocates increased governmental accountability. A third ad highlighted Pawlenty's efforts to solve the budget crisis that temporarily shut down the state government and said that Hatch would have used the crisis as an excuse to enact 13 tax increases. A fourth spot was a tougher attack on Hatch's plans for $6.4 billion in new taxes that would cost the "average voter" $2,912.

Hatch responded by pointing out that the narrator, an accountant, is a Republican. The Democratic nominee says he would pay for his new programs by closing a corporate tax loophole. And a Hatch ad says that his election would give the state a governor "accountable to the middle class for a change."

According to Democratic strategists, voters don't have a lot of specific complaints about Pawlenty. They just aren't happy with the way things are going in the state and in the nation as a whole. Republicans counter that Hatch hardly represents change. He has been active in the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party since 1974, including serving a stint as state party chairman, working in the administration of a Democratic governor, and holding statewide elective office since 1998.

The political climate remains volatile, but the most recent state poll shows how the Republicans' situation has worsened around the country. Three mid-September surveys found the Minnesota contest a dead heat. The latest poll shows Hatch 9 points ahead. That Minneapolis Star Tribune poll, conducted October 6-11, has Hatch leading, 46 percent to 37 percent. Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson took 7 percent. Pawlenty's ratings were 46 percent favorable to 44 percent unfavorable, down from 50 percent/41 percent in mid-September. In the new poll, Hatch had a favorable rating of 52 percent and an unfavorable rating of just 29 percent.

GOP strategists say that the fallout from the House page scandal and the war on Iraq have hurt Pawlenty, but that he is bouncing back. Perhaps, but any incumbent whose support is below 40 percent is in trouble.

Oregon
Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski dodged a bullet by winning a three-way Democratic primary with 54 percent of the vote. His problems are rooted in liberals' unhappiness with him. Although his party has rallied around him since the primary, he still seems vulnerable.

The Republican nominee is Ron Saxton, a lawyer and former member of the Portland school board. Saxton defeated conservative Kevin Mannix, who was the party's 2002 gubernatorial nominee. Mannix narrowly lost to Kulongoski, 46 percent to 49 percent.

Saxton is campaigning aggressively, charging that Kulongoski has accomplished little and that the state needs change. One of Saxton's first ads focused on his desire to improve public education, and another carped on Kulongoski's supposed lack of accomplishments. Saxton also charges that Kulongoski favors tax increases over better fiscal management.

The two most recent public polls, taken the same week in late September, produced different results. An Oregonian poll showed the incumbent ahead by 5 points, 43 percent to 38 percent. (Neither candidate had stellar ratings. Kulongoski's favorable/unfavorable ratings were 42 percent to 38 percent, while Saxton's were 32 percent to 35 percent.) A Riley Research Associates survey indicated that the challenger was ahead by 2 points, 39 percent to 37 percent.

Oregon is as quirky as it is blue, so it's not strange that it's hosting a competitive gubernatorial race even though it has a Democratic incumbent and the national climate is quite anti-Republican. The next round of polling should show whether that environment is finally helping Kulongoski.

Rhode Island
The state's competitive Republican Senate primary long overshadowed this race. And Gov. Don Carcieri was expected to cruise to re-election. He has always been relatively popular, at least for a Republican in a very Democratic state. But now he finds himself in a real contest.

In 2002, Carcieri, a retired businessman, campaigned as an outsider with the kind of experience needed to create jobs and make state government efficient. In office, he has succeeded in revamping the state pension system, streamlining government, and pushing through a separation-of-powers amendment to the state constitution.

Democrats dominate the Legislature, and they've waged plenty of fights with Carcieri. He vetoed a bill that would have made independent child-care providers state employees with state benefits. He also fought efforts to award a former legislator the right to build a hotel using state bonds.

Carcieri's Democratic challenger is Lt. Gov. Charlie Fogarty, who comes from a political family. His uncle served in Congress for 26 years. His father was a state senator and the director of the state's Small Business Administration. The lieutenant governor has a long political resume. He was elected to the Glocester Town Council in 1984, and in 1990 won a seat in the state Senate, defeating a Republican incumbent. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1998 and re-elected four years later. He is barred from seeking a third term.

As a member of the state Senate, Fogarty successfully sponsored legislation to require assessments of the quality of care in hospitals and nursing homes and to create a prepaid college tuition program.

Rhode Island is a very small state, and both candidates are well known and fairly well defined. Fogarty is accepting public financing for his campaign; Carcieri is not. Carcieri personally funded much of his 2002 race against Democrat Myrth York. The governor doesn't enjoy fundraising, so the candidates have been on fairly equal financial footing, although Carcieri could always opt to put some of his own money into the race.

Carcieri is running on his record, especially the 2002 campaign promises that he has been able to keep, and on what he'd like to do in a second term. Fogarty is stressing the need for affordable and accessible health care. He is also running on the issue of government corruption, proposing term limits for state legislators, waiting periods before former legislators can register as lobbyists, and fuller disclosure of lobbyists' activities. A number of scandals in recent years have involved state lawmakers. Focusing on corruption is an interesting strategy for Fogarty, given his long ties to the Legislature, but he has successfully co-opted one of the incumbent's key issues.

Polling consistently shows a close race, with Carcieri in the lead. The most recent poll, conducted by Rhode Island College in early October, showed the incumbent ahead, 44 percent to 36 percent. A USA Today/Gallup survey taken in late September indicated that the race was in a statistical dead heat, Carcieri winning by a point, 47 percent to 46 percent. The last poll to test the candidates' favorable ratings was a Mason-Dixon survey for MSNBC, which put the governor's favorable/unfavorable ratings at 53 percent to 17 percent and Fogarty's at 34 percent to 16 percent.

Television advertising has been largely positive, with each candidate focusing on his own accomplishments and proposals. Carcieri aired a spot recently that linked Fogarty to a scandal involving former state Sen. John Celona, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to corruption charges. Celona had given legislative favors to some of the state's largest companies in exchange for consulting fees. A Fogarty bill to require state officials to report sources of outside income contained an exemption for state legislators.

It is difficult to tell how much the national political environment is responsible for Carcieri's problems. Most likely the situation plays a role, especially because the re-election bid of Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee has become a referendum on which party should control the Senate.

GOP strategists are feeling a bit better about this race; Democrats, however, are still talking upset. It remains a very tight contest.

Wisconsin
Ethical issues are playing a starring role in the race between Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and GOP Rep. Mark Green. Republicans have accused Doyle of trading state contracts for campaign contributions. The incumbent vehemently denies the charges, but he certainly wasn't helped when a state employee was found guilty of rigging contract bids in favor of a Doyle contributor.

Doyle has tried to turn the tables on Green, as Democrats pursued a complaint against some of the money that Green transferred from his federal campaign account to his gubernatorial campaign account. The state elections board ruled against Green, ordering him to return more than $450,000. Green has appealed to the state Supreme Court, which is expected to rule before the November election.

When not fighting over ethics, Green focuses on taxes and job creation. He hits Doyle for raising taxes, increasing tuition at state universities, and not doing more to crack down on illegal immigration.

Doyle touts his record. In one ad, he talks about a program to provide senior citizens with assistance with daily activities so they can continue living at home. Doyle has also taken aim at Green's congressional record. In response to Green's charges on immigration, Doyle noted in an ad that he had sent the Wisconsin National Guard to patrol the Canadian border and that the Republican-controlled Congress has failed to curb illegal immigration.

Polling results here are always difficult to parse. Still, the most-recent surveys indicate a tight contest. The latest poll, a Public Opinion Strategies survey conducted for the Republican Governors Association in mid-October, showed Doyle with a 2-point lead, 42 percent to 40 percent. The most recent independent poll, which Research 2000 took in early October, put Doyle 6 points ahead, 48 percent to 42 percent. Doyle's favorable/unfavorable ratings were 50 percent to 40 percent; Green's were 43 percent to 41 percent.

Wisconsin has a long tradition of good government. Ethics may be the deciding factor in this contest.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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