Democrats reclaimed governors’ offices Tuesday from the Northeast to the Rockies and even in the South, giving them a majority for the first time in 12 years and an edge in places critical to the 2008 White House race.
A string of victories in Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, Arkansas, Colorado and Maryland means Democrats will control the governorship in 28 states, reversing the GOP’s six-seat advantage. They also held onto vulnerable seats that had been targeted by Republicans in Iowa, Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin.
Massachusetts Democrat Deval Patrick will be the first black governor of his state — and just the second elected black governor of any state. In Ohio, Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland easily defeated Republican Ken Blackwell. New York, as expected, chose Democrat Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general who crusaded for Wall Street and corporate reform.
Massachusetts and Ohio hadn’t elected a Democrat since 1986. New York last elected one in 1990.
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In Colorado — which voted Republican for president in the last three elections — Democrat Bill Ritter defeated GOP Rep. Bob Beauprez for the seat left open by term-limited GOP Gov. Bill Owens. Arkansas chose a Democrat — attorney general Mike Beebe over Republican Asa Hutchinson — for the first time since 1992.
And Democrats turned out GOP Gov. Robert Ehrlich of Maryland, the lone party switch that wasn’t in an open seat. Martin O’Malley, the Baltimore mayor, was the winner there.
Democrats were jubilant.
'What's in it for us'
“From here on out, we need a politics that binds us together, a politics that’s forward-thinking, a politics that asks not, ’What’s in it for me?’ but always ’What’s in it for us,”’ Spitzer said.
Two vulnerable Democratic governors in the Great Lakes beat back well-funded Republican challenges. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, long targeted by the GOP, defeated millionaire Dick DeVos, even though he put more than $35 million of his own money toward his campaign. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle defeated GOP Rep. Mark Green. Democrat Ted Kulongoski also beat back a tough challenge in Oregon.
The geographical reach of the victories will be critical for the next White House race and for redistricting of congressional seats, which is typically controlled by the governor and the legislature, said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who won re-election — and is also exploring a presidential run.
“It makes us more a national party. In the past, the Democratic party was strong in the Northeast and California, and that was about it,” he said. “Now we’re a more centrist, national party who can show victories across the country.”
Governors don’t enact national policy, but they can strengthen a party’s grass roots, turn out votes for presidential contests, and cultivate future national leaders.
Republicans remained strong in some of the nation’s biggest states. They got good news in Florida, where Republican Charlie Crist, the state attorney general of Florida, defeated Democratic Rep. Jim Davis in the contest to replace term-limited GOP Gov. Jeb Bush.
In California, the nation’s best-known governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, easily won re-election. The former action star defeated Democrat Phil Angelides, the state treasurer.
And Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, won re-election. He fended off challengers including musician and writer Kinky Friedman.
Republicans held on in two of the more closely watched races.
In Nevada, GOP Rep. Jim Gibbons won an open seat despite accusations he assaulted and propositioned a cocktail waitress, defeating Democrat Dina Titus, a state senator. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty overcame a nailbiter in Minnesota, narrowly pulling ahead of Democrat Mike Hatch, attorney general.
Retirement opens seats
Ten states had open seats because of retirements, term limits and primary defeat. Republicans went into Election Day holding 28 governorships to 22 for the Democrats.
In Massachusetts, Patrick trounced GOP Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey despite her support from outgoing GOP Gov. Mitt Romney, a potential 2008 presidential candidate. The last elected black governor was L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia who left office in 1994.
Two other black candidates — both Republicans — lost. In Ohio, Strickland swept past Blackwell, the secretary of state who was criticized by Democrats for his role in overseeing the 2004 election in Ohio that was critical in securing President Bush’s victory. And in Pennsylvania, former NFL star Lynn Swann was swamped by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.
In Illinois, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich won re-election in a contest that Republicans had at one time hoped would go their way. In Iowa, Democrat Chet Culver, the secretary of state, held the seat left open by retiring Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is thinking about a presidential run.
Republicans kept Alaska — where Sarah Palin, who unseated unpopular Gov. Murkowski in the GOP primary, defeated Democratic former Gov. Tony Knowles — and Idaho, where GOP Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter won against Democrat Jerry Brady, a former newspaper publisher.
After Palin’s victory, the number of women governors will tie an earlier record of nine.
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