Image: Gov. Chet Culver, D-Iowa
Tom Mihalek  /  AP file
Gov. Chet Culver, D-Iowa, could be a beneficiary of the surge in Democratic voter registrations across the country.
updated 12/4/2008 7:24:10 AM ET 2008-12-04T12:24:10

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D) didn't back any candidate in his state's presidential caucuses this year. But Culver has those Democrats to thank for what could be a smooth ride to re-election in 2010. For the first time in decades, Democrats outnumber Republicans in Iowa, reversing the GOP's edge in 2004 to claim a more than 110,000-voter advantage now.

Culver's not alone. Of the 36 states holding gubernatorial races in two years, more than a dozen saw voter registration numbers swing decisively toward Democrats during a year in which Barack Obama beat John McCain with a potent combination of organization, fundraising and new-voter outreach. That blend helped Obama, who huddled with at least 40 incumbent governors Tuesday in Philadelphia, claim the biggest Democratic victory since 1964. Two years from now, his efforts also may help his party hold on to power in 29 governor's offices, their highest number since 1994. They might even break 30.

The party's voter-registration surge is, of course, a byproduct of the seemingly endless primary battle between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- the brutal, bloody race that some party activists feared would doom their prospects in November. Just the opposite occurred; the campaigns' efforts to register new voters yielded dividends for Obama in November that could benefit the party for a decade. Today, Democrats hold an advantage of 3.3 million voters in 13 major battleground states, according to the Atlas Project, a Democratic research firm. And there are 1.49 million more Democrats and 61,438 fewer Republicans registered in those states than there were four years ago.

There is, of course, no bigger prize on the gubernatorial landscape than California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is term-limited and Democrats now enjoy a lead of more than 2 million registered voters (up more than 140,000 voters from 2004). Democrats are trying to recruit Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who at 75 hasn't ruled out a run. If Feinstein declines, look for a crowded primary that could feature state Attorney General Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a wealthy businessman, and ex-Rep. Tom Campbell are likely Republican candidates.

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Video: Another Bush headed to Washington? The other gubernatorial bonanza is Florida, a state that Democrats feared would turn against them indefinitely because they ignored its rule-breaking, leapfrogging presidential primary. To the contrary, Democrats carried the state last month and have roughly doubled their registration edge since 2004, to some 658,000 voters. The party hopes to post a serious threat to Gov. Charlie Crist, a top McCain supporter and popular Republican who has all but declared his bid for a second term. But insiders say Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink,the Democrats' top prospect and one of just two Democratic statewide officeholders, is more likely to seek re-election or the open Senate seat created by Republican Mel Martinez's retirement, which he announced Tuesday.

Democrats face a brighter landscape in another big 2010 target, Pennsylvania, where a late primary this year between Clinton and Obama, and a close general election race, helped them more than double their registration advantage to 556,000 voters.

But perhaps the biggest question of 2010 will be how 2008 has reshaped the battle for the fast-growing West. Republicans plan to compete aggressively to take back power in Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas, where Democratic governors are term-limited and Republicans still enjoy solid support.

In other states, however, the landscape has changed.

In Nevada, Democrats now have a nearly 111,000-voter advantage, overcoming a slim GOP edge in 2004. In Colorado, a traditionally red state that Obama carried last month, there are almost 110,000 more registered Democrats than there were in 2004 and about 55,000 fewer Republicans. In New Mexico, Democrats narrowly increased their advantage to almost 220,000. And in Oregon, a loss of 61,000 registered voters for Republicans helped Democrats almost quadruple their 2004 voter edge to some 237,000.

Why does any of this matter? Well, among other reasons, because a Democrat in one of those states, propelled by a newly expanded base, could sweep into office two years from now and start plotting his or her own road map to the White House in 2016. Unlikely? Perhaps. But then, how many people in December 2000 were putting an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama on short lists, for anything?

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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