For the first time in a dozen years, Democrats hold a majority of the nation’s governorships after taking 20 of 36 races, including contests in battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado that will be crucial to the 2008 presidential race.
Democrats now possess 28 of the top state jobs, the same majority enjoyed by Republicans going into Tuesday’s elections.
The mood behind the reversal was no better expressed than in Ohio. No Republican president has ever taken office without winning that state.
“I feel like the Republican Party is not my party anymore,” Joan Domek, 75, said after voting in Parma Heights, near Cleveland.
Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland became Ohio’s first Democratic governor since 1986, routing Republican challenger Ken Blackwell, whom Democrats criticized for his role in overseeing the 2004 presidential election as secretary of state.
“It’s time for a change. That’s the buzzword,” said Cindy Mushrush, 54, a stay-at-home mom from suburban Columbus.
Ten states had open seats because of retirements, term limits and, in the case of Alaska, a failure by the incumbent to win the primary. Democrats won six of those, and held onto vulnerable seats in Iowa, Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin.
The trend followed a national wave of dominance — Democrats wrested control of the House and were in a strong position to capture the Senate. They also made gains in state legislatures around the country — largely fueled by President Bush’s fading popularity, resentment over the war in Iraq and various scandals involving the GOP.
Highlighting other gubernatorial races Tuesday:
- In Massachusetts, Democrat and former civil rights prosecutor Deval Patrick became the state’s first black governor and the nation’s second to be elected. He also ended a 20-year Republican grip on the governor’s office.
- In New York, Eliot Spitzer, the crusading attorney general who led a crackdown on Wall Street abuses, captured a state-record 69 percent of the vote on his way to becoming the first Democrat elected governor since 1990. Spitzer’s margin beat Mario Cuomo’s mark of 64.6 percent in 1986.
- In Colorado, which has voted Republican in the last three presidential elections, former Denver district attorney Bill Ritter won perhaps one of the most bitter races — complete with an FBI investigation into one of many attack ads. The Democrat’s campaign said the information in that ad, which accused him of being soft on illegal immigrants, came from a restricted federal database.
- In Maryland, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley unseated Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich in a very close race. Just as Ehrlich benefited four years ago from his association with Bush, he suffered for it Tuesday.
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. 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.
“In the past, the Democratic party was strong in the Northeast and California, and that was about it,” said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who won re-election — and is also exploring a presidential run. “Now we’re a more centrist, national party who can show victories across the country.”
'Change won't come in a flash'
Patrick, 50, defeated Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey in Massachusetts despite an endorsement from outgoing Gov. Mitt Romney, a possible presidential candidate in 2008 who opted not to run for a second term.
“Today, Nov. 7, 2006, the people of Massachusetts chose, by a decisive margin, to take their government back,” Patrick told thousands who gathered at the Hynes Convention Center.
“You know change won’t come in a flash,” the governor-elect said. “You know that it will take focus and commitment and patience. But you also know that government by gimmick and photo-op and sound-bite has failed us. Do not expect more of that from me.”
Eleven Republican incumbents held onto their jobs; Maryland’s Ehrlich was the only loser. Twelve Democratic incumbents also won, including Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, who made his support of stem-cell research a big part of his campaign en route to becoming the first re-elected Democrat in 32 years.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm won despite her state’s failing economy, battered by the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs during her term. She defeated millionaire Dick DeVos, even though he put more than $35 million of his own money toward his campaign.
Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe broke a 10-year drought for the Democrats, defeating his Republican opponent Asa Hutchinson, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and high-ranking official in the Department of Homeland Security.
Republicans prevailed in the country’s biggest states. Former movie star and incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger easily won the California race, beating Democratic state treasurer Phil Angelides. Another Republican incumbent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, fended off several challengers, including eccentric mystery writer and musician Kinky Friedman.
Republican Charlie Crist, the attorney general of Florida, defeated Democratic Rep. Jim Davis in the contest to replace outgoing GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, who served the maximum of two terms.
Republican Sarah Palin, the former mayor of Wasilla, won the Alaska race after defeating Gov. Frank Murkowski in the primary, helping tie the record for number of female governors at nine.
In Pennsylvania, former NFL star Lynn Swann was swamped by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty overcame a nailbiter in Minnesota, narrowly pulling ahead of Democrat Mike Hatch, attorney general.
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.
GOP Rep. Jim Gibbons was elected governor of Nevada over state senator Dina Titus, despite accusations he assaulted and propositioned a cocktail waitress. And in Idaho, GOP Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter won a close race against Democrat Jerry Brady, former publisher of the Idaho Falls Post Register.
Elsewhere, Republican incumbents won in Alabama, Connecticut, Hawaii, South Carolina, Nebraska, Georgia and South Dakota as did Democratic governors in Arizona, Kansas, Tennessee, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Wyoming.