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How Democrats Could Gain Power This Fall

Image: Charlie Crist

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, right, speaks to the media after early voting, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Crist is running against former Florida Sen. Nan Rich, for the Democratic nomination for governor. Chris O'Meara / AP

MIAMI-Democrats are aggressively contesting some of the most important gubernatorial seats in the country this fall and could gain power in statehouses even if they lose influence on Capitol Hill after November as expected.

Polls show Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Florida, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and even deeply-red Kansas could upset Republican incumbents. Many of these key races are in blue states, and the rising unpopularity of President Obama does not hobble Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls as much congressional candidates, who must say if they will vote for or against his agenda.

Fmr. Gov. Charlie Crist campaigns for old job 9:20

If they win, these Democratic candidates could implement major policy changes on the state level, such as expanding Medicaid and further entrenching Obamacare, increasing the minimum wage, joining forces with the Obama administration on reducing U.S. carbon emissions and rolling back GOP-backed provisions that Democrats say make it harder to vote.

With gubernatorial victories in sight, Vice-President Biden and former President Clinton have gone to Florida, Maine and Michigan over the last two weeks to campaign for Democratic candidates. Hillary Clinton is raising money for the Democratic Governors Association this Friday in New York. Democrats are generally wary of being on the campaign trail with an increasingly unpopular Obama, but Florida Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Crist, looking to turn out minority and young voters, says he wants the president to campaign with him here.

Currently, 29 of the nation’s 50 governors are Republicans, so a strong showing by Democrats could put them in control of a majority of the nation’s statehouses, where many of the country’s laws are now written because of the stalemate in Washington between congressional Republicans and Obama.

“The minimum wage, equal pay, restoring these education cuts, building the middle class and educating our kids for the future, and getting this health care thing right, these things will not happen unless you also show up at the midterms,” Clinton said at a rally for Crist in downtown Miami yesterday.

Florida, the nation's fourth-largest state and the biggest one that could flip (Texas is likely to elect another Republican this fall, California to re-elect Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat), is Ground Zero in the gubernatorial contests.

Washington is obsessed with House and Senate races, but pays far too little attention to governor’s races

Crist, who was the state’s governor from 2007-2011 when he was a Republican, has completed a radical political reinvention to become Florida’s Democratic candidate. And the white-haired 58-year-old has the passion of a convert, taking unabashedly liberal stands on a number of issues.

“I support raising the minimum wage. He’s against it. I support equality for marriage. He’s against it,” Crist told a packed crowd at the opening of his campaign office in Hollywood in nearby Broward County, referring to differences with his GOP opponent, incumbent Gov. Rick Scott.

If elected, Crist says he would consider using an executive order to expand Medicaid, the health program for low-income Americans. Obamacare provides federal funding for states to expand their Medicaid programs, but Florida Republicans in the legislature have opposed accepting this money, and Scott has been lukewarm about the idea.

Crist also says he would actively encourage Floridians to enroll in Obamacare, a move that could increase participation in the program, which Scott has shunned. The former governor has pledged that he will make Florida a leader in combating climate change, while Scott says he is not sure if climate change is even occurring.

“It’s a bad law,” Scott said of Obamacare in an interview at Wings Plus in Coral Springs, just outside Miami, after a speech in front of Republicans there. He added, “If you want to fix health care, you can fix health care, create more competition, allow people to buy the insurance they want to buy.”

Scott’s second-term agenda is heavy on cutting taxes for both Florida businesses and individuals. Crist, who approved some tax and fee increases when he was governor to balance the budget, has not emphasized such reductions in his campaign.

And with both parties looking toward Florida’s role in the 2016 election, the contrast is sharp even on the issue of voting itself.

In 2008, as long lines left Florida voters, particularly in heavily-Democratic areas around Miami, waiting hours to vote, Crist used his power as governor to extend early-voting hours. Scott declined a similar request to hold the polls open longer in 2012, angering Democrats.

The debate between Crist and Scott mirror those in other states. A group of Republican governors swept into office in 2010, in the midst of the rise of the Tea Party, and governed from the right. Like Scott, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed controversial legislation to either limit early voting hours or require photo ID’s to vote, angering civil rights groups who cast these moves as intended to make it harder for Obama supporters to vote.

Walker, Scott and Kansas’s Sam Brownback all enacted both deep spending cuts and major tax reductions.

“These are the issues we as Democrats care about in Washington, but state-by-state Republicans are implementing that agenda,” said Danny Kanner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association.

Now, this bloc of Republican governors are moving to the political middle, as they seek reelection. With polls showing him behind Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, Corbett last month accepted federal Medicaid funding for Obamacare. Scott signed a bill earlier this year allowing in-state tuition for some undocumented immigrants, an idea both he and Crist used to oppose but is an obvious appeal to Florida’s growing Latino population.

These shifts could work. Polls here suggest Scott is narrowly ahead, and Walker is expected to hang on as well.

And Republicans could win some upsets of their own. Incumbent Democrats are unpopular in both Connecticut and Illinois, and the GOP is favored to win the governor’s mansion in Arkansas, where popular Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is retiring.

New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie, the head of the Republican Governors Association, has been campaigning for GOP gubernatorial candidates across the country. And GOP officials are building presidential-campaign style operations to win these races. Scott is expected to spend more than $50 million on his reelection bid.

“Washington is obsessed with House and Senate races, but pays far too little attention to governor’s races,” said Curt Anderson, a top adviser to Scott. “While not much new happens in Washington, most of the significant reforms happen in state governments at the directions of governors.”