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Close Gubernatorial Races

October 30, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Election 2002 is less than a week away. Much attention has been focused on the campaigns for the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, where the control of both chambers hang in the balance. Maybe not as heralded, but perhaps as important, are the 36 states that will be electing Governors.

16 incumbents are seeking reelection; 20 are open seats. To sort through the trends and some of the more interesting races, we’re joined by two veteran political watchers:

Ron Faucheux, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Campaigns and Elections; and Chuck Todd, chief editor of The Hotline, a daily political newsletter. Well, a week to go and what is the importance of the governor’s races with all of this emphasis on the House and Senate, what are we missing that’s important?

CHUCK TODD: Well, the Governor’s races are in some way the most interesting races. The Senate is down to about six races; the House is down to 20 races.

The governorships there is 26 races we have of the 36 where the leaders in the polls is under 50 percent. This is where the anti-incumbent move that people are looking for, this is where it’s at.

Anti-incumbents or anti-incumbent parties, they are all struggling because of the budget messes. All of the budget messes that we’re arguing about here, they’ve all come home to roost in these statehouses and these governors, these incumbent party governors, and the incumbent governors themselves are struggling with budget messes and that’s what almost the crux of every argument in every state is about.

RAY SUAREZ: Ron, are there a lot more seats in play, is there a lot more movement in these statehouses because of term limits, which you don’t have at the federal level?

RON FAUCHEUX: Well, you do have that as part of it because you have 20 open seats of the 36 right now. But it’s as you said, all of these economic problems have sort of come home to roost at the gubernatorial level.

While congress is talking about education and the environment and consumer protection and crime and all of these other issues, governors in state legislatures are doing things about them.

So who is elected Governor is very important for this country from a policy making standpoint as well as from presidential politics.

Six of the last seven presidential races were won by governors and former governors, so they’re important elections, and as Chuck said, you know, there is a lot of possible turnover.

CHUCK TODD: And another thing that folks miss with these governors races is that they are the dominant races in these states.

We’re all so focused on out here, for instance, before Senator Wellstone passed away — in Minnesota it was the governor’s race that was getting more attention, in South Carolina it’s the governor’s race was getting more attention, even though here in Washington we get consumed with the battle of the Senate.

So the issues that are driving voters for the polls are what’s being run on in the governor’s races.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, each of you have chosen some hot races that you think are interesting for one reason or another. Let’s sort of rift through them. Minnesota.

RON FAUCHEUX: Well, Minnesota is interesting because you currently have an independent governor who is neither a Democrat nor Republican. You have a three-way governor’s race between Tim Penny, a former Democratic conservative reform, moderate Democratic member of Congress, who is running as the independent candidate; you’ve got Roger Moe, who is the Democratic leader in the Senate and Tim Pawlenty, the Republican leader in the House.

It has been a pretty close election. There are some recent indications that Penny’s vote may be dropping some. But it’s a very interesting race, because there is an opportunity, a greater opportunity there than any state in the country to elect a non-Democrat or non-Republican governor.

RAY SUAREZ: And quickly, does Walter Mondale’s arrival in the race have spillover effects into the governor’s race?

RON FAUCHEUX: Well, you would think perhaps it would; you would think that the Democratic base in the state would be energized, although the only round of polling I have seen since then is showing that’s not the case.

RAY SUAREZ: Todd, Maryland where they haven’t elected a Republican since Spiro Agnew.

CHUCK TODD: Yes. This is their best chance they’ve ever had. You have the Democrat one time superstar-in-waiting Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who as a lieutenant governor was seriously touted as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, and then you have the Republican here, Bob Erlich.

It is as good of a chance Republicans have ever had of winning the seat. He has survived this onslaught. You know, Maryland is a very Democratic state, but he has survived this onslaught from her; she raised a ton of money; but he did pretty well in the fund-raising. He’s not the right wing Republican that Maryland Democrats have been beating up on for years.

He really is this very middle-of-the-road guy. He represented — his congressional district was a Democratic leaning district, and so he always had to survive those elections.

He never had tough elections; he voted just Democratic enough just to the left in his party to keep that seat. So there weren’t a lot of votes for them… for her to beat him up on.

The fact that he’s ahead in two new polls that we have seen; one out of the Baltimore Sun had him up four; another one tonight that is going to be in the papers tomorrow has him up one.

The fact that he’s up this late she has beaten him up on the air, tried to take advantage of the gun issue when guns were a very potent issue during the whole sniper investigation, and it hasn’t taken. You just kind of see that maybe she is not going to pull this off.

RAY SUAREZ: Ron, Massachusetts?

RON FAUCHEUX: Well, Massachusetts is another Democratic state where the Republicans have a shot at winning the governorship. They have held the governorship now for the last three elections they have won.

The incumbent governor who is in effect the caretaker governor, Jane Swift, a Republican who took over the position when the elected Republican governor became an ambassador from President Bush’s appointment.

Swift was moved out of the election in a bloodless coup by the Republican leadership in the state because her numbers looked so bad.

And they brought in Mitt Romney, who was probably their best shot by far. Romney has hung in there. The Democratic candidate, Shannon O’Brien, went through a contentious primary but came out if it in pretty good shape.

It’s a very, very close election. The last round of polls give O’Brien a very slight lead but it could go either way.

RAY SUAREZ: Florida?

CHUCK TODD: Florida. What’s there to say about Florida? Already tonight folks have seen governor Bush. It seems like everything that happens in this country somehow happens in Florida first and Governor Bush has to deal with it.

This race if you watch the race on television and it was Jeb Smith versus Bill Smith rather than what it is, you would say this race is all about education and funding of education.

But the reality is even though that’s what Bill McBride, who is the Democratic nominee, is running on, he is basically — it’s a replay of Bush versus Gore, and anybody who doesn’t look at this race any other way is not following what’s going on down there.

It’s a battle of wills in some respect, and it’s the one place that Democrats believe they can embarrass the President. And if they beat his brother, and his brother loses, then they feel like they will have embarrassed the President.

So that’s their ground zero — the Senate, House, forget if, if they can beat Jeb Bush, then that sends the signal nationally, they can beat the brother.

RAY SUAREZ: Ron, Tennessee?

RON FAUCHEUX: Tennessee is a state that’s had a Republican governor. The current Republican governor Don Sundquist is unpopular; he got on the wrong side of tax issues.

The Republican candidate Congressman — Republican Congressman Van Hilleary has actually opposed Sundquist’s tax program and has had a very contentious relationship with the current Republican governor.

The Democratic candidate is former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, who ran against Sundquist eight years ago. After the Republican primary, which was so divisive where you had a Republican governor and a Republican candidate for governor at odds with one another, many people thought that the Democrats had a great shot to pick it up but Van Hilleary has hung there very well.

The last round of polling is showing it within a couple of points either way, and so it’s really up for grabs and it’s an interesting state because all the problems, the fiscal problems, the spending problems, the deficit problems that so many states are seeing are coming together in Tennessee in an interesting way.

RAY SUAREZ: You talked about Florida being in the shadow of the 2000 race; is Texas in the shadow of it..

CHUCK TODD: It is but not as much because everybody that’s running in Texas and this is not just in the governorship, it’s in the senate race, it’s in the lieutenant governor’s race — all is running even the Democrats by first saying we love President Bush.

Then they say but this is why I’m running and this is why you should elect me. This governor’s race is fascinating on so many levels and it’s not just the governor’s race; it’s paired up with that senate race.

The Democrats have nominated a Latino businessman Tony Sanchez, who is self-funding the race; he’s probably going to be spending at the end $75 million in the state alone, maybe more we may find out later, but a minimum of $75 million.

The Republican Governor is Rick Perry; he assumed the governorship. It’s never easy to run on your own. He never got the good time poll numbers that governors got in the late 90s.

He assumed it right when suddenly the budget problems were coming and so he never was that popular in the first place. It’s by far the nastiest TV ad campaign in the country.

They have — both have used police blotting photographs of the other in their ads. It’s just downright dirty. I couldn’t even tell you what the issues are about because they just are too busy beating each other up personally.

RAY SUAREZ: Any indication that turnout is going to be higher because of all these interesting races, at least in states like these that you’ve been talking about?

RON FAUCHEUX: Well, oftentimes when you have close elections, it pumps up turnout at the end, although the trend has been in midterm elections recently for turnout to keep going down.

That’s an opportunity for both sides. The lower turnout is the more each side has a chance to manipulate to its advantage. Republican consultants from around the country that I’ve talked to in the last week are scared to death that some of these close races — governor’s races as well as congressional races will flip to the Democrats with Democratic base turnout.

RAY SUAREZ: Ron Faucheux, Chuck Todd, thank you both.