The Right Rises At a Ripe Time

by Nathan L. Gonzales November 15, 2010 · 8:56 AM EST

Democrats couldn’t have picked a worse year to get hit with a political wave at the state level. The surge of 2010 puts Republicans in total control of redrawing congressional maps for more than 40 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives.

“2010 will go down as a defining political election that will shape the national political landscape for at least the next 10 years,” Tim Storey, elections specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), said in a statement. “The GOP, in dramatic fashion, finds itself now in the best position for both congressional and state legislative line-drawing” that it has enjoyed in “the modern era of redistricting.”

In the 2006 and 2008 elections, Republicans lost dozens of races up and down the ballot. But this was a great year for a comeback, with 37 of the 50 states electing governors, covering four of every five Americans. Among the biggest prizes, only California switched party control (to Democrats), while New York remained Democratic and Texas and Florida stayed in the GOP column.

Democrats are facing a net loss of six governorships. With votes still being counted in Minnesota, it looks as though Republicans will control 29 next year.

Still, after they had been significantly outspent in a toxic political climate, it could have been much worse for Democrats. “If we don’t have at least 30, I’ll be disappointed,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who is also chairman of the Republican Governors Association, told CNN’s John King the day before the election.

Off-screen, however, Republicans strengthened their position in state legislatures, which are equally important in the redistricting process that will follow the 2010 census. The GOP gained at least 680 state legislative seats on Tuesday, according to an analysis by the bipartisan NCSL.

That’s the largest gain by either party since 1966, surpassing the Democratic gains in the post-Watergate election of 1974, and it’s the most legislative seats Republicans have held since the Great Depression. According to NCSL, the GOP will have unilateral control of about 190 U.S. House districts, and a strong voice in many other remaps.

The Change Game
At least 16 governorships switched party control, but it looks like a net gain of only five for the GOP. The minimal Democratic losses are exceptional considering that the GOP was practically given four of them.

Democratic governors were term-limited out of office in four thoroughly Republican states (Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming) where Barack Obama failed to crack 42 percent in 2008, and Republican candidates won those seats easily.

Republicans added to their number in a Rust Belt rout that took over open governorships in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania while also defeating incumbent Democrats Ted Strickland in Ohio and Chet Culver in Iowa.

Even in the face of his state’s high unemployment figures, Strickland was in his race until the end and lost to Republican John Kasich by just 2 points. Democrats spent millions of dollars in advertising trying to demonize Kasich for his direct connections to Wall Street (as a managing director for now-defunct Lehman Brothers) and to Washington (as a former House committee chairman) .

According to exit polls, a third of Ohio voters primarily blamed Wall Street for their state’s economic problems, but those voters went for Kasich 49 percent to 47 percent.

“Sometimes people have all the information on the candidates and still vote for the other guy,” said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, about the Ohio race.

Familiar Faces
Twenty-three men and women will be first-time governors next year, but like Kasich, many of them are hardly political newcomers.

Sen. Sam Brownback was elected governor in Kansas, and Reps. Mary Fallin and Nathan Deal won in Oklahoma and Georgia. All are Republicans.

Deal resigned his House seat earlier in the year to focus on his gubernatorial run. Democrats had hoped that ethics questions raised after his departure would give them an opportunity, but their nominee, former Gov. Roy Barnes, wasn’t exactly a fresh face either.

Former Maryland Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich lost his re-election bid as well. Former governors Terry Branstad of Iowa, a Republican, and John Kitzhaber of Oregon, a Democrat, won comeback bids after serving previous terms and leaving office.

Kitzhaber was first elected in 1994, fighting an earlier GOP wave, and left office as a popular governor after two terms. In the end he narrowly squeaked out a victory against former professional basketball player Chris Dudley, a first-time candidate with a thin track record for Democrats to attack.

In California, voters turned to former Gov. Jerry Brown, who last led the state in 1983 and made several bids for the Democratic presidential nomination. This time he defeated Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay, who smashed records by spending more than $160 million of her own money to boost her chances on the Republican ticket.

Democrats were able to offset some of their losses in the Midwest by taking back traditionally Democratic strongholds such as California and Hawaii, where another familiar face, longtime Rep. Neil Abercrombie, won the governorship.

Republicans’ failure to meet their own expectations on election night can be traced to the Northeast, where numerous GOP opportunities did not materialize.

Republicans failed to knock off Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts despite his mediocre job approval numbers, and lost open governorships in Vermont and Rhode Island. Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee won the Ocean State as an independent.

GOP prospects are unclear in Connecticut, where Democrat Dan Malloy was declared the winner even as Republican nominee Tom Foley proclaimed that he had won.

Republicans picked up the governorship in Maine, where Waterville Mayor Paul LePage won with less than 40 percent as two more-liberal candidates divided the Democratic and independent vote. Independent Eliot Cutler at one point surged ahead of Democratic nominee Libby Mitchell in the race’s final weeks and nearly pulled off a victory.

Overall, third-party candidates were significant factors in Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado and Illinois, although only Chafee was victorious.

In Illinois, former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor Scott Lee Cohen ran as an independent, but he got only 4 percent of the vote; the Green Party candidate got 3 percent, and Gov. Pat Quinn scraped by Republican legislator Bill Brady. The result is a major disappointment for the GOP, as voters have consistently given Quinn poor marks for the job he’s done since succeeding Rod R. Blagojevich.

Colorado was another big disappointment for Republicans. As Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter Jr.’s job ratings sank, GOP prospects brightened. After Ritter decided not to run for re-election, Democrats turned to popular Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.

The Republicans became mired in a messy primary and nominated Dan Maes over former Rep. Scott McInnis. Former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo deemed Maes unelectable and ran at the last minute on the American Constitution Party line. Maes tanked, Tancredo became the de facto GOP nominee, and the division was enough for the Republican Governors Association to walk away from the opportunity.

Rising Republicans
Republicans did elevate some potential rising stars for the party.

South Carolina elected Nikki Haley, who becomes the first Indian-American woman governor and second Indian-American governor, after Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, also a Republican.

In New Mexico, voters turned to former Dona Ana County prosecutor Susana Martinez, a Hispanic woman. She was one of several law-and-order Republican candidates to win gubernatorial bids, along with former U.S. Attorney Matt Mead in Wyoming and former U.S. District Judge Brian Sandoval in Nevada, where he defeated Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid’s son.

In Michigan, wealthy Republican businessman Rick Snyder got attention for his creative television ads, which portrayed him as “one tough nerd.” His impressive outsider campaign carried him through a competitive primary and the general election to take over a recession-buffeted state that had remained elusive for the GOP.

In Florida, wealthy businessman Rick Scott came out of nowhere to knock off State Attorney General Bill McCollum in the primary and narrowly defeat the Democratic nominee, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, in the general election.

Scott’s victory was something of a surprise, considering that his previous company was involved in what was then the largest Medicare fraud case ever. The company pleaded guilty to 14 felonies and paid more than $2 billion to the government and private plaintiffs. Scott’s opponents seized on the issue and drove up his negative ratings, but in the end, his outsider message resonated with enough voters.

According to strategists on both sides of the aisle, the Florida gubernatorial race is a prime example of how the sins of an outsider candidate were less damaging than a perceived connection to the establishment this year.

The Longer View
In the past, both parties approached gubernatorial races on a year-by-year basis. But beginning in 2007, the RGA and the DGA began strategizing for a four-year cycle that ended with this year’s big crop of races.

Until now, there had not been a lot of movement. In January 2007, Democrats held 28 governorships to the Republicans’ 22. The parties fought to a draw the first year, and Democrats gained a single statehouse in 2008, when only 11 governorships were on the ballot.

Democrats’ grip on 29 governorships lasted only briefly, until Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano left in early 2009 to take a position in the Obama Cabinet and Republican Jan Brewer succeeded her. Faced with tremendous difficulties, Brewer was once an underdog for her party’s nomination, but she solidified her base by challenging the president on immigration and lured independents by pushing for a tax increase to cover a budget shortfall.

What ended as a Republican wave on Tuesday can be traced back to 2009, when Republicans took over both the New Jersey and Virginia governorships. The results narrowed the Democratic advantage nationally from 26 to 24. Now Republicans have a strong majority of chief executives.

While Republicans did not deliver a knockout blow in gubernatorial races, the GOP’s decisive victories at the state level could have long-term consequences for the Democrats.

For months, Democratic strategists privately expressed concern that the party had the expertise and resources to stem the GOP tide in some federal races, but there wasn’t enough attention on races further down the ballot. Their nightmare came true on Tuesday.

The GOP picked up 19 chambers, giving it control of 56 out of 98 partisan legislative chambers in the country. More important, Republicans control both chambers in 26 states (up from 15 before the election), including some key redistricting states. In 20 of those states they also control the governorship.

“Of the 18 states that are going to gain or lose seats in reapportionment, Republicans now have majorities in 10 of those states,” said Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, who predicted that the GOP could gain 15 to 25 House seats through redistricting.

Every state will redraw its congressional map, even if it doesn’t gain or lose a seat due to population growth or loss. In most states, the legislature is in charge of drawing the lines, and in 39 states it has the power to veto a new map or the authority to appoint a redistricting commission.

“If you are a political party, you never want to have a really bad election,” said veteran political handicapper Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report. “But if you’re gonna have one, you really don’t want to have it in a year that ends in a zero.”