Democratic Governors Try to Put 2009 Behind Them

By: - December 3, 2009 12:00 am

A trio of Democratic governors outlined what they called their “opening shot” of the 2010 gubernatorial election season – in which 37 governor’s seats will be contested – and said they saw no national omens in last month’s Democratic losses in New Jersey and Virginia.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Wednesday (Dec. 2) told reporters in Washington, D.C., that Democratic gubernatorial candidates will be successful next year if they focus on providing pragmatic leadership in tough times.

Voters want “people who can balance budgets – not partisan people, not people who are sniping – (but) people who can run the business of government,” said Schweitzer, the outgoing chair of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA).

The association, which promotes Democratic gubernatorial candidates, on Wednesday tapped Markell, a first-year governor who was praised by the group for his “strong business leadership,” as its new chair for the coming election cycle. O’Malley, who is seeking re-election in Maryland next year, will remain vice-chair.

Even as they talked of pragmatic governing and avoiding partisanship, the three Democrats announced a new political strategy as their party tries to fight through political headwinds underscored by losses in both of this year’s gubernatorial races.

The DGA, the governors announced, will spend $1 million in each of at least five states – California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa and Ohio – to single out Republican gubernatorial candidates in those states and tie them to “policies that didn’t work in the past and would just take us backward.” The group also unveiled a new Web site to promote the initiative – which it calls “The GOP Accountability Project” – and said it would likely funnel money into other states as necessary.

Next year’s election cycle is particularly important because of the once-a-decade state and congressional redistricting that will accompany the 2010 Census. O’Malley noted that – because of a special election for Utah governor next year – more gubernatorial seats will be at stake ahead of redistricting next year than ever before.

The 2010 elections could be especially trying for incumbent governors, as states prepare for what could be an even tougher budget year than this one. The National Governors Association has predicted that states won’t fully emerge from the current recession until ” late in the next decade ” – with many experts saying the worst is yet to come – and more than half the states raised taxes this year to make up for steep revenue drops. Those tax hikes could translate into voter anger at the polls.

For incumbent Democratic governors, meanwhile, last month’s defeat of New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) by Republican challenger Chris Christie may be an onerous sign.

Corzine was the first incumbent governor to face the voters after a year of deep budget cutting in Trenton and other state capitals around the nation, and he lost despite outspending Christie by a 2-to-1 margin and campaigning prominently with President Obama, who is popular in New Jersey. The Garden State, moreover, is a traditionally Democratic state – more so than Virginia, where Republicans maintain control of the state House of Delegates.

Next year, Democrats will defend the majority – 19 of 37 – of the gubernatorial seats at stake. Nine Democratic incumbents are in the running, compared to seven Republican incumbents.

Asked whether Corzine’s defeat spells bad news for Democratic incumbents next year, O’Malley and Schweitzer shrugged off the elections in New Jersey and Virginia as poor indicators of what will happen next year.

“We’re not looking in the past. We’re looking in the future,” Schweitzer said.

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