WASHINGTON - In this high-stakes election of 2010, much attention naturally focuses on Republican efforts to come back in Congress and the Democrats' drive to retain their large majorities in the House and Senate.
But for those gauging the long-term health of the two parties, nothing is more important than the fight for control of the 37 governorships and the legislatures on the ballot this November.
Democrats start with the advantage, holding 26 of the 50 governorships at this moment, but they must defend 19 compared with the Republicans’ 18. Big changes are certain because more than a dozen of the governors are term-limited.
Republicans are poised to make gains in the area of their greatest weakness, the Northeast. The GOP has scored one breakthrough, in New Jersey, in the 2009 off-year voting. Democrats are defending open seats in Maine and Pennsylvania, and in both states the normal cycles of alternating ascendancy favor the Republicans.
In addition, the incumbent Democratic governors of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maryland all face credible opponents in their bids to extend their terms. Only in New York, where state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is poised to succeed retiring interim Gov. David Paterson, did the Republicans fail to come up with a strong contender.
By contrast, the Democrats’ best chances for gains can be found in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, where Republican seats are open.
The South continues to look Republican. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is favored over former Houston Mayor Bill White, and the GOP has the inside track to retain open seats in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Virginia flipped to the Republicans in 2009, and they are favored to take over open Democratic governorships in Oklahoma and Tennessee. Perhaps only in Georgia, where former Gov. Roy Barnes is attempting a comeback, do Democrats have the better-known candidate.
The top race in the West is in California, where current Attorney General, and former governor, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown is challenging former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman for the job being vacated by maverick Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whitman is well on her way to breaking all individual spending records, but Brown seems determined to regain his old job.
Elsewhere in the West, Democrats look extremely vulnerable in Wyoming, and two other open seats in New Mexico and Oregon could also provide a challenge. Colorado might have also been on the list of Democratic worries but a plagiarism scandal has befallen Republican Scott McInnis, and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper now has the edge.
Democrats also have hopes in Arizona against Gov. Jan Brewer of immigration fame; in Alaska, where Sarah Palin’s successor, Sean Parnell, is seeking a full term; and in open seats in Hawaii and Nevada.
The Midwest is the main battleground and the best chance for a Republican breakthrough. In Kansas, where the Democratic governorship formerly held by Kathleen Sebelius, now the U.S. secretary of health and human services, is open, retiring Republican Sen. Sam Brownback is the overwhelming favorite.
Open Democratic seats in Michigan and Wisconsin are also tempting targets for the GOP, and they are offering credible candidates in both of them.
In the Iowa contest, Democratic Gov. Chet Culver must contend with longtime former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, and in Ohio, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland is matched against former House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich.
The final Republican opportunity is in Illinois, where interim Gov. Pat Quinn is still reeling from the fallout of the Rod Blagojevich scandal as he faces state Sen. Bill Brady. The only tempting Democratic target is the open Republican governorship in Minnesota.
Governors historically play a significant role in their parties’ presidential politics and those elected in 2010 will also have a voice in most states in the redistricting process that will follow the current census.
Governing the states will be tough in these uncertain economic times, but the competition is fierce.
David Broder, a columnist for the Washington Post, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.