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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Monday | May 12, 2003

Democrat governors will reinvent Party

Much forgotten in last November's "GOP sweep" was the fact that there really was no sweep. The Senate losses came in extraordinarily close races, all of which broke the GOP's way. There's no reason to minimize the pain those losses caused, but they did not reflect the collapse of the Democratic Party. And for proof, just take a look at our performance in the governor races:

The Democrats took the following 11 state houses from the GOP:

New Mexico
Republican took the following seven from the Dems:
New Hampshire
South Carolina
The GOP also took MN from the Independence Party.

Note that all of the GOP's pickups, except for Georgia, came in small states. The Democratic Party garnered solid wins in Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. So what's the significance of these victories?

Farm System
Governorships are training grounds for potential national candidates. There's one reason and one reason only that Alaska is in play next year -- because former governor Tony Knowles may run. The same could happen in future years with our new red-state governors in Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

Governors also provide strong potential presidential candidates. Our 2002 pickups provided at least two top-tier potential prez candidates -- NM's Bill Richardson and PA's Ed Rendell. While I actually believe our current crop of candidates provides us with a strong field, governors have historically offered the strongest candidates for either party.

Election Day 2004
CW is that a governor gives his or her party a 2-3 point boost in the presidential campaign (given the guv's political infrastructure, donor base, bully pulpit, etc.). In that regards, Democrats had huge pickups in IL, MI, NM, PA, TN, WI and AZ. In return, the Dems gave up only one battleground 2004 state: New Hampshire (while the GOP also gained MN).

Shaping the Political Agenda
State government is, in many ways, more immediate to people than anything coming out of DC. GOP governors, especially the batch in the moderate midwest (in WI's Thompson, IL's Edgar, MI's Engler, and PA's Ridge), provided the ideological foundation for Bush's "compassionate conservatism". Those governors are now all gone, entirely replaced by Democrats, but their legacy currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Democrats are now in position to offer the same to the Democratic Party. On tap? A practical demonstration on the Democratic Party's evolution beyond "tax and spend". The results are startling: while Democratic governors (outside of the mess in California) are steadfast in their opposition to new taxes, GOP governors in places like Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Maryland, New York, and Nevada are moving in the opposite direction.

As for the Democrats? Check out Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Indeed, the notoriously anti-tax Cato Institute, writing on the issue, puts it best:

Not since Reconstruction had a Republican won a governor's race in Georgia -- until last November, when Sonny Perdue pulled off a stunning come-from-behind victory over incumbent Democrat Roy Barnes. But after 120 years of Republican exile from the governor's mansion, it took Gov. Perdue only about 120 minutes to endorse Georgia's largest tax increase in memory: $600 million [...]

Perdue isn't the only GOP governor flirting with higher taxes. An analysis by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) notes that with nearly $100 billion in state deficit spending gaps to close this year (New York and California make up about half that shortfall), governors may end up raising taxes by half that amount, making 2003 the biggest tax-hike year ever for the states. And yes, many of the calls for the biggest tax increases are coming from Republicans. In Idaho, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is seeking a 1.5 cent per dollar hike in the sales tax. In Arkansas, Mike Huckabee is lobbying for a sales tax hike and assorted other fee increases, as are Kenny Guinn of Nevada and Bob Taft of Ohio. One of the most cockeyed tax schemes has been advanced by John Rowland of Connecticut, who has called for a Clintonesque "millionaire income tax surcharge." [...] So now, a state that flourished for 200 years without an income tax has a Republican governor who can't conceive of any way to balance the budget without raising it.

But here's the really strange twist of fate in state-level politics: Suddenly many Democratic governors are shunning new taxes and trimming agency fat after a decade-long state spending feast. Admittedly it's early, but so far there are signs that the 2002 elections ushered in a new breed of ambitious, politically non-suicidal Democratic governors, including Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, and Bill Richardson of New Mexico [...]

For now at least, these new-new Democrats are begging off broad-based tax hikes to plug budget holes and are actually cutting spending. Tennessee's new governor, Phil Bredesen, has dismissed Republican predecessor Don Sundquist's wildly unpopular call for a state income tax, and instead is seeking a 5 percent across-the-board spending cut to balance the budget. [...]

Contrast that common-sense approach with the strange goings-on in Idaho. Kempthorne stunned even his most enthusiastic supporters in January by endorsing what would be the biggest tax increase in Idaho history.

I am not about to subscribe to Cato's contention that all tax raises are bad, and all tax cuts are good. But fact of the matter is, the Democratic Party is assuming the mantle of "Party of Fiscal Discipline", while the GOP, led by its spending-happy president, is becoming the party of fiscal disaster.

And throughout it all, our new breed governors will lead the way.

Posted May 12, 2003 01:09 AM | Comments (75)


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