RALEIGH — The 2003 cycle of political contests isn’t quite over. There are still some local elections to settle in North Carolina, most prominent among them the Charlotte mayoral and city-council races. And the Schwarzenegger phenomenon wasn’t the end of key races in other states. Several gubernatorial races will conclude next month, while others — set for a vote in 2004 — are just beginning to stir.
Right now, the story seems to be one of Republican momentum and Democratic angst. This pretty much flips the situation of a few years ago on its head.
Quite by surprise, especially to them, the Republicans had captured a majority of the nation’s governorships in the mid-1990s, including the most populous states in the union. At one point the two biggest states with Democratic governors were Florida (Lawton Chiles) and North Carolina (Jim Hunt).
Later in the decade, the tide began to ebb. Democrats regained some lost territory and took the grandest prize of all with the election of Gray Davis (remember him?) as California’s governor in 1998. In 2000, several well-financed and high-profile attempts by Republicans to pick up Democratic governorships fell short, including in Missouri and our own North Carolina. Finally, in 2002, the GOP lost its hold on the top jobs in several Midwestern and Western states such as Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico.
But the 2002 cycle didn’t exactly turn out the way many Democrats had hoped and political pundits had predicted. The Republicans clung to a tiny majority of the nation’s governorships by picking off Democrats in such unlikely states as Maryland and Georgia, and by protecting a Republican perch in what seemed like the most unfertile soil of all, Massachusetts. A narrow loss by Republican nominee Bill Simon in Davis’ re-election bid was a low point in an otherwise upbeat night for the GOP in 2002, but given what transpired in California less than a year later, the Simon disappointment seems like much more than a year ago.
Now, in the few races to be decided this year, Republican hopes are growing. Indian-American Bobby Jindal has a good chance to hold a Republican governorship in Louisiana. In Kentucky, a state Republicans haven’t governed in a quarter of a century, one of the Democrats in a contested primary has just endorsed Republican Ernie Fletcher against Democratic nominee Ben Chandler. And in Mississippi, Republican heavyweight Haley Barbour is running a spirited and well-funded campaign to take back a GOP governorship lost to Democrat Ronnie Musgrove four years ago.
Meanwhile, in the upcoming 2004 cycle, Republicans see more bright spots. In the two heartbreaking states of 2000 — Missouri and North Carolina — vulnerable Democratic incumbents are drawing a slew of challengers. In the first case, Missouri Gov. Bob Holden has actually drawn a challenger in the Democratic primary, from the sitting state auditor. (North Carolina’s Ralph Campbell is reportedly holding a major press conference on Wednesday morning, so perhaps I should attend. . .)
As with all other political trends, this one is subject to an immediate and complete reversal. If President Bush runs poorly, something goes horribly awry in the economy or the war, or scandals develop, all Republican bets are off.
I guess the surprise some GOP activists haven’t gotten over yet is that so many bets are being made so confidently.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.