It must have been gloomy for Democrats when the nation's governors met last month in Boston for their annual summer get-together. The reason: If congressional races look bad for Democrats, the 37 gubernatorial contests are even worse.
A quick survey of the political landscape shows six of the seven Democratic governors running for re-election are polling under 50% and in danger of losing, while all six GOP incumbents seeking re-election are expected to win. In the 24 open gubernatorial contests, Republicans lead in 15 and are tied in three others.
More than half of Americans are likely to have a new chief executive for their state come November. Democrats are burdened by President Barack Obama's low approval ratings and, in some open races, by widespread public dissatisfaction with the state's retiring Democratic incumbent.
That's not to say the GOP has had all smooth sailing. In Colorado, plagiarism charges have crippled Republican frontrunner Scott McInnis. Less dangerously, Florida Republicans are locked in a bitter primary. But these are the exceptions.
The GOP's edge in statehouse contests could have major ramifications for a long time to come, including next year's redistricting of the House of Representatives. The more GOP governors, the stronger Republican dominance of the process will be. Eighteen of the 21 states that could add or lose congressional seats have governors' races this fall. There also will be a lot more Republican legislators after November to help draw redistricting lines for the coming decade.
Republicans are poised to elect a new generation of leaders. After this fall's election, the GOP could have two Indian-American, two Hispanic, and as many as seven women governors. This would provide powerful evidence of the GOP's diversity and help refurbish the party's image.
More importantly, the GOP's crop of new governors can demonstrate that conservative ideas work. Just as GOP governors helped lay the foundation for the Republican resurgence in 1994 by pursuing far-reaching reform of welfare, education and taxes, so could new policy-minded chief executives reinvigorate the Republican Party's reputation as the "party of ideas."
Already, the GOP victors in last year's gubernatorial contests are providing powerful contrasts to Mr. Obama's policies. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell erased his state's nearly $2 billion deficit without raising taxes. Facing a $13 billion shortfall, a hostile Democratic legislature and more than $7 million in negative ads launched against him by labor unions, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie nonetheless balanced the budget while cutting taxes.
Governors also have far more electoral impact on their states than do distant, often-absent senators and congressmen. Since 1994, Republicans have won 26 Senate seats previously held by Democrats. Twenty of those pickups were in states with an incumbent Republican governor or a GOP gubernatorial candidate who won that same day. Governors matter even more when it comes to picking a president. When George W. Bush won the White House in 2000, there were GOP chief executives in nearly every important battleground, helping move swing states like West Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas into his column. By comparison, the only major swing-state the GOP controlled in 2008 was Florida.
The GOP wave is so strong right now that Republicans could simultaneously win the governorships in the critical Great Lake battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois. And the GOP is likely to win the governorship in other presidential battlegrounds like Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon.
If this comes to pass, it will be no accident. Under the remarkable leadership of the Republican Governors Association chairman, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and his wunderkind executive director Nick Ayers, the RGA has turned into a political juggernaut.
At the end of June, the RGA had $40 million in cash, even after spending nearly $11 million earlier this year to aid GOP challengers. In Ohio, for example, the RGA spent $2.8 million to blunt a $3 million Democratic effort to trash former Ohio Congressman John Kasich. Mr. Kasich now leads Democrat incumbent Ted Strickland by eight points.
And in Wisconsin, the RGA has helped put Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker ahead of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by eight points in the latest Rasmussen poll by outspending the Democrats 3 to 1 on television ads.
Political change comes more powerfully from the bottom up, not from the top down. The election of reform-oriented conservative Republican governors can shake America's political firmament. It would have profound implications on the GOP's reputation and the outcome of the 2012 election.