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Stumbling Governors Signal Trouble for Dems

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Monday, July 27, 2009

With polls showing a drop in Barack Obama's job rating and sinking support for the Democrats' health care plans, there is evidence of collateral damage where you might not expect to find it: in the standing of Democratic governors. Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell suddenly is getting negative job ratings in both the Quinnipiac University and the Franklin & Marshall College polls -- his lowest marks in seven years as governor. Ohio's Ted Strickland, who has spent most of his first term working amicably with Republican legislators, scores less than 50 percent in the latest Quinnipiac poll and has only tenuous leads over two Republicans, John Kasich and Mike DeWine, who may run against him next year.

In the two gubernatorial races being contested this year, Republicans seem to have advantages. In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell has led Democrat Creigh Deeds in all but one poll and picked up the support of Black Entertainment Television billionaire Sheila Johnson, one of the biggest contributors to the incumbent, Democratic National Chairman Tim Kaine. New Jersey incumbent Jon Corzine, who spent more than $100 million on narrow wins for senator in 2000 and governor in 2005, is 15 points behind Republican Chris Christie. Corzine will not be helped by the indictment of multiple Jersey pols, most of them Democrats, in a case initiated by Christie when he was a U.S. attorney.

There's an argument that these results hold little relevance to the standing of the national parties. Almost every state faces severe fiscal problems, and standoffs between a governor and a legislature can drag the governor's ratings way down, as in the case of California's Arnold Schwarzenegger. Moreover, a governor's personal strengths and weaknesses can override party identification; one of the nation's highest-rated governors is Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat in very Republican Wyoming.

Even so, these numbers should be troubling for Democrats. Rendell and Strickland are attractive personalities with some penchant for centrist policies. Both were suggested as possible running mates for Barack Obama. (Both sensibly swatted away those suggestions.) Corzine is running in a state that, with a rising immigrant population and an outflow of affluent residents, has been solidly Democratic for a dozen years. Altogether, these states have 69 electoral votes, and Obama won all four by comfortable margins last November.

Democratic governors in other important states also have been getting low marks from voters. North Carolina's freshly elected Bev Perdue has only 26 percent of voters willing to re-elect her. Colorado's Bill Ritter, Washington's Christine Gregoire, Oregon's Ted Kulongoski, Wisconsin's Jim Doyle, Massachusetts' Deval Patrick and Michigan's Jennifer Granholm have been getting sub-majority voter approval most of the year.

These governors are mostly able and attractive people, and every one of their states voted for Obama. None of them is tarred by scandal or not up to the job, as seems to be the case with the nation's lowest-rated governors, Nevada Republican Jim Gibbons and New York Democrat David Paterson.

I take all this as evidence -- not conclusive evidence, but significant evidence -- for the proposition that economic distress does not predispose voters to favor bigger government. Not all the reasons for these governors' negative job ratings arise from debates over the size of government, but many do -- and voters clearly are not hankering for more government.

When you put these results together with Obama's slide in the polls, they suggest trouble for big-government Democrats. Pollster Scott Rasmussen now shows Obama with only 49 percent job approval; when he asked voters which party they'd like to represent them in the House, Republicans came out ahead of Democrats.

Some analysts will point out that Rasmussen's results tend to be more negative for Democrats than those of other pollsters. That's because, as Rasmussen explains, he uses a likely-voter formula that tends to assume that first-time voters in November 2008 will not turn out in force in 2009 or 2010.

That seems to have been the case so far in most 2009 special elections and primaries. In off-year elections without Obama on the ballot, it seems unlikely that young blacks will turn out in larger proportions than young whites, as the Census Bureau reported happening in 2008. Democratic candidates will have to make their own cases, and the governors' job ratings suggest their prospects may be dicey.

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