White House makes effort to hold key governors' mansions

The White House is taking an increasingly active role in 2010 gubernatorial contests in key battleground states.

Administration officials have used a variety of tactics to ensure Democrats retain the governor’s mansion in at least four states.

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Republicans say this is an effective strategy for President Barack Obama to get people in place for his own 2012 reelection campaign, while also giving Democrats leverage in next year's redistricting process.

“They’re interested in getting through and surviving in 2010, but they’re also thinking ahead to his election in 2012,” said Sara Taylor, who served as political director in the Bush White House. “As an incumbent president, it’s a much easier race to wage when you’ve got a governor who’s the chairman of your campaign in a presidential race.”

The White House press office declined to comment for this story.

Officials with the Republican Governors Association (RGA) say embattled Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s (D) announcement this week that he would not seek reelection is the latest sign of White House involvement in state-level politics.

The RGA also points to Democrats dropping out in races in Michigan and Wisconsin.

“It’s a pattern emerging,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the RGA.

In Michigan, Lt. Gov. John Cherry was touted as the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee until he announced this week he wouldn’t run. Cherry cited an inability to raise campaign funds as the reason, but polls showed him trailing several GOP contenders by double digits.

In neighboring Wisconsin, White House officials courted Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) to run for Gov. Jim Doyle’s job after the two-term Democrat announced in August he wouldn’t seek reelection.

And this fall in New York, administration officials publicly discouraged Gov. David Paterson (D) from trying to keep his job.

“These Democrats were all going to have serious problems in their election," Murtaugh said.

The economic downturn has drained state coffers, leading many governments to increase fees and cut services, and unemployment remains10 percent. Incumbent governors nationwide are bearing the brunt of the growing public anxiety. Democrats hold 19 of the 37 governorships up in 2010.

All this has Republicans wondering who will be next and whether the Obama administration will play a role in encouraging more departures.

Near the top of the list of vulnerable Democratic incumbents are Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.

Strickland, a former six-term congressman, has seen his popularity drop as the state grapples with a budget crisis and high unemployment. Still, his campaign is adamant he’s not dropping out.

"This wishful thinking on the part of national Republicans has absolutely no basis in reality. In the coming weeks, both President Obama and Vice President Biden will be in Ohio,” said Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor’s campaign. “Rather than playing these political games, Governor Strickland remains focused on leading Ohio out of the worst economic recession in 70 years.”


In Iowa, Culver is also facing a tough reelection fight but Republicans there say they don’t expect him to drop out unless his Jan. 19 fundraising report reveals something dramatic. While keeping hold of Terrace Hill has symbolic value for this administration, the race has added significance because of the 2010 census. Governors hold sway over the redistricting process, which begins next year.

In Colorado, influencing the redistricting process is a top priority for Democrats.

“Oh that would be the hell and the yes,” said Laura Chapin, a Democratic strategist. “Redistricting is, for the people in this business in Colorado, that is our concern. Because the last go ’round it was such a bloodbath the Republicans tried to gerrymander it and the state Supreme Court threw it out.”

Chapin, who used to work for Ritter, said the governor’s decision not to run again was “personal.”

“Bill Ritter makes up his own mind,” she said. “Frankly, I think the White House is smart enough in recognizing that regional decisions are best made at the regional level. … The fact that Washington thinks somebody is a good candidate is not a plus here.”

Another risk associated with the White House involving itself in state-level politics is it can create the impression of a weak candidate.

In New Jersey last year, the administration became increasingly involved in the Corzine campaign. By Election Day, Obama pollster Joel Benenson was advising the governor and the White House was screening many of his TV ads.

At the same time, rumors persisted that Corzine, who was widely unpopular, was going to be asked to step aside and be replaced by either Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) or Rep. Frank Pallone (D). The White House never asked Corzine to step aside, sources close to the governor said. But rumors leaked by the Booker camp and advisors to Pallone left that impression, thereby making the Democrat’s reelection battle that much more difficult, the source said.

That could be a cautionary tale for a campaign-orientated administration.
 
“You can create a real resentment that lasts,” said Taylor. “When you can go back to try to set up a reelection for your boss and you’ve got major coalition groups who are really upset that you were tinkering in their politics they may not be so active for you the next time around.”