GOP hopes Rust Belt wins help redistricting

GOP hopes Rust Belt wins help redistricting

If Republicans are to make significant gubernatorial gains in 2010, the wave will start in the heart of the Rust Belt.

Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania loom as big bellwether states with huge redistricting implications. Democrats also happen to hold all three — a factor they admit will work against them.

As Democrats look to take big pieces of the puzzle like Florida and Texas, they will need to guard against losses in those three Midwestern states. Few places in the country have been hit harder by the economic woes, and voters are looking for people to blame.

The states also feature plenty of competitive congressional districts that can be chopped and massaged in 2011 by whoever is in power.

Republican Governors Association (RGA) spokesman Tim Murtaugh said those factors up the ante in those three states.

“These are ones that will draw a lot of attention,” Murtaugh said. “We feel very good about Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan. The atmosphere is there for us to do well.”

Democrats worried aloud about their chances in the three states — each of which has shown them behind in early polling.

“Incumbent governors are endangered species; the economy is wreaking havoc,” Ohio Democratic consultant Jim Ruvolo said. “To the extent that the economy in Ohio is bad, the governor has got some work to do.”

That governor, Ted Strickland, is the only Democratic governor of the three states who is allowed to run for another term. In Michigan, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has taken the brunt of the blame for a foundering automotive industry, and in Pennsylvania, the once-popular Gov. Ed Rendell has seen his numbers wane, too.

For Democrats, it may be a blessing that neither of them can run for reelection, but the complex primaries they leave behind are cause for plenty of uncertainty as well.

Neither primary features a well-known statewide politician or current member of Congress, and Democrats trail state attorneys general by wide margins in early polling in both states.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett is a star recruit for the GOP, and with the state’s history of transferring the governor’s mansion between parties every eight years, he’s looking like the favorite.

Democrats, meanwhile, have seen a four-way primary form after wealthy businessman Tom Knox dropped out of the race last week.

The field now features the establishment favorite, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato; the centrist outsider, state Auditor General Jack Wagner; the liberal, former Rep. Joe Hoeffel; and Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty.

Former state Democratic Party Executive Director Tony May said Onorato will benefit from the support of Rendell’s backers, but that Wagner could appeal to the elements that sent Republican Scott Brown to victory in the Massachusetts Senate race last week.

“I think Wagner, as a more charismatic candidate, has a better chance of getting them,” May said. “Those voters exist in Pennsylvania. They’re Reagan Democrats, and they’re still unhappy.”

While the field in the Keystone State is shrinking, the field in Michigan is still growing after Lt. Gov. John Cherry’s (D) exit from the race early this month. Since then, state House Speaker Andy Dillon and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero have opened exploratory committees, and University of Michigan Regent Denise Ilitch could also enter the race.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said on Tuesday that he would not be running.

Cherry’s exit was seen as a boon to Democrats, with the lieutenant governor unable to shake off the problems that plague Granholm’s administration. But those who have filled the race since his exit are all little-known and have a long way to go in a little more than seven months before the primary.

They face the prospect of going up against state Attorney General Mike Cox or Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.).

The GOP primary is also an open question, but regardless of who wins, of the three states, Michigan likely poses the biggest challenge for Democrats to hold.

“Michigan is a tougher situation for us,” said one national Democratic operative. “It has been devastated by Republicans in Washington and people are impatient and frustrated and ready for some change.”

That change is generally laid at the feet of current officeholders, though, and Michigan Democrats will fight against the Granholm name in much the same way Cherry failed to.

In Ohio, Strickland will have no such luxury. As the state has struggled and Republicans have mounted a massive effort to reclaim it, Strickland has seen his numbers decline, but not as much as some other governors.

A University of Cincinnati poll over the weekend showed him with a decent 50 percent approval rating, 45 percent disapproving and just 31 percent saying he has a “great deal of influence” over day-to-day economic conditions. Still, he trailed former Rep. John Kasich, the presumptive GOP nominee, 51-45, and he’s faced bigger deficits in other recent polls.

Democrats think they can counter the economic troubles by pointing out that Kasich was a managing director at Lehman Brothers when it went under in 2008. But they recognize the environmental factors Strickland will be faced with.

“I’m kind of cautiously optimistic about it — very cautious and mildly optimistic,” said Ohio Democratic consultant Greg Haas, adding: “People believe he’s trying, which is always important.”