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GOP sees comeback in 2010 governors' races

By Peter Hamby, CNN political producer

Republican Bob McDonnell celebrates his win as Virginia governor this month. The GOP hopes for a repeat in next year's races.
Republican Bob McDonnell celebrates his win as Virginia governor this month. The GOP hopes for a repeat in next year's races.
  • Republicans say they'll see big gains in governors' races in 2010
  • GOP says New Jersey and Virginia wins proof of Democratic backlash
  • GOP cites economy, concern over President Obama's agenda as helping party
  • Democrats reject the GOP's boasting of a resurgence next year

Washington (CNN) -- In the early days of his campaign for governor in Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell hired longtime GOP pollster Glen Bolger to take the pulse of the state's notoriously independent-minded voters.

Bolger asked voters if they'd rather elect a governor who would work with President Obama to implement his plans for the economy or a candidate who would serve as a check on Democrats in Washington.

Fifty-five percent wanted a governor who planned to stand up to the president, Bolger said he discovered, while 35 percent desired someone who would help the White House.

Bolger said it wasn't what he expected to find.

"I was kind surprised by that result, because I thought people would say that's not really a factor in the governor's race," Bolger said, noting that McDonnell won the race by a similar margin. "But people saw it as almost like Democrats are oversteering too much in one direction, and they wanted correction."

After dismal election cycles in 2006 and 2008, Republicans are hoping that signs of discomfort with Obama's agenda will translate into big gains in governors' mansions around the country next November. They point to off-year wins this month in Virginia and New Jersey as early proof that a backlash against Democratic overreach in Washington is under way.

By the numbers, the landscape for the GOP looks good: Of the 37 governorships at stake in 2010, 21 of them are open seats. Nineteen of the 37 seats on the ballot are held by Democrats, who have been saddled with the burden of a troubled economy.

The public's concern over the economy, Republicans say, is exacerbated by growing anxiety over White House agenda items such as increased spending, the health care overhaul and proposed cap-and-trade legislation, creating a gloomy political outlook for Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls.

"There is really no middle ground on issues like national health care for Democratic governors," Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said last week at the group's annual meeting near Austin, Texas. "They're going to really have to take a position."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the the GOP governors' group, said the national political climate will have an indisputable impact on governors' races, battles that usually hinge on state and local issues. Speaking at the conference in Texas, he estimated that next year's midterms could be even more favorable to Republicans than the 1994 elections in which the GOP famously swept to power on Capitol Hill and in statehouses nationwide.

Democrats reject the GOP's early boasting about a Republican resurgence.

In a memo distributed to reporters, Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, wrote that Republicans, if elected, will "make a screeching U-turn and lead us back to the same policies that caused our economic collapse."

Still, Daschle and the chairman of the Democratic governors' group -- Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer -- are keen to downplay expectations heading into next year, arguing that history is usually on the side of the party out of power.

It's been a tough cycle for incumbents, and I expect maybe even the next cycle to be tough for incumbents.
--Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana

"It's been a tough cycle for incumbents, and I expect maybe even the next cycle to be tough for incumbents," Schweitzer said last week.

Democrats express confidence about winning back a slate of Republican-held governorships in Hawaii, Vermont, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Florida, Minnesota, Arizona and Nevada.

Meanwhile, Republicans are likely to pick up seats in Tennessee, Kansas and Oklahoma, and party strategists are gunning to take down Democratic incumbents in Iowa, Massachusetts, Colorado and Ohio. They also have their sights on reclaiming seats term-limited Democratic governors are vacating in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

That landscape, along with the victories in Virginia and New Jersey, had Republicans in an ebullient mood as they gathered for the meeting in Texas.

Barbour -- the most visible face at the conference, which included a host of GOP rising stars such as Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Mitch Daniels of Indiana -- described 2010 as "a target-rich environment."

He revealed the Republican governors' group has more than $25 million in the bank entering the 2010 cycle, $2 million more than it spent in all of 2006. The Democratic group has not announced its cash-on-hand totals but raised nearly $12 million in the first half of this year, the most recent figure available.

But the Mississippi governor, who is one of his party's most eminent political strategists, also offered some advice to Republican gubernatorial candidates: Be cautious about attacking Obama, who remains more popular than his policies.

"The policies are what people don't like, and that's what you ought to be taking about," Barbour said at the conference. "People want the president to succeed. People want our presidents to succeed. We want out country to succeed. It doesn't serve any purpose to be critical of the president personally."

Another point stressed by many of the Republican governors, strategists and lobbyists who attended the three-day event: One year can be an eternity in politics.

Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican who is not seeking re-election next year after four terms, said the economic downturn is nearing its end, a development that could swing the pendulum back in the Democrats' favor.

"I think we've found the bottom," Douglas said in Texas. But he urged his fellow Republicans to stand up to greater spending in Washington, which he said would stymie economic recovery by stretching budgets and slowing hiring.