Shell-shocked by defeat in four of the past five presidential elections and stunned by the loss of the Senate in 1980, the Democratic Party has drawn some solace from its continued dominance of the nation's Governors' mansions. Halfway through Ronald Reagan's second term, Democratic Governors still outnumber Republicans 34 to 16, defying political analysts' speculations about party realignment.
This year, however, Republicans hope to turn the tide: of the 36 Governors' seats up for election, 27 are held by Democrats. Moreover, with 15 Democratic Governors not seeking re-election, the party has lost the advantage of incumbency in several key races. Political observers expect the Republicans to make a net gain of at least six states. The President recognizes the opportunity for the G.O.P.: a crucial test of Republican strength this year, Reagan told a meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Washington last week, will be in the gubernatorial and statehouse contests. The electorate, said Reagan, had a chance to vote out "liberal Democratic Governors, setting them aside for Republican Governors . . . of energy and new ideas."
The payoff for this year's gubernatorial contests may come in 1990. Following that year's census, 17 to 19 congressional seats will probably be reassigned. About 20 states will be affected by the shifts, with political power continuing to migrate from the Northeast and upper Midwest to California, Florida, Texas and other conservative Sunbelt states. The battle for statehouses and Governors' mansions will determine which party gets the advantage in redrawing congressional district lines in key states. The motto of the Democrats' political strategists has become, "Elections are the battles. Redistricting is the whole war."
But this year Democrats are under siege in the West and South, the regions likely to benefit from reapportionment. In California, bland but durable Republican incumbent George Deukmejian looks unbeatable, and G.O.P. candidates are strong in New Mexico and Oregon. Three Western states are losing popular Democratic incumbents--Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Ed Herschler of Wyoming and Richard Lamm of Colorado--leaving Republican challengers with at least an even chance of victory.
In the South, where Democrats have dominated state capitals since Reconstruction, races in Alabama, Texas, Florida and South Carolina are too close to call. Only in Tennessee, where Governor Lamar Alexander is required by law to leave office after his two terms, do the Democrats seem likely to pick up a seat currently held by a Republican.
Democratic prospects are brighter in the Northeast, where Mario Cuomo of New York and Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts hope to enhance their national prospects with big re-election wins. Yet their once secure colleague, William O'Neill of Connecticut, has been losing ground to charismatic Republican State Legislator Julie Belaga; the latest polls show O'Neill clinging to a narrow lead.
With the stakes so high and relatively few compelling issues being debated, several Governors' races have taken on the same rancorous tone that has turned many congressional contests into slugfests. Milking the "character issue," candidates are sharpening their tongues and their TV ads to draw blood from their opponents. Four of the more intriguing races: