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Is It Time for a Comeback in Three Big States?

Oh how far the mighty have fallen. In three big states, once-successful state parties recently haven’t been able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But could a comeback be in the cards? [IMGCAP(1)]

It wasn’t long ago that Republicans controlled the New Jersey Legislature and the state’s governorship, and that Republicans controlled most of the big offices in Illinois. And a short time ago, the Democrats were a serious factor in Ohio politics. No more. Now, the ins are out, and the outs are in.

Republicans control only one statewide office in the Land of Lincoln — state treasurer — and are in the minority in both chambers of the Legislature. The last Republican presidential candidate to carry it was George Bush in 1988, and Republican Peter Fitzgerald’s one term representing the state in the Senate increasingly looks like an aberration.

Right now, the Democrats don’t hold even a single statewide office in Ohio, and the Republicans control both the state House and the state Senate. The Democratic Party’s last gubernatorial win was in 1986, and the GOP has won four straight Senate races.

And in New Jersey, where the only three statewide offices are governor and two Senators, the Democrats control all of them. Even more telling, the Republicans haven’t won a Senate contest in the state since 1972, when liberal Republican Clifford Case coasted to re-election. While the GOP swept control of both houses of the Legislature when then-Gov. Jim Florio (D) was narrowly defeated for re-election, the Democrats have now regained control of both chambers.

Of the three states, Ohio appears to be the best opportunity for a comeback for the “out” party, though it’s certainly not a slam dunk for a Democratic revival.

The state is fundamentally competitive, as demonstrated by Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 49 percent showing in November. So total Republican control of the state can’t last forever.

With outgoing GOP Gov. Bob Taft’s poll numbers in the tank and three statewide officeholders — Attorney General Jim Petro, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and Auditor Betty Montgomery — competing with each other for the Republican nomination for governor, Democrats should have a number of open-seat opportunities.

Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman could be joined by other Democrats in the race for his party’s gubernatorial nomination, giving the Democrats a more credible nominee than they have had in years — unless, of course, the party decides to commit political suicide by nominating trash TV “celebrity” Jerry Springer.

In New Jersey, a Republican rebound may well be in the cards, though not necessarily later this year when voters go to the polls.

Garden State Republicans are almost certain to remain shut out of the governorship in November’s election. While Democrats are rallying around Sen. Jon Corzine’s bid for governor, Republicans are fighting among themselves. Even a united state GOP couldn’t beat Corzine.

Kerry carried the state 53 percent to 46 percent last year — a clear 7-point win but not as big as he won California (9 points) or Illinois (11 points).

New Jersey has a history of flipping from one party to the other, and it’s the Democrats’ turn to be in charge now, just as it was the GOP’s in the mid-1990s. “It’s the Republicans’ turn for being inept,” is how one veteran Republican put it to me.

Looking at fundamentals, the Democrats have the advantage. But New Jersey is still a two-party state, as evidenced by the makeup of the state Senate: 22 Democrats and 18 Republicans. And down the road, the Republicans have a state Senator named Tom Kean Jr. who could help them win statewide office.

Of the three big states, Illinois looks like the least likely to turn around anytime soon.

The state GOP is in shambles, though newly elected state party Chairman Andy McKenna brings some much-needed respectability. Still, he isn’t likely to save it any more than a Band-Aid is likely to cure pneumonia.

The state party is deeply divided along ideological grounds, with outspoken conservatives apparently preferring the election of Democrats to moderate Republicans.

“There is so much infighting that we are hurting ourselves,” says Illinois-based Republican political consultant Kathy Posner.

Another veteran Illinois Republican emphasized a different problem that has dogged the party for years.

“The party has always been gubernatorial-centric. It was always about Jim Thompson, or about Jim Edgar or about George Ryan — never about the local party. Now, Republicans have no leader to coalesce around,” the Illinois Republican said. When it comes to the state Legislature, down-ballot statewide offices and presidential politics, “the state could be gone, like California. We aren’t there yet, but it could happen.”

The state should still be able to elect a GOP governor under the right circumstances, the Republican added, but the Legislature and most of the statewide offices are simply out of reach.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has taken criticism recently for alleged ethical lapses, and Illinois’ financial position is not good. Further problems could weaken the governor, giving the Republicans a shot at the top office. But right now, the governor is favored for re-election.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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