The Challenges Of Electing Democratic Governors

Dozens of states will hold elections for governor this year. NPR's Michele Norris talks to Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, about getting governors elected in this political season. On Wednesday, we heard from the Republican Governors Association.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Talk of the upcoming midterm elections in November almost always focuses on whether or not the Democrats will cling to control of Congress. But this week, we've been asking about the slew of governors' races across the country.

Yesterday, we heard from Nick Ayers. He's the executive director of the Republican Governors Association. Today, we hear from his counterpart, Nathan Daschle of the Democratic Governors Association.

Now, by the way, I should mention the two men are personal friends. They socialize and hunt together. But when it comes to politics, the gloves come off.

When Nathan Daschle stopped by our studios recently, I asked him about the significance of having 37 governors' races in one year.

Mr. NATHAN DASCHLE (Executive Director, Democratic Governors Association): First is the sheer number of races. As you mentioned, we have 37 governors' races. That's more than this country has ever had before. The sheer number of open seats, 24, is almost unprecedented.

The second reason is that a number of these competitive races run through important 2012 battlegrounds: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado. All of these have competitive governors' races, and the outcome will impact the 2012 presidential race.

The third reason, however, is a once-in-20-year phenomenon, is every 20 years that we get something approximating the number of races we have this year on the eve of congressional redistricting, and governors play a very important role in the redistricting process.

So the import of this just can't be overstated.

NORRIS: So there's a lot more at stake this time around.

Mr. DASCHLE: A lot more at stake.

NORRIS: Help me sort of look at - if you could pretend like the two of us are sitting here in the studio looking at a map. What are the races that you are most interested in, where the race is so close right now that you're not sure what's actually going to happen?

Mr. DASCHLE: I wish I could narrow it down to a few. There are about 15 races that I think are fairly considered toss-up races. But I'll tell you three that are in the toss-up category that I think are very important: California, Texas and Florida. These are three of our biggest states. All of them will undergo redistricting, and they're all states where they currently have Republican governors. We actually feel, the Democratic Governors Association, that we can go on offense.

NORRIS: President Obama's approval ratings are down. The jobless rate is up across the country. How much of this is a referendum on the Obama administration?

Mr. DASCHLE: Very little in governors' races. Most people, when they go to the polls, know the difference between a federal race and a governors' race. And they know when they're polling the level - for the governor that they're voting for somebody who doesn't have a say in what's going on in Washington, who's not part of what they like or dislike at the national level, but they're voting for somebody who is responsible for creating jobs in the state, for balancing the budget.

And what's very interesting about Democrats at the state level is that say what you want about the national level - I obviously support our party at the national level. I think they're doing incredible work - but what critics say about the Democrats on the national level, they can't say about Democrats on the state level.

They can't say Democrats at the state level are spending too much because they spend less than their Republican counterparts. And there's a real contrast in leadership at the state level. And this environment in particular, I think, favors the Democrats.

NORRIS: On the other side of the aisle, there's quite a bit of enthusiasm, voters are highly motivated. But if you look on your side of the aisle, it seems that there's not as much overt enthusiasm on the part of the voters. How much does that concern you?

Mr. DASCHLE: Well, I would dispute the notion that there's not as much enthusiasm. I actually think there's still a great deal of enthusiasm, and we're seeing it in our polling. We're seeing it day to day in the campaign trail.

What we're seeing on the Republican side, though, I wouldn't characterize as enthusiasm. I think what we're really seeing on the Republican side is a civil war, because there is a real rift between the right and the far right, and right now all of the motivation, all of the energy, enthusiasm is on the far right.

And we are seeing the GOP civil war take place all across the country. And that's where I think a lot of the noise that we are picking up here in D.C. is coming from. That noise is the dissatisfaction of the Tea Party with the Republican establishment. And it's that disunity that I think is really going to hamper the Republican Party this November.

NORRIS: If you had to succinctly reduce the message in the Democratic Party right now, what would that be in one sentence? What do Democrats stand for right now?

Mr. DASCHLE: Democrats, particularly at the state level, stand for an optimistic economic vision for the future. Because when times like this, when our country is experiencing this horrible economic crisis that we're just starting to climb out of, voters - particularly moderate and independent voters - want somebody who can give them a compelling vision that tomorrow is going to be better than today.

NORRIS: Nathan Daschle, thank you very much for coming in.

Mr. DASCHLE: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Nathan Daschle is the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.

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