Almost half the states in the nation have an open race for governor this year.

In some states, such as Maine, the top executive is prevented from seeking another term due to term limits. In others, such as New York, the governor has elected not to run.

And, also like Maine, a few states have drawn a big field of contenders for the governor’s seat – a phenomenon analysts say may indicate an overall dissatisfaction with the way things are going.

“It says there’s a lot of grassroots discontent around the country,” said Darrell West, vice president for governance studies at The Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington D.C. think-tank. “When you have a large number of candidates running, it reflects disenchantment with the status quo, and a feeling on the part of many people that they can do a better job than what’s being done.”

There are 22 states with an open governor’s seat. Of those 22, roughly a third have more than 20 candidates who have expressed early interest in the race by taking out papers, forming exploration committees or taking other steps. Of those, California has the most, with 54 candidates expressing interest so far. Maine is in the middle with 24 candidates.

“The bad economy clearly contributes to this,” suggested West. “When you have high unemployment, there’s going to be a lot of unhappiness. That will spur the number of candidates.”

Nationwide, the unemployment rate hit 9.7 percent in January and February – more than double the rate 10 years ago. In Maine in December (the latest month for which data was available), the unemployment rate was 8.3 percent.

Consumer confidence has also taken a hit, both nationally and in Maine, according to a recent survey released by Portland-based Market Decisions, a research firm.

The index of consumer sentiment in Maine was at 58.3 in January, down from 62 in October and way down from the historic high of 104.7 in April 2000. Nationwide, it was 65.6 in January, up slightly from October and below the high of 104.7 in April 2000, according to the survey.

“The economy really drives so much in American politics,” said Michael Franz, assistant professor of political science at Bowdoin College.

States have more restrictions on them in terms of how they can deal with economic downturns, Franz said. Anger with the economy at the national level may become amplified at the state level, affecting the gubernatorial races, he said.

And the national debate over health care reform has stirred emotions across the ideological spectrum.

How states interact with federal health care systems like Medicaid puts governors, and candidates for that office, at the center of the debate, said Franz. “It brings the economic storm right to their front door.”

While the governors’ races may be affected by the national mood and trends, the results of the gubernatorial elections will also have an impact on national politics.

One obvious – and important – impact will be on the redistricting of congressional districts, said West, the Brookings analyst. Redistricting will start after the national Census is completed.

It’s important nationwide from a partisan standpoint, in that districts can be theoretically redrawn to give one party or another an advantage. And, West noted, redistricting bills have to pass state legislatures, and are subject to gubernatorial vetoes.

“If you control the governorship ” he said.

Brian Duff, a political scientist at the University of New England, noted a more subtle way that governors affect national politics. To an extent, he said, President Obama and the Democratic party are both going to “live or die on their ability to create jobs.”

So far, the push has been to do so through massive stimulus packages. But the federal money is funneled through the states for actual spending.

“A governor who is suspicious about Democrats, suspicious about deficit spending to stimulate the economy, can blunt the effect of the stimulus,” said Duff. “You can take the money, and make your own cuts elsewhere. Governors make a huge difference, but not in a glamorous way.”

 

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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