All Politics Is National

Why the two parties are taking a special interest in local races this year.

Florida gubernatorial candidates Alex Sink and Rick Scott

After President Obama hugged Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida in February 2009, Crist’s career went into decline. Alex Sink, the Democrat running to replace him, didn’t want the same thing to happen to her, so Obama did not make a stop in Florida in the closing weeks of the campaign. How toxic is Obama? The Republican candidate for governor in Florida, Rick Scott, was chief executive of a company that paid the largest fine in history, more than $1.7 billion, for Medicare fraud. Democrats involved in the race say polls show that it is more damaging for a candidate to be associated with Obama than Medicare fraud. That’s why Scott has consistently tried to tie Sink to Obama.

Florida, you might remember, is a swing state with 27 electoral votes. There are 37 governor’s races this year, but not all of them are created equal. Seven battleground states, plus Florida, are up for grabs. In these states, whichever party holds the governor’s office will have a head start in putting together a field organization for its presidential nominee. But that’s not all. Many of those states, plus a few others, will gain or lose congressional seats as the reapportionment and redistricting process reshape the House for the next decade.

The president is more welcome in Ohio than in Florida. Incumbent Ted Strickland, the Democrat, is in a tight race with former Rep. John Kasich, and Obama will campaign in Cleveland on his last stop before Election Day. It will be the president’s 12th visit to a state that is pretty much a must-win for him in 2012.

Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association (and the son of the former Senate majority leader), looks at the 17 or so close races in terms of electoral votes. In the 2008 presidential race, Obama won Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Nevada. Six of those eight states had Democratic governors. This year, all of those governor’s offices may go Republican—putting a total of 112 electoral votes under GOP control. (A caveat: Obama’s 2008 victories came with a Republican governor in Nevada and Florida. While the political class puts a lot of stock in the idea that governors can help presidential candidates of their party, academics have found little evidence of that influence.)

There is one area, though, where governors and local politicians do have influence. Nathan Larger is a Republican running to be the state representative in the 24th district of Ohio. Like most candidates this year, he’s talking about jobs. Voters “want to see the jobs come back to Ohio,” he says. How much impact one state representative can have on the job outlook of his constituents is unclear. But if he’s elected, Larger could have a huge impact on the job prospects of Ohio’s Republican politicians. If the GOP can take over the Ohio House and the governor’s office, it will control the process by which the state’s members of Congress are selected for the next decade.

Democrats only hold a seven seat majority in the Ohio House. After the 2010 census results become official, Ohio could lose as many as two of its 18 congressional seats. Ten years ago it lost one seat, and Republicans used the opportunity to redraw the boundaries in their favor—allowing them to gain three seats from the Democrats. “The course of our party and the future of our party for the next decade in the state of Ohio hangs in the balance of the elections in 2010,” says Ohio GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine.

Garnet Coleman, a Democrat who represents a state district in Houston, saw Republicans reshape Texas’ political map during redistricting almost a decade ago. After the 2000 elections Democrats had a 17-13 edge. Republicans redrew the state’s map after the 2002 election, and now the GOP controls 20 seats to the Democrats’$2 12. The competition means local races have started looking like national ones, with cable-television advertising and sophisticated voter targeting. The high stakes mean that even the smallest local issues are bitterly contested. “This is a crucial year and everyone knows it” says Coleman. “It’s nastier and more divisive in particular because it can come down to 100 votes.”

Texas is likely to gain four seats. In Texas, Democrats had hoped they were closing in on Republican Rick Perry, but polls show him pulling away. Florida is likely to gain a seat (for a total of 26). The state legislature is controlled by Republicans, which is why the governor’s race is so important. The governor can veto the legislative redistricting map. Pennsylvania is likely to lose a congressional seat. If they lose the governor’s race, Democrats have to hope they hold on to their narrow 104-98 majority in the Pennsylvania House. In Michigan and Wisconsin, where the governor is likely to be a Republican, Democrats have to hope they can hold on to some power in the legislature.

Strategists for both parties say the reapportionment and redistricting process could determine the control of up to 25 congressional seats. While everyone is looking to see which party controls the House next year, the other big prize will go to the party that improved its chances to control the House for many years to come.

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