Democrats broke a 25-year Republican hold on the Illinois governor’s office and took back Pennsylvania yesterday as they sought to reclaim a majority of the nation’s executive mansions. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush defeated Democrat Bill McBride in a high-profile victory for the GOP.

Paul Wong
Rep. Elizabeth Dole, right, celebrates her victory in the U.S. Senate race with her husband, former Sen. Bob Dole, in her hometown of Salisbury, N. C.

As 36 states elected governors, one incumbent was ousted – South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, a one-term Democrat, lost to former GOP Rep. Mark Sanford.

Democrats led in GOP country of Michigan and Kansas, while Republicans, hoping to minimize the shrinking of their 27-21 edge, held onto New York and Massachusetts. The GOP also led in Texas.

In Illinois, Democratic Rep. Rod Blagojevich defeated Republican Jim Ryan in a race that linked Ryan to the scandal-tainted single term of GOP Gov. George Ryan – no relation – who chose not to seek re-election.

Pennsylvania Democrat Ed Rendell, former mayor of Philadelphia, defeated GOP Attorney General Mike Fisher.

In a marquee race, Jeb Bush had extensive campaign help from his brother. Early in the night, President Bush called to “congratulate him for a big victory,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

GOP businessman Mitt Romney defeated State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien in heavily Democratic Massachusetts to continue 12 years of Republican control.

New York Gov. George Pataki easily turned back a challenge from Comptroller Carl McCall, the only black ever elected to statewide office there.

In Maryland, where there was another top contest, Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was seeking to become the first member of the Kennedy family to serve as a governor. She saw a huge early lead evaporate. Returns showed her trailing in a tight race with Republican Rep. Bob Ehrlich.

In New Hampshire, Republican entrepreneur Craig Benson returned the governor’s office to the GOP after six years Democratic control.

Incumbent GOP Govs. Bob Taft of Ohio, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Bill Owens of Colorado, Kenny Guinn of Nevada and John Rowland of Connecticut all won re-election.

Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman was leading in his race against GOP Rep. Bob Riley, despite Republican expectations that ethics scandals and budget shortfalls had left him vulnerable.

Early returns also showed close races in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Vermont, where the GOP-led Legislature would choose the next governor if no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote – a real possibility.

Overall, it was a tough campaign year for the GOP, which was defending 23 of the 36 seats because of term limits and retirements amid painful budget shortfalls. Democrats were defending 11 seats, and independents were leaving office in Maine and Minnesota.

“The conventional wisdom is that we may lose a few,” said Rowland, who acknowledged that view could well prove right, although he won a third term.

A large group of experienced women candidates battled onto the ballot this year, making it possible for voters to break the current record number of five female governors. All 10 major-party women candidates were competitive in their campaigns’ final days – including both candidates in Hawaii, which was guaranteed to elect its first female governor.

More than any recent year, this election brought a sweeping number of close races, including surprisingly competitive campaigns in Arkansas and Wyoming.

“What you’re seeing is the end of the Newt Gingrich class,” said outgoing Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, referring to the congressman who led the 1994 GOP victories halfway through President Clinton’s first term.

“Clearly, there is a major implication for the presidential election in 2004,” he said, noting that the governor’s party usually has an edge in carrying a state during a presidential year – although that would be less true with an incumbent president on the ticket.

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