In Governors’ Races, No Significant Change in Party Balance

By Bess Keller — November 08, 2000 6 min read

In an election year in which education loomed large across the country, the state races Tuesday showed that neither that issue nor any other could easily be turned to partisan advantage.

Voters worked few changes in the 11 races for governor, barely adjusting the scales of major-party power to give Democrats one more chief executive position. But as before the election, Republicans will hold significantly more gubernatorial positions in 2001. As a result of the Nov. 7 vote, the GOP will control 29 governorships, down from 30, while Democrats will hold 19, compared with the current 18.

Similarly, party control of state legislatures remained much the same, with Republicans to date keeping hold of both chambers in 17 states and Democrats slipping by three to maintain control of both chambers in 16 states. The number of legislatures where control is split between the two parties rose from 13 to 14. As of Wednesday morning, the Washington state and Oregon legislative races were still up in the air, with party dominance in both houses in both states unsure.

“The bottom line is there is not a whole lot of change, and where there is change, it is mostly toward more party parity,” said Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. The sole governor’s seat to switch from one party to another was in West Virginia, where U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, a Democrat, defeated Republican incumbent Cecil Underwood. Mr. Wise squeaked past Mr. Underwood with 50 percent of the vote, to the incumbent’s 48 percent, according to preliminary vote totals. Mr. Underwood was the only sitting governor to lose in this round of contests. In a tough contest, Mr. Underwood at first ran on his record, which includes increased attention to school safety, school technology improvements, and pay raises for state employees, including teachers. Mr. Wise, in turn, argued that the state’s education system should be doing more to help West Virginia’s faltering economy.

But later in the race, the two sparred over posting the Ten Commandments in schools, among other issues. Mr. Underwood failed in a recent attempt to get the state school board to require the commandments’ display.

Voucher Foes Win

In the two states where disagreement over private school vouchers came to the fore of the contests for governor, the candidates who championed the publicly financed tuition aid went down to defeat; both were Republicans. In North Carolina, the most populous state among the 11 states electing governors, state Attorney General Michael F. Easley defeated former Mayor Richard Vinroot of Charlotte with 52 percent of the vote to his opponent’s 46 percent, unofficial results showed. Mr. Vinroot favored a Florida-style accountability system in which vouchers would be available to students in failing schools. Mr. Easley, who emphasized school safety measures, including alternative programs for disruptive students, opposed vouchers. In Missouri, U.S. Rep. Jim Talent lost to state Treasurer Bob Holden in a very close race for governor. Mr. Holden, a Democrat, stressed his opposition to vouchers, which his GOP opponent has favored in pilot programs during his career in the U.S. House of Representatives. Preliminary results showed that Mr. Holden had received 50 percent of the vote, compared with Mr. Talent’s 49 percent.

In Missouri, as elsewhere, analysts say the election results suggest that voters generally favor current attempts to improve the public schools, which are not the exclusive province of either Republicans or Democrats. In Missouri, the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat who died in a plane crash last month and was the posthumous winner of the U.S. Senate race there Tuesday, had made such efforts a centerpiece of his two terms in office.

“I think the vote sends a message that people in this state wanted to keep [the direction of school improvement efforts] as it was,” said David Hough, the dean of the education school at Southwest Missouri State University. Mr. Hough added that in the end, voters may have had too many questions about vouchers to be comfortable with Mr. Talent’s position on them.

“The American public is very, very centrist” on education issues, as well as on other fronts, Allan Odden, a co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education based at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked in considering the election results. “The public is open to new ideas, but generally interested in more incremental changes,” added Mr. Odden, a professor of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

School Funding at Issue

In New England, two incumbent Democratic governors won re-election, despite sharp criticism that they had mishandled controversy over their states’ school finance systems. Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire captured 49 percent of the vote to gain a third term, defeating former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey, a Republican, who was supported by 44 percent of the voters. Mr. Humphrey had accused Ms. Shaheen of ducking the issue of how to pay for the state’s schools. For a decade, the state’s plan for financing education has been embroiled in legal challenges.

In Vermont, Gov. Howard Dean kept his seat by garnering 51 percent of the vote. He turned back challenges from Republican Ruth Dwyer, a former member of the state House of Representatives, who received 39 percent of the vote, as well as from third-party candidate Anthony Pollina, the Progressive Party nominee, who got 10 percent of the vote, according to preliminary tallies. Ms. Dwyer had promised to “rebuild” the state education system by winning passage of charter school legislation and a tax credit for expenses at either public or private schools. She also decried an overhaul of the school finance system aimed at equalizing funding among districts, which Mr. Dean strongly supported. Three other incumbent governors fared well. In Indiana, Gov. Frank O’Bannon, a Democrat, soundly defeated U.S. Rep. David M. McIntosh, a Republican, collecting 57 percent of the vote to Mr. McIntosh’s 42 percent, unofficial reports indicated. During the campaign, Mr. O’Bannon touted the progress that Indiana schools have made during his four years in office, while Mr. McIntosh said not enough had been accomplished and proposed changes to the state testing system.

In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Gary Locke rode a tide of support for public education in that state to victory, capturing election to a second term with 58 percent of the vote to GOP opponent John Carlson’s 40 percent. And in Utah, preliminary results showed that Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican, won 56 percent of votes cast to defeat former U.S. Rep. Bill Orton, a Democrat, for a third term.

Two hard-fought Western races—in North Dakota and Montana—ended with Republican victories. John H. Hoeven, a Republican who formerly headed the state-owned bank of North Dakota, defeated state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, with 55 percent of the vote to Ms. Heitkamp’s 45 percent, according to unofficial tallies. Though Ms. Heitkamp had won the endorsement of the state teachers’ union, both candidates ran on platforms that included addressing a shortage of teachers by increasing salaries, which are among the nation’s lowest.

In Montana, where teacher shortages are also an issue, Lt. Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican, bested state Auditor Mark O’Keefe, a Democrat, by a reported 52 percent to 48 percent.

In Delaware, the executive office went handily to a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who garnered 60 percent of the ballots. John Burris, a Republican who had served as majority leader in the Delaware House, received only 40 percent of the vote. Both candidates had competed hotly for the endorsement of the state teachers’ union; Ms. Minner got the nod.

“She has had a long and good relationship with our organization,” said Pam Nichols, the spokeswoman for the Delaware State Education Association. “She is close to schools and understands what schools deal with today.”

Adrienne Coles, Lisa Fine, Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, Andrew Trotter, and Debra Viadero also contributed to this report.