Shift in the Statehouses

November 3, 2010

Republicans made significant gains in the several dozen gubernatorial elections that were contested Tuesday, putting a more conservative spin on statehouses at a time when many states are likely to be facing severe budget shortages ($180 billion in total shortfalls, by one estimate).

Combined with the election of what were reported to be record numbers of Republicans as state legislators, and a major upturn in the number of legislatures the GOP controls, that could well spell trouble for public colleges and universities, which are common targets when discretionary funds get tight.

Higher education played a relatively minor role in most of the 38 gubernatorial races, in a season in which the economy and jobs topped voters' concerns. In turn, the direct and immediate impact of most races on higher education is likely to be limited -- with the possible exception of Ohio, where the election was widely seen as putting at risk the major restructuring and reform of higher education that Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, initiated in 2007.

Elsewhere on Election Night

Early Wednesday morning, television networks projected that Strickland had been defeated by his Republican opponent, John Kasich, a former Ohio Congressman with a reputation as a deficit hawk.

In many ways, given the constrained budget picture in Ohio, that trait of Kasich's may ultimately be more important than whether he will continue the agenda undertaken by Strickland and his hand-picked chancellor of the new University System of Ohio, Eric Fingerhut -- an agenda of performance-based budgeting and reorganization that has won plaudits nationally. In addition to the reforms, Strickland has prioritized colleges in state funding decisions, viewing higher education as essential to Ohio's (and Ohioans') economic future -- an example few expect Kasich to follow.

Exactly how many governorships would change hands was still uncertain early Wednesday morning, but it was clear that Republicans would make significant gains. Television networks were projecting that in addition to Ohio, Republicans would snare Democratic-held seats in Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming, among others.

Democrats, meanwhile, were expected to hold on to governorships in states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York, where Andrew M. Cuomo -- best known to many in higher education for his aggressive policing of the student loan industry (and criticism of college financial aid officers) as New York's attorney general -- appeared to have won easily.

Democrats in two states -- Hawaii and California -- appeared poised to win back governorships that have been in Republican hands. In perhaps the country's most economically troubled state, California, voters appeared to have given the former Governor Jerry Brown another shot at the job. Shortly after midnight, CNN and other networks projected that Brown had defeated Meg Whitman, the founder of eBay.

In Minnesota, Democrat Mark Dayton held a slim lead over his Republican opponent, Dan Emmer, who said during the campaign that balancing the state's budget could necessitate cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars for higher education.

One other change in the makeup of the nation's governors involved a candidate who won -- but is still leaving his statehouse. Joe Manchin, who decided to give up the governorship of West Virginia to seek the U.S. Senate seat of the late Robert C. Byrd, was victorious Tuesday night.

He relinquishes not only his job in West Virginia, but his chairmanship of the National Governors Association, a position in which he had planned to make higher education, and specifically college completion, the focus of his term.

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