Republicans pull ahead in battle for key seats of power

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The old warhorse Jerry Brown may be set to recapture California for the Democrats – but Republicans are poised for big gains in the 37 state governors' races in next week's midterm elections that would strengthen both the party's hand in the 2012 presidential contest, and its future representation in Congress.

When America votes in November of each even-numbered year, governors' elections are often overshadowed by the headline-grabbing battles for the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate. In reality, the US federal system devolves large powers to individual states and their governors, turning them into laboratories for tax, environmental and social policy legislation that have more impact on the country than the arrival of any Senator or Congressman in Washington.

They are political harbingers too. In 2009, Republican victories in the governors' elections in Virginia and New Jersey were the first sign that the political pendulum was swinging away from Democrats after their big wins of 2006 and 2008. This time, the stakes are higher still, as Barack Obama faces what could be a tricky fight for a second term two years hence.

In California, the biggest prize of all on 2 November, polls suggest Mr Brown, a two-term former governor and three-time presidential candidate, is increasing his lead over Meg Whitman, despite the former Ebay CEO pouring $142m (£90m) of her own money into the single most expensive non-presidential campaign in American history.

But developments in the somewhat tarnished Golden State are the exception rather than the rule.

Currently, Democrats hold 26 of the 50 state houses, but that majority is all but certain to vanish next week. Republicans should gain six new governorships at least, and as many as 10 if various close races go their way.

These gains could include Atlantic and mid-Western states of potentially critical importance in 2012. Ohio and to a lesser extent Pennsylvania are states Republicans need to win if they are to unseat Mr Obama.

Currently their gubernatorial candidates are leading in both; victory would mean a friendlier, and perhaps decisive hand for the next Republican White House nominee.But Tuesday's biggest impact could be on Congressional redistricting in the wake of the 2010 national census.

Every state has two senators, but the number of its House seats are allocated by population based on the census – and these seats are drawn by the state legislatures, usually controlled by the governor's party.

The latest census will confirm the shift in population from the North and East to the South and West, above all Texas, which is set to gain four new House seats, and Florida, due for two more. The losers will primarily be industrial states of the North-east and Midwest, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

With Rick Perry heavily favoured to win a third term in Texas, and Rick Scott edging ahead in Florida, Republicans are on track to keep control of both states, and thus be in a position to adjust – or downright gerrymander – the extra districts to maximise advantage for their party.

The same process applies in reverse for states that lose seats, and experts have calculated that a really strong Republican performance in the governors' elections could translate into up to 10 more Republican seats in the post-2012 Congress.

Finally, state houses tend to provide presidents. Four of the last six occupants of the White House were former governors, all of whom pointed to their experience in actually running something – in contrast to Senators and Congressmen who had spent their time bickering and squabbling in ever-reviled Washington.

Indeed, most leading Republican challengers in 2012 are past or present governors.

They include the former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and the current incumbents Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi – not to mention a certain Sarah Palin, Alaska's previously obscure chief executive until her shock selection as John McCain's running mate in 2008.

States in play

Florida

The importance of this race, between Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Rick Scott, is two-fold. Practically, the state will gain two congressional seats before the 2012 elections, making it crucial to have control of the state government as the decisions are made on how the district lines should be drawn. Florida and its "hanging chads" are infamous in recent US political history: that backdrop makes it a race both sides are desperate to win. Despite the Democrats starting favourites, polls show free-spending Scott has gained ground. The result could be as tight as it was in 2000.

Pennsylvania

To beat Obama in 2012 the Republicans will need to win either here or Ohio. Polling suggests state Attorney General Tom Corbett (Republican candidate) is ahead of Democrat and Allegheny County Executive, Dan Onorato, but Democrat rallying has narrowed the margins. With the state losing a congressional seat before 2012, the governorship's importance has rocketed.



California

This race could be seen as the State versus big business: State Attorney General Jerry Brown, a Democrat, leads Republican and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman by 13 points despite Whitman ploughing $142m of her own money into her campaign. Whitman damaged herself by employing an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper. Also, clever advertising by Brown connected Whitman with the unpopular outgoing governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.



Ohio

Both candidates Ted Strickland (Democrat) and John Kasich (Republican) are battling negative public perception. The Republicans have spent millions in advertising, denouncing Strickland for increasing job losses during his tenure. But as a former member of Congress and Wall Street employee, Kasich hardly presents good economic credentials. He has struggled to maintain his lead.

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