Jennifer Granholm

(WOMENSENEWS)–Women could narrow the gubernatorial gender gap next month.

Ten women will top their states’ electoral tickets as gubernatorial candidates, a number that has been matched only in 1994 and 2002. If the five female governors who face re-election contests this year prevail, and all five female gubernatorial challengers win, there could be as many as 13 women leading their states in 2007.

Gilda Morales, a project manager at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, doubts all five challengers will win, but says 2006 could still be a record-breaking year for female governors.

“I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised,” she said.

The latest record was set in 2004, when nine women simultaneously occupied their states’ governors’ mansions, according to the center.

Of the eight sitting female governors, three–Democrats Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware, Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Christine Gregoire of Washington state–are in the middle of their terms and not up for re-election.

Four other incumbents–Democrats Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, and Republicans M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut and Linda Lingle of Hawaii–are considered safe bets for re-election.

That leaves one incumbent–Democrat Jennifer Granholm of Michigan–as a top priority for EMILY’s List, the pro-choice political action committee that is devoting considerable energy to ensure that Michigan’s first female governor will serve a second term.

Michigan’s Granholm Under Pressure

Despite a strong political tailwind for Democrats this year, Granholm has had to contend with the slump in the state’s automotive industry in her campaign against Republican Dick DeVos, a wealthy anti-choice businessman in a classic swing state in the upper Midwest.

In the latest bad sign for the state’s economy, Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp. saw record sales in the month of September, while U.S. automakers experienced modest growth or slippage in sales.

DeVos is drawing on his large personal fortune from his interest in Amway, the soap products firm sold door to door, to hit Granholm on the state’s lagging economy. DeVos, who has spent $17 million of his own money on the race, has aired a steady stream of television advertisements attacking Granholm’s management of the economy since February, DeVos spokesperson Phil Novack said.

Polls throughout the year have suggested that Granholm has been taking much of the blame for the state’s economy, where the state’s 7 percent unemployment rate is about 50 percent higher than the 4.6 percent national average. A late August poll released by Rasmussen Reports put DeVos ahead by two percentage points, the seventh consecutive survey showing a neck-and-neck race.

But a more recent poll, released on Oct. 8, gave Granholm a significant lead–49 to 42 percent–for the first time since January.

“Some recent surveys have suggested that Gov. Jennifer Granholm is benefiting from the Democratic breeze in the country, and perhaps has a slight lead over Republican Dick DeVos,” Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, writes on Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an online publication that tracks midterm elections. “But no one is counting DeVos out and this continues to be one of the Democratic Party’s most significant gubernatorial challenges in the nation.”

Titus Challenges Nevada Incumbent

Also near the top of EMILY’s List’s wish list is Dina Titus, a political science professor and state lawmaker who rose to serve as Democratic leader in the Nevada state Senate.

If she wins, Titus would be Nevada’s first female governor. But first she must defeat Jim Gibbons, a six-term Republican congressman from a sprawling district in rural Nevada who won his last race with 67 percent of the vote.

Gibbons has no lock on this independent-minded state, where party registration is split and Democrats control the state House and Republicans control the state Senate. President George W. Bush won the state with 50 percent of the vote in 2000 and 2004, but Democrat Bill Clinton narrowly beat Republican Bob Dole in 1996.

Independent political analyst Charlie Cook considers both races toss-ups.

Democrats also have a chance to elect a woman to the governorship in Alabama, where Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley hopes to win a promotion. She is running an uphill battle against GOP Gov. Bob Riley in the heavily Republican state.

Sarah Palin

Republican women, meanwhile, are looking north to their rising star.

Alaska Republican Sarah Palin, former mayor of Wasilla, ousted sitting Gov. Frank Murkowski in the state’s Aug. 22 primary. Murkowski saw heavy criticism for appointing his daughter to the Senate seat he previously held and for buying a state jet after the request to buy it was denied by federal and state lawmakers.

A social and fiscal conservative, Palin now has the edge in her race against former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles in Alaska and represents the best chance women have this year of picking up a gubernatorial seat, according to analysts Cook and Sabato.

GOP Moderates in Massachusetts, Illinois

Moderate Republican women are backing two other female gubernatorial hopefuls: Kerry Healey of Massachusetts and Judy Baar Topinka of Illinois.

Both women have the backing of The WISH List, a political action committee in Alexandria, Va., aimed at electing pro-choice Republican women to office.

Topinka, a state lawmaker and three-term state treasurer, has seized on an ethical scandal surrounding her opponent, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich has come under fire for allegations of wrongdoing involving hiring, contracting and fundraising, and questions about a $1,500 gift to one of his daughters by a friend whose wife got a state job.

Topinka, meanwhile, is working to distance herself from former GOP Gov. George Ryan, who was convicted in April of this year on 18 counts of public corruption.

In Massachusetts, Healey, who currently serves as lieutenant governor, has the advantage of name recognition over her rival, relative political newcomer Deval Patrick, an African American lawyer-turned-corporate executive.

Healey also enjoys a financial edge. By the end of September, Healey had raised $9.3 million and spent $7.8 million while Patrick had raised $6.1 million and spent $6.4 million.

Despite her pro-choice stance, however, she hasn’t won over many women’s groups. On Thursday, three women’s groups–the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts–endorsed Patrick in the race.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2006 Midterm Election Races:

The Center for American Women and Politics:

EMILY’s List:

The WISH List:

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