BY THOMAS B. EDSALL
The Washington Post
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- When Lee Fisher was first elected to the state Senate in 1982, the Democratic Party dominated Ohio politics: the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, a majority of the congressional delegation and both branches of the legislature.
Now, Mr. Fisher is running for governor and he is the only Democrat in Ohio with even an outside chance of winning statewide office (other than judgeships).
Mr. Fisher is on the front lines of the struggle of the Democratic Party to regain power in the nation's state capitals, terrain that in recent years has shifted to the GOP as the political leverage of the suburbs has steadily supplanted that of cities, especially in the Midwest.
At every level of politics below the presidency, the Clinton years have been a disaster for Democrats. The party's loss of control of both branches of Congress has been replicated in statehouses across the country.
Although the underdog in the contest for the Ohio governorship, Mr. Fisher is a competitive candidate, which is more than Democrats can say in such key states as Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and the home states of President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, Arkansas and Tennessee.
In Michigan, for example, Democrats have nominated Jack Kevorkian's attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, whose bizarre bid threatens to take down enough Democrats to end the party's control of the state House. In once-Democratic Tennessee, Mr. Gore's recruiting efforts failed and the nominee is John Jay Hooker, a Democrat who campaigns in a stovepipe hat and who is considered to have no chance of winning.
Ohio reflects nation
The one bright spot for Democrats is California, where the legislature is under Democratic control, and where Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, is ahead of state Attorney General Dan Lungren, the GOP nominee. California is the crown jewel of congressional redistricting fights.
In Ohio, Mr. Fisher faces Bob Taft, as he is called on the ballot, or Robert A. Taft II, as he is known in political circles. Heir to the best-known name in state politics, Mr. Taft is the great-grandson of President William Howard Taft and the grandson of "Mr. Republican" Sen. Robert A. Taft.
If Mr. Taft, the secretary of state, lives up to expectations and defeats Mr. Fisher on Tuesday, the GOP will have an iron lock on Ohio. A Taft victory would set the stage for the state GOP to go into the next decade empowered to draw the lines for Ohio's congressional and legislative districts without a hint of Democratic interference.
Democratic struggles in Ohio reflect the national erosion of a party that once dominated not only Congress but also the bread-and-butter offices of political power: state legislatures, governors' mansions and key constitutional offices.
In 1992, Democrats held a decisive majority of governorships, 28 to the GOP's 20, with two in the hands of independents; now, 32 of the nation's governors are Republican, 17 are Democrats and one is an independent.
In 1992, Democrats controlled both branches of the legislature in 29 states, the GOP in six. In 14 states, control was split. (Nebraska is unicameral and nonpartisan.) Now, Democrats control both in 20 states, the GOP in 19, and 10 are split.
Redistricting on line
The danger for the Democratic Party is that its losses in gubernatorial and state legislative contests have been concentrated in large states where redistricting is a powerful tool in giving the advantage to one party or the other.
In the three states that are likely to pick up two House seats -- Arizona, Georgia and Texas -- and the two states likely to lose two seats -- New York and Pennsylvania -- Republican gubernatorial candidates are favored by strong margins in every case but Georgia, where the race is tighter.
In addition, GOP candidates for governor are favored by varying margins in Colorado and Florida, which are likely to gain one seat each, according to Election Data Services, and in Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ohio, all of which may lose a seat.
The overwhelming tilt to the GOP in the gubernatorial contests in these key states has been powerfully reinforced by Republican legislative gains over the past decade.
When Florida redraws congressional and legislative lines, for example, it is very likely to be done by a GOP-controlled legislature, and signed into law by Jeb Bush, the Republican gubernatorial nominee favored to win.
In Texas, not only is Jeb Bush's brother, Gov. George W. Bush, the odds-on favorite to win a second term, but the GOP already controls the state Senate and has a chance to take the state House before post-2000 redistricting.