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Winners Tuesday May Benefit From Economic Cycle

The impact of the anti-incumbency wave of 2010 — if, in fact, it materializes in the way polls would indicate — will be judged in the next few days by the number of seats that change hands in Washington and in statehouses across the country.

Ballot Box
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Ballot Box

In the longer term, though, the importance of any wave election isn’t only about the sheer number of seats gained and lost, but also about when the wave hits — or, more specifically, where it falls in the economic cycles of the country. And if you look at it that way, history suggests that the expected big bang of 2010 may well end up reverberating loudly through our politics for a long time to come.

That’s because, in the years ahead, the country might well experience the kind of economic recovery that the White House had hoped would take hold in time for this year’s elections. This isn’t a sure thing, by any means; some economists are still predicting a long period of Japanese-style stagnation. But most Washington observers seem to be betting on the kind of upturn that’s more evident to voters.

And it’s the politicians who catch the political wave at such fortunate economic moments — particularly governors who get themselves elected during hard times and then preside over the upswing — who tend to establish themselves as folk heroes and turnaround experts, rising to national prominence not just because of their policies but also because of their timing. Which could be very good news for some Republicans like John Kasich, who may yet become Ohio’s next governor, or for an unknown like Nikki Haley, who stands to win in South Carolina.

It isn’t just governors, of course, who can benefit from good timing. Should Republicans take control of one or both chambers of Congress, an improving economy in the next several years could bolster the profiles and credibility of some of the party’s younger leaders and their more innovative ideas.

But governors have a particular ability to capitalize on a turn in the economic cycle. Go back to 1982, when Republican incumbents, still mired in the economic slump that catapulted Ronald Reagan to the presidency two years earlier, suffered a stinging defeat at the polls, if not quite the massive wave they had feared. Democrats picked up a net gain of seven governors’ seats that year. Among the winners were two former governors who had been turned out of office before: Michael S. Dukakis and Bill Clinton.

Mr. Dukakis rode the economic recovery that followed to the Democratic nomination for president in 1988, campaigning on the rebound he called his “Massachusetts miracle.” Mr. Clinton took advantage of the same fallow period (although he did, ultimately, have to govern during the late-1980s downturn as well) to improve education and spur job creation in Arkansas, on his way to becoming arguably the most influential political figure of his age.

By 1994, of course, President Clinton found himself bedeviled by his own sluggish economy, along with other problems. Among the Republicans who swept into office on the wave of 1994 — and who would not have had much chance running in a less turbulent year — were the novice George W. Bush, who stunned the political establishment by unseating Gov. Ann Richards of Texas.

Mr. Bush arrived in Austin just in time to catch a historic period of sustained economic growth, fueled by dot-com mania. Like other governors at that time, Mr. Bush was able to cut taxes while proposing increases in education spending and balancing the budget, a bit of magic that, along with his famous name, enabled him to become the first Texas governor to win successive four-year terms and made him the early frontrunner for his party’s presidential nomination in 2000.

Your Money Your Vote - A CNBC Special Report
Your Money Your Vote - A CNBC Special Report

In fact, several Republicans who won in 1994, or in the off-year elections of 1993 that were essentially its prelude, went on to build national profiles during the boom years. Rudolph W. Giuliani got credit for making Gotham governable. Christie Whitman of New Jersey, George E. Pataki of New York and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania all won governorships in reliably Democratic states and rose to stardom inside the party during the Clinton years.

Contrast the arc of these political careers with those of some Democratic governors elected in 2006, who then had the misfortune of governing as the already fragile national economy imploded. Two of the Democrats’ hottest properties after they took back Republican seats in that election, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Ted Strickland of Ohio, are trying to eke out re-election after seeing their popularity plummet. Colorado’s Bill Ritter Jr. opted not to run again, and Iowa’s Chet Culver appears likely to lose.

None of this is to suggest that the economy, by itself, is destiny. No one can argue that Bill Clinton wasn’t among the more talented politicians in modern history, or that just because tech stocks were soaring, the guy brewing coffee at the 7-Eleven could have governed just as ably as a Rudy Giuliani. But it does suggest that the politicians who linger longest and most successfully on the national stage tend to also be lucky, having been elected in years of unrest and having been able to claim credit for the periods of relative ease that followed.

So when the polls close on Tuesday, you might want to pay special attention to an obscure governor-elect like, potentially, Scott Walker of Wisconsin or Susana Martinez of New Mexico, both Republicans. If President Obama is right and the economy that has shadowed this election year is about to right itself, then you might be hearing their names again, perhaps even in 2016.

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