While the Bush Administration’s beating of the war drums has drowned out domestic policy debates that should be shaping competition for control of Congress, bread-and-butter issues dominate the fall’s thirty-six gubernatorial contests. The advantage this has handed Democratic gubernatorial contenders could radically alter the partisan balance–and the policies–in statehouses that in the 1990s generated the conservative ideas and standard-bearers that came to dominate Washington. As recently as 1998 Republicans controlled thirty-two governorships, including those in seven of the eight largest states. Promoting welfare reform, deregulation, school vouchers, faith-based initiatives and other schemes that became building blocks for national GOP platforms, they forged a political network that made one of their own–Texas Governor George W. Bush–President.

But neglect of education and healthcare, and the frittering away of surpluses to finance tax cuts for the rich, eventually caught up with the GOP governors; since 1999 Democrats have won twelve out of sixteen gubernatorial contests and stand poised to win a solid majority of statehouses in November. Democrats may not win back all the big states–for instance, union support for Republican Governor George Pataki and Democrat Carl McCall’s missteps could put New York out of reach–but Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania are trending Democratic, while Texas and Florida are competitive. If Democrats lose the Senate and House, their governors are all but certain to become leaders in shaping policy priorities as well as candidates for national office.

Already, Michigan Democrats bemoan the fact that Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, their gubernatorial nominee, was born in Canada and thus cannot seek the presidency. Granholm is one of nine Democratic women seeking governorships from Massachusetts to Hawaii. While Maryland’s Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a lackluster campaigner with a powerful second name, gets the attention, the real stars are women like Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano, once a lawyer for Anita Hill, and Rhode Island’s Myrth York, a reformer with ambitious plans to tackle corporate wrongdoing.

York is one of the most progressive Democratic gubernatorial nominees. Another is New Hampshire’s Mark Fernald, who proposes an income tax to fund education. Ohio’s Tim Hagan began rising in polls after proposing to ease his state’s fiscal crisis by eliminating $500 million in corporate tax breaks. (Fernald and Hagan are also outspoken foes of their states’ death penalty provisions.) Not all Democratic gubernatorial contenders are so bold. While York and Hagan gain traction taking on corporate crime and tax breaks, millionaire candidates like Texan Tony Sanchez have found their own business dealings under scrutiny. And for every reformer, there is a Democratic deal-maker like California Governor Gray Davis, whose re-election is likely but who will lose hundreds of thousands of progressive votes to Green candidate Peter Camejo. Environmental activist Jonathan Carter, a Green who has received $900,000 in public funding under Maine’s clean-money law, could yet prove to be a serious contender in a state with a record of electing independent governors. In Minnesota, where Governor Jesse Ventura is stepping down, his Independence Party could hold the statehouse with the candidacy of former Democrat Tim Penny.

For the most part, however, this year’s gubernatorial contests boil down to head-to-head, Democrat-versus-Republican affairs where such issues as education funding, prescription-drug benefits, healthcare and job creation are central. Run against a backdrop of economic concerns, these races have given Democrats an advantage that, for now at least, they lack in federal contests.