WASHINGTON — Some of sharpest bare-knuckle skirmishes this election season have come in races for governor, especially in states shouldering the highest unemployment rates and largest tax increases.
Many also are important in presidential races, and both parties are pouring millions of dollars into statehouse races in the closing days of the campaign.
There are now 26 Democratic governors and 24 Republicans. A record 37 governorships are up for grabs on Nov. 2; more half are contests where an incumbent isn't running.
Polls show Democrats risk losing around a dozen seats, including those in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maine and New Mexico. But they also have a shot at pickups in four or five states, including California and possibly Florida.
"I feel pretty certain that we'll get (to) 30 or more governors..., I suspect we'll get at least 30," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, head of the Republican Governors Association.
His counterpart at the Democratic Governors Association, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, said voters are looking for results rather than to punish one party or the other.
"I am confident that voters will gravitate toward the governors who have produced results, and the candidates who offer plans that will do the same," Markell said. "When budgets are tight, choices become a very clear reflection of priorities."
Unlike the federal government, they can't spend money they don't have or print it when they run out. Governors and state legislatures had few options when they were among the first to be hit by the wave of anti-government anger over the economy.
While lawmakers in Washington have yet to decide on Bush-era tax cuts that are due to expire at year's end, states and local governments have been raising taxes, laying off teachers and other public servants and cutting services — big time.
In the budget year that ended last month, 29 states increased taxes by a total of $24 billion, the largest amount in more than 30 years, according to the bipartisan National Governors Association.
Of that $24 billion, California accounted for about $10 billion and New York $6 billion. Most of the rest of tax increases were in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin.
Joblessness in many states is far worse than the nation's 9.6 percent unemployment rate. Leading the pack as of August: Nevada, at 14.1 percent, closely followed by Michigan at 13.1 percent, California at 12.4 percent, Rhode Island at 11.8 percent and Florida at 11.7 percent. South Carolina, Oregon, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi also had unemployment rates at or above 10 percent.
In hard-hit states, the debates are less about broader themes or social issues and more about the nuts and bolts of governing, taxes and spending. Some examples:
—In the California battle between former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and billionaire businesswoman Meg Whitman, a divisive issue is Whitman's proposal to eliminate state capital gains taxes, a move she says would help stimulate California's ailing economy but which Brown challenges. Most polls show the race a tossup or give Brown a slight edge.
—In Ohio, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and Republican John Kasich have clashed over taxes and how to lead the state out of the economic crisis. Kasich, a former congressman, accuses Strickland of doing too little to lessen Ohio's tax burden. Strickland blames Bush-era policies and Wall Street greed for Ohio's grief. Kasich's strong early lead has narrowed in recent polls, but he's still ahead of Strickland in most surveys.
—In the race to succeed retiring Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Republican front-runner Tom Corbett and Democratic rival Don Onorato have clashed over who will better rein in state spending and a proposed tax on the state's burgeoning natural gas industry. Onorato supports the tax, Corbett opposes it. Both have said they are willing to consider legislation to replace local school property taxes with an expanded state sales tax.
—In Texas, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White has accused appointees of Republican Gov. Rick Perry of pressuring Texas teacher retirement system managers to make potentially risky investments that gave state business to politically connected companies, an allegation Perry disputes.
President Barack Obama is crossing the nation to stump for one Democratic governor or contender after another. It's "absolutely critical" to elect Democratic governors as well as House and Senate members, he tells partisan audiences.
In the past few weeks, he's stumped for Brown, Strickland and Democratic Govs. Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and Martin O'Malley in Maryland. He's also made campaign appearances with Democratic gubernatorial candidates Tom Barrett in Wisconsin, John Kitzhaber in Oregon, Mark Dayton in Minnesota and Brown in California.
Most governors will play critical roles next year in the once-a-decade redrawing of boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts to reflect the 2010 census. Because governors also control the levers of political machinery in their states, they will also be crucial for lining up support in the 2012 presidential contest.
While the party in the White House historically loses governorships as well as House and Senate seats in midterm elections, the dynamic is somewhat different, said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
"People employ a different set of criteria when they make a determination about a governor. A senator is one of 100. People don't care so much if you're a good manager," said Mellman, whose clients include some of this year's Democratic gubernatorial candidates. "But a governor is an executive, like the president. It makes a big difference."
National Governors Association: http://www.nga.org