Republicans turned to voters in nearly a dozen states Tuesday in hopes of broadening the party's hold on governors' mansions across the country, with some GOP candidates viewing this election as their best opportunity to win in a quarter-century.
Two years ago, Republicans snatched six governors' office in the midterm elections, giving the party 29 governorships to 20 for Democrats and one independent. This year, 11 states are picking their chief executive.
When all the ballots are counted, Republicans could have as many as 33 governorships — the most since the 1920s and one more than they had in the 1990s.
In four states — Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Washington — Democratic governors are leaving office, raising Republican hopes that at least some of those offices can be flipped to the GOP. Four other seats are held by Democrats who are seeking re-election.
One of the most closely watched states is North Carolina, which is trending toward a Republican governor for the first time since 1988. Recent polls have shown a tight race in Washington state, where the GOP hasn't occupied the governor's mansion in more than three decades.
Popular Republican incumbents in conservative states such as Utah and North Dakota are considered likely to hold on. The GOP also is competing in West Virginia and Missouri, the latter a state where national Republican and Democratic governors' groups have poured millions into the race between Democratic incumbent Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican businessman rival Dave Spence.
The Democrats had modest hopes of taking over the governorship in Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is stepping down, though polling consistently has favored the GOP's Mike Pence.
While federal elections often can be referendums on the national economy, statewide races are often decided by matters unique to those states, including whether voters like and trust a certain candidate, a national political observer said Monday.
"The races for governor and races for senator are high-profile for each state, and the outcomes will be determined largely by the personalities of those candidates and the issues in those states," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
Still, he said, heavy turnout in key swing states in the presidential contest could influence governors' race as well.
"If Republicans are fired up (at the ballot box) and Democrats are lethargic and staying home, it could tip some of the states in the Republican column" in governors' races, Yepsen said, pointing to the tight contest in neighboring Missouri. "In a state like that, what Jay Nixon is staying awake at night thinking about is If Romney wins big enough in Missouri, that could hurt Nixon. There is an undertow."
Kate Hansen, a Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman, said 2012 is a difficult year for Democrats, since they have more seats to defend. But in at least one state, a Democratic governor is considered secure. Delaware's Jack Markell is strongly favored to win another term.
Some pundits have suggested there isn't necessarily a national tide lifting Republicans in governor's races so much as individual circumstances in a small number of competitive states. Democrats in North Carolina, for example, saw a former governor convicted of a felony in 2010 and the current governor sullied by an investigation that led to charges against her former campaign aides.
Republicans have also been aided by a cash advantage, with the Republican Governors Association raising about twice as much as its Democratic counterpart this election cycle.