ST. LOUIS — Republicans poured tens of millions of dollars into an effort to gain control of more governors' offices across the country, but the party saw limited results, managing only to wrest North Carolina from Democrats for the first time in two decades.
Democrats fended off GOP challengers in governorship races in Missouri, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Delaware and Vermont.
Votes in Washington and Montana — two states with open races for governor now occupied by outgoing Democrats — were still being tallied early Wednesday.
Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory's victory Tuesday in North Carolina came two years after Republicans snatched six governors' offices in the midterm elections. Those victories gave the party 29 governorships to 20 for Democrats and one independent going into the latest elections.
Republicans remained at the top of state government in North Dakota, Utah and Indiana.
When all the ballots are counted, Republicans could have as many as 32 governorships — a number the party has not achieved since the 1990s.
But the GOP's successes remained somewhat muted early Wednesday, despite the victory by McCrory, who defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton to become North Carolina's first GOP chief executive since early 1993. McCrory narrowly lost his gubernatorial bid in 2008 to Democrat Beverly Perdue, who opted not to run this year.
To the Republican Governors Association's chairman, Bob McDonnell, that modest gain was notable.
"There's no doubt that the Republican Party's strength comes from the states, and the RGA's ability to expand our majority provides optimism for the future," McDonnell said.
Indiana voters went with Republican Mike Pence, a 12-year congressman who defeated Democrat John Gregg and Libertarian Rupert Boneham to succeed GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is barred by state law from seeking a third term.
Democratic governors are leaving office in North Carolina, Montana, New Hampshire and Washington — a fact that stirred Republican hopes that at least some of those offices could be flipped to the GOP.
If Republican candidate Rob McKenna is elected in Washington, he will be the state's first GOP governor in more than three decades.
Chief executives of conservative North Dakota and Utah stayed in the Republican column with Tuesday's re-elections of popular incumbents. They included Jack Dalrymple, who took over two years ago in North Dakota when John Hoeven resigned to move to the Senate. Dalrymple won his first full term, defeating rancher and Democratic state Sen. Ryan Taylor.
In Missouri, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon won a second term on a night the state's electoral votes went to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who failed to block President Barack Obama from winning a second term. Nixon turned back a challenge from Republican St. Louis businessman Dave Spence in a race that attracted millions of dollars from political groups.
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.
Kate Hansen, a Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman, said 2012 was a difficult year for Democrats, since they have more seats to defend.
But in at least three states, Democrats easily prevailed. Gov. Peter Shumlin won another term in Vermont, Gov. Jack Markell did the same in Delaware and state Sen. Maggie Hassan was elected to lead New Hampshire.
Some observers 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.