WASHINGTON — Republicans are anticipating major gains in governorships across the nation's industrial heartland and in several vital presidential swing states.
The damage may not be as devastating as the party of President Barack Obama had once feared. Democrats have a good shot at claiming governor's mansions now occupied by Republicans in California, Hawaii, Vermont and Minnesota and holding onto ones in New York, Maryland, Colorado, New Hampshire and Arkansas.
Still, Democrats braced for the loss of no fewer than five governorships — and likely far more. Republicans hoped for a net pickup of up to 12.
Governorships are especially important this year. Those elected Tuesday will help shape national politics and policy beyond the next presidential election.
Governors will not only be behind-the-scenes players in 2012 presidential races, but they have a critical say in implementing the new health care law, and will actively participate next year in redrawing congressional and legislative districts based on the 2010 census.
On the eve of midterms, races remained extremely tight or at least highly competitive in California, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Connecticut, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.
In the California race to succeed Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, polls suggested former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown was pulling ahead of Republican Meg Whitman in his three-decade-later comeback bid. Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay, plowed more than $150 million of her own money into the race, making it one of the most expensive self-financed campaigns in history and keeping her in the game.
Both parties saw Florida and Ohio — states that decided the 2000 and 2004 presidential races, respectively — as top jewels of this year's contests. And both were going right down to the wire.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, was waging a tough re-election bid against former Republican congressman John Kasich. Earlier polls showed Kasich ahead but later ones suggested a dead heat.
A Republican in the governor's chair in Ohio could complicate Obama's re-election bid, a dynamic not lost on the president, who visited Ohio 12 times over the past year.
In Florida, wealthy businessman Rick Scott was in a cliffhanger with Democrat Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer. She had a slight lead in some polls, but both parties saw the contest as a toss up. Scott, who was dogged by a Medicare fraud scandal at the hospital corporation he once ran, pumped about $60 million of his family's money into the race and was getting substantial help from the national GOP.
There are now 26 Democratic governors and 24 Republicans. Thirty-seven seats will be filled on Tuesday, a record. More than half of these races have no incumbent running, assuring a robust freshman class of governors next year.
Those in the Midwest will wield the most clout. Not only will they help redesign legislative districts, but some will have to abolish existing ones.
Because of population losses or sluggish growth, Ohio is expected to lose two congressional seats and Michigan, Iowa and Illinois one apiece. The four now have Democratic governors. Republicans hope to pick up all four — and then some.
"When you look across the Great Lakes and the Midwest, that is a region of the country that has been dominated by Democrats at the state level. We are either tied or ahead in swath of the country between Pennsylvania and Iowa," said Mike Schrimpf, spokesman for the Republican Governors' Association.
Across the nation, Democrats are in danger of losing governorships in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and New Mexico — most of them important presidential battlegrounds.
"They are nearly all 2012 swing states," Schrimpf said. "If we gain back a majority of those swing states, it makes Obama's re-election a lot more difficult."
Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said a president's party historically loses five governorships in midterms. With some Republicans predicting twice that many gains or more, Daschle said "frustrating them from reaching their goals is something we'll celebrate."
Obama paid heavy attention to governors races in the final days, personally campaigning for many Democrats. "I think he's been tremendously helpful," Daschle said.
Well, but maybe not in Rhode Island.
The Democratic candidate, Frank Caprio, had been holding his own until Obama declined to endorse him during a visit a week ago. That's because former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee was running in the race as an independent. Chafee crossed party lines in 2008 to endorse Obama and the president was repaying the favor.
It didn't sit well with Caprio, who said Obama could "take his endorsement and really shove it." Caprio dipped in the polls following that remark. Over the weekend, Caprio said he wished he had chosen different language, although he didn't flatly apologize.
Polls show Chafee leading both Caprio and Republican John Robitaille.
"I don't think our candidate used the best choice of words in how he reacted to the situation," said Daschle. "But I was also pretty clear in expressing my frustration and disappointment that the White House didn't endorse him."