WASHINGTON -- Democrats are playing defense in governors' races in 2012, protecting eight seats – some in conservative states like North Carolina and Montana – while Republicans are safeguarding just four. But one of those is in Wisconsin, where a recall effort against incumbent Scott Walker has emerged as a national test of the confrontational measures many GOP governors have taken to balance state budgets.
Both parties agree the landscape is quite different than in 2010, where 37 states elected governors at the height of the economic downturn and amid roiling voter anger over government spending and debt. Republicans netted 6 new seats that year, including important presidential bellwether states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. There are currently 29 Republican governors, 20 Democrats and 1 independent.
This year, just 8 seats are up for grabs against a backdrop of a slowly improving national economy and a presidential contest that will draw a broader range of voters. Republicans are casting the contests as a referendum on their own party's leadership in tough times while Democrats are calling it a potential course correction after two years of GOP overreach.
"The public in a number of states in 2010 thought they were sending the message that with new leadership in the governor's office they'd get an accelerated recovery. Instead they got a hard right turn in ideology," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in an interview.
O'Malley pointed to Ohio, where voters soundly rejected a ballot measure backed by Republican governor John Kasich to curtail public employee unions, and Florida, where Rick Scott's aggressive budget cuts and remote style helped sink his approval ratings to record lows last year.
"The governors we elected over the last couple of cycles have come into office, made tough gutsy decisions that haven't always been popular. But they've been honest enough to tell their voters we can't afford to do things the same way," said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Nowhere are the parties' contrasting visions on more vivid display than in Wisconsin, where Democrats submitted more than a million petitions in January to recall Walker, whose efforts to slash state worker benefits and end their collective bargaining rights drew fierce protests from union members and other activists.
The special election is expected to take place in June, with a likely primary in May to select a Democrat to challenge Walker. Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, a favorite of labor leaders, is expected to run, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is also exploring a race.
Both parties agree that the Wisconsin recall is likely to be the closest governor's race of the year, and possibly the most expensive.
Democrats have modest hopes for a pickup in Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is stepping down after two terms. Rep. Mike Pence, a 6-term Republican from eastern Indiana, is running to replace Daniels, but John Gregg, a Democrat and former state House speaker, is mounting a strong effort.
Indiana is heavily Republican and Obama's popularity in the state has dropped considerably since winning the state in 2008, the first Democratic presidential hopeful in 40 years to do so. But the DGA's O'Malley said the strengthening auto industry, both nationally and in Indiana, could boost Gregg's chances.
Some states with elections this year are expecting to retain current governors, including Republicans Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota and Gary Herbert of Utah and Democrats Jack Markell of Delaware and Peter Shumlin of Vermont.
But from there, Republicans expect to be on offense.
_ In Washington state, where two-term Democrat Christine Gregoire is stepping down, Rob McKenna, the popular GOP attorney general, is running to replace her. Washington has not elected a Republican governor in 30 years, but party leaders say McKenna is a good fit for the state which Obama won handily in 2008 and will likely do so again this time. Longtime Rep. Jay Inslee is expected to be the Democratic contender.
_ In Montana, a conservative state where Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer is stepping down after two terms, Republicans are enthusiastic about their chances despite a June primary that has drawn at least 7 hopefuls so far. Former Rep. Rick Hill is considered a favorite. Attorney General Steve Bullock leads the Democratic field.
_ In Missouri, where incumbent Democrat Jay Nixon is seeking re-election, Republicans hope the state's slow economic recovery and an expected tight presidential and senate contest could help their chances of recapturing the seat. Dave Spence, a wealthy suburban St. Louis businessman, is among the candidates running in the August GOP primary.
_ In West Virginia, a rematch is shaping up between incumbent Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin and Republican Bill Maloney, who came within 3 points of beating Tomblin in a 2011 special election despite almost no political experience and little name recognition. The RGA's McDonnell predicted Obama's presence at the top of the ticket this time was likely to drag down Tomblin. Obama lost the state to Republican John McCain in 2008 by 13 points.
_ In North Carolina, where incumbent Democrat Bev Perdue is stepping down after a single rocky term, Republicans are enthusiastic about Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor who came within a few points of beating Perdue in 2008. Former Rep Bob Etheridge and Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton are among the Democrats expected to compete in the May primary.
_ In New Hampshire, where Democrat John Lynch is retiring, Republican conservative activists Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith are vying for the Republican nomination while former state Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan is a favorite in the Democratic primary. New Hampshire went heavily Republican in 2010 after a gradual Democratic shift in the prior decade. It's considered a swing state in this year's presidential contest and could even lean Republican if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the GOP nominee. Obama won the state handily in 2008.
Republicans also have a significant financial advantage in the 2012 contest. The RGA raised $44 million in 2011 and had nearly $27 million cash on hand in the group's most recent filing, while the Democrats raised $20 million and had about $12 million on hand.