WASHINGTON -- Governors' races are not part of a Rubik's Cube like those in the Senate, an ever-changing puzzle with one burning question: Which party will control 51 or more seats? But Washington dysfunction has shifted influence to statehouses around the country.
In particular, as the Republican Party searches for new leadership and ideas during a time of infighting over its future, the party is looking to its governors for direction. So their electoral fate in 2014 is key.
This year, almost two-thirds of the governorships up for grabs -- 22 of 36 -- are held by Republicans, thanks to the 2010 wave that swept many of them into office. A handful of these contests appear to be ultra-competitive.
"We are playing a lot of defense," said Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "The good news for us is that a lot of states where Democrats should be playing offense they're not, because Republican governors have gotten results and, as a result, are in a strong political position."
Cox listed Iowa's Terry Branstad, Nevada's Brian Sandoval and New Mexico's Susana Martinez as three GOP governors whose reelection contests "should be competitive" because of the political fundamentals in their states, but who have insulated themselves with successful current terms.
Another trio of Republican-held seats in union-friendly industrial Midwest states will be competitive, but the GOP executives in those states -- Wisconsin's Scott Walker, Michigan's Rick Snyder and Ohio's John Kasich -- have managed their political fortunes well and have good shots at being reelected.
Walker, in particular, is a potential presidential contender in 2016, and his reelection fortunes are stronger, ironically, because of the recall effort mounted against him in 2012 by the state's public unions.
He withstood the recall and his brand was strengthened with many Wisconsinites because they "thought that recalling a governor because you don't like something he did is not something that they signed up for," said Colm O'Comartun, Cox's counterpart at the Democratic Governors Association. "And I think that is a lot of people actually, who were like, 'I just don't think it's fair.'"
The Wisconsin race, O'Comartun said, is "going to be 48 to 48 -- 4 percent in play, everybody fighting for that 4 percent."
There are 13 other Republican seats that are generally considered to be safe. But the three GOP governors most in danger are in Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine.
O'Comartun was downright bullish about Democrats' chances against Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Maine Gov. Paul LePage. "There's nothing they can do to save themselves because they just don't have the political ability. ... They're so bad as politicians," O'Comartun said. "I think those are the two guys who are just too clueless to even save themselves."
"I'd beware of anybody who speaks in such certainties about campaigns," Cox shot back, emphasizing that the elections are still 10 months away.
"I've been doing this for 20 years," Cox said. "There are no certainties in campaigns. Are they vulnerable? Yes, they are. Are they races we can win? Absolutely."
Corbett is considered the most vulnerable of the bunch. With an approval rating that has dipped into the low 20s of late, he is at serious risk of becoming Pennsylvania's first incumbent governor to lose his reelection bid since the state lifted a bar on its chief executive serving two consecutive terms in 1968.
One of the biggest reasons Corbett is in so much trouble connects to the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University involving former defensive football coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Corbett was state attorney general when the first complaint against Sandusky was filed in the spring of 2009. He did not bring charges against the now-convicted pedophile until late 2011. The current attorney general, Democrat Kathleen Kane, is conducting an investigation into why it took so long and whether Corbett avoided having Sandusky arrested in the midst of his own 2010 run for governor. Kane has also pointed out that board members at a charity founded by Sandusky donated to Corbett's campaign.
The Pennsylvania governor and one of his top investigators have both maintained that in 2009 they had only one victim willing to testify against Sandusky and that it took time to build a case and convince nine other victims to come forward and speak out in public.
The Democratic field vying to challenge Corbett is crowded, with at least eight candidates already running in the late May primary. U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord are considered the two top candidates.
If there weren't two viable candidates in Maine vying to challenge LePage, he might be the nation's most vulnerable incumbent. But if Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler split the anti-LePage vote, the Republican incumbent has a chance to somehow win a second term, despite what even his own supporters have described as a tendency to put his foot in his mouth.
Michaud, a six-term congressman, is seeking to become the first openly gay individual to be elected governor in the country's history. Polling shows him leading LePage and Cutler, an environmental lawyer who narrowly lost to LePage in 2010.
"LePage got elected with 38 percent in a three-way race," Cox said. "This year, the race has the same structure to it, with ... Cutler getting 15 to 20 percent of the vote. If Cutler stays in that range, the governor has a very good chance of winning. If he drops below 15, it presents a more difficult pathway to victory."
Then there is Florida, which promises to be a very expensive slug fest.
Gov. Rick Scott, a former health care executive, has endured a difficult first term. His approval rating dive-bombed to 29 percent in one poll during his initial year in office. He has brought it back to the low 40s, but remains vulnerable. And he is being challenged by a former governor who also happens to be a former Republican: Charlie Crist, the only man more tan than House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
"[Scott] is not against another awkward stiff. He's against the best retail politician in America, Charlie Crist," O'Comartun said.
Cox countered that Scott has "a good story to tell." State unemployment has dropped from 11 percent to 7 percent, Cox said, and Floridians have gained 440,000 new jobs.
As for Crist -- who held the governor's office as a Republican, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate as an independent and now is seeking his old job as a Democrat -- Cox said he is "obviously the ultimate political opportunist."
According to O'Comartun, the biggest factor for Crist is whether he's able to raise enough money so that Scott, who plans to spend $100 million to get reelected, cannot bury him on Florida's expensive airwaves. Crist is on pace to raise around $60 million according to Democratic operatives familiar with the race.
"You don't have to have as much money as the other guy, but you do need to have enough to be competitive, and Charlie will be competitive," O'Comartun said.
In December, Crist suffered his first major setback of this election, when campaign manager Bill Hyers, who had come to work for him after overseeing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign, abruptly quit before actually starting the job. Hyers gave no explanation.
CORRECTION: The governor of Pennsylvania was previously misidentified as Rick Corbett within the body of the story. He is Tom Corbett.