Reporting from Denver — Americans went to the polls Tuesday to select a record 37 governors, with Republicans making big gains and garnering political advantages for the decade to come.
Republicans picked up at least 10 governorships Tuesday night, with some states still too close to call. Democrats won back the office in California and held on to it in New York, where Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo comfortably defeated a "tea party"-backed rival. Meanwhile, Republican incumbent Rick Perry won reelection in Texas.
Haley Barbour, Mississippi's governor and chair of the Republican Governors Assn., celebrated the wins in a statement late Tuesday: "Republican governors are so important to the future of our party, and more importantly, America."
The greatest focus was on Ohio and Florida, key swing states where the gubernatorial races have gone down to the wire. In Ohio, Democrat Ted Strickland was ousted by former GOP Rep. John Kasich. And in Florida, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, and Republican former healthcare executive Rick Scott remained neck and neck as election officials continued their count past midnight.
Republicans were hoping to capture governors' mansions across the Rust Belt and Midwest, a crucial presidential battleground where state chief executives have seen their popularity hammered by the recession. The GOP won in the critical swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. The Republican Party was also vying closely to take the governorship of deep-blue Illinois, President Obama's home state.
In New England, the Democratic Party's traditional base, the GOP was unable to wrest the governorship from Democrats in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, where Deval Patrick, a friend of Obama, held on for reelection. A three-way race featuring an independent in Maine was too close to call. Republican Tom Foley captured Connecticut's governorship.
And in the interior West, a region Democrats say is critical to their future electoral success, Republicans captured New Mexico's and Wyoming's governorships. Democrat John Hickenlooper won a wild three-way
race in Colorado, while Republicans held seats in Arizona, Idaho, Utah and Nevada.
Of the 37 seats up for grabs this cycle, 24 were open seats with no incumbents.
In many states the sitting governor was either termed out or declined to run for reelection.
Every decade, governors and state legislators control the redrawing of congressional districts that can alter the composition of the House of Representatives. "That makes a huge difference in who controls Congress," said Christian Grose, a political science professor at USC. The next round of redistricting will start next year.
Governors will also have a prominent role in helping select the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, lending their political apparatus to their favorite candidate. In addition, they will oversee states that are traditionally hubs of policy innovation, signing laws that get copied across the country.
"There might be a really good idea that emerges from one of these gubernatorial candidates, or really bad ideas," Grose said. And, he added, a successful new governor "can be the kind of person who runs for president in 2016. Where did Sarah Palin come from, right?"