OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Republicans are in position to extend their recent gains among governors as they compete for seats they haven't won in a quarter-century.
Of the 11 states with gubernatorial elections in November, eight are now led by Democrats, and each of the most competitive races is a GOP pickup opportunity. The numbers suggests that Republicans soon will claim 30 to 33 governorships after holding just 22 a few years ago — an advantage not reflected in the divided Congress or competitive presidential race.
"It says that when people are choosing the government closest to the people, they're choosing Republicans," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said in an interview. "They realize the CEO of the state has got to be someone who's fiscally conservative and is going to focus on jobs."
North Carolina, the most likely state to flip, is trending toward a Republican governor for the first time since 1988. In Washington state, which hasn't chosen a GOP governor in more than three decades, new polls show a toss-up.
Steven Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University, suspects there isn't necessarily a national tide pushing Republicans in governor's races so much as individual circumstances in the 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 is sullied by an investigation that led to charges against her former campaign aides.
The Republican candidate, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, has cast himself as a pragmatic centrist and is projected to win comfortably even as President Barack Obama tries to compete in the state. Greene noted that a bloc of ballots will be cast for Obama and for McCrory.
"The candidates matter," Greene said. "As political scientists, we have to remind ourselves about that sometimes."
Republicans have been aided by a cash advantage, with the RGA raising about twice as much as the Democratic Governors Association during this election cycle. Both sides have invested in three other states held by Democrats — Washington, New Hampshire and Montana — that are seen as too close to call.
—In Washington, which has an open seat due to departing Gov. Chris Gregoire, Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna has painted himself as a moderate and promoted plans to increase funding for public schools. His Democratic opponent, former U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, has moved to the center, breaking from other party leaders on issues like taxes.
—In New Hampshire, Republican Ovide Lamontagne is seeking to retake the governor's seat after eight years under Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who is retiring. Former state Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan is campaigning on the Democratic side. After going for Obama in 2008 by 10 percentage points, the state has swung back toward Republicans and is now considered competitive in the White House racel.
—In Montana, Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock is looking to protect the governor's seat from former Republican Rep. Rick Hill. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has been in office since 2005, is popular in the state but must leave the post due to term limits.
Republicans are to compete in Missouri and West Virginia as well.
In Missouri, Republican businessman Dave Spence has poured $6 million into his challenge of Democratic Gov. Gov. Jay Nixon, whose once substantial lead has been shrinking in the polls toward a competitive race. The national Republican and Democratic governors' groups have both poured millions into the race. Nixon has highlighted his spending cuts, government job cuts and budgets balanced without tax increases as a reason for re-election in the state that typically favors conservatives. Spence has asserted that Missouri's economy trails that of its neighbors.
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is favored, but GOP nominee Bill Maloney and the RGA have tried to link the incumbent to Obama.
Similarly, the Democrats had modest hopes of taking over the governorship in Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is stepping down, but polling has consistently favored the GOP's Mike Pence.
Republicans already have the advantage among governors, holding 29 states. Victories in North Carolina and the three toss-up states could push that number to 33, the highest since the 1920s. The party had 32 governors in the 1990s.
Kate Hansen, a spokeswoman for the DGA, acknowledged that the realities of the electoral map make 2012 a difficult year for Democrats, since they have more seats to defend.
"We're pleased with the shape of the more competitive tossup races going into the homestretch — because we have excellent candidates focused on creating jobs and expanding opportunity, and we've made smart and early investments throughout the year," Hansen said.
Associated Press Writer Mike Baker can be reached on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/HiPpEV