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 bellwether states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. There are currently 29 Republican governors, 20 Democrats and 1 independent.
This time, just 8 seats -- Delaware, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont, Washington State and West Virginia -- 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.
O'Malley pointed to Ohio, where voters soundly rejected a ballot measure backed by Republican Gov. John Kasich to curtail public employee unions, and Florida, where Gov. 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 will the parties' contrasting visions be 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.