By JIM SUHR
ST. LOUIS — North Carolina voters elected their first Republican governor in two decades Tuesday, fanning the GOP’s hope of broadening their party’s hold on governor’s mansions across the country.
The victory by former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory came two years after Republicans snatched six governors’ offices in the midterm elections. Those victories gave the party 29 governorships to 20 for Democrats and one independent entering Tuesday’s elections in which 11 gubernatorial races were to be decided.
When all the ballots are counted, Republicans could have as many as 33 governorships — the most since the 1920s and one more than they had in the 1990s.
McCrory defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton to become North Carolina’s first GOP chief executive since Jim Martin left office in early 1993. McCrory narrowly had lost his gubernatorial bid in 2008 to Democrat Beverly Perdue, who opted not to run this year.
Indiana voters went with Republican Mike Pence, a 12-year congressman who defeated Democrat John Gregg and Libertarian Rupert Boneham to succeed GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is barred by state law from seeking a third term.
Democratic governors are leaving office in North Carolina, Montana, New Hampshire and Washington, raising Republican hopes that at least some of those offices can be flipped to the GOP.
But New Hampshire’s governor’s mansion remained in Democratic hands Tuesday, as did those in Vermont, Delaware and West Virginia.
Chief executives of conservative North Dakota and Utah stayed in the Republican column with Tuesday’s re-elections of popular incumbents.
They included Jack Dalrymple, who took over two years ago in North Dakota when John Hoeven resigned to move to the Senate. Dalrymple won his first full term, defeating rancher and Democratic state Sen. Ryan Taylor.
Recent polls have shown a tight race in Washington state, where the GOP hasn’t occupied the governor’s mansion in more than three decades.
The GOP also is competing in Missouri, the latter a state where national Republican and Democratic governors’ groups have poured millions into the race between Democratic incumbent Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican businessman rival Dave Spence.
While federal elections often can be referendums on the national economy, statewide races are often decided by matters unique to those states, including whether voters like and trust a certain candidate, a national political observer said Monday.
“The races for governor and races for senator are high-profile for each state, and the outcomes will be determined largely by the personalities of those candidates and the issues in those states,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
Still, he said, heavy turnout in key swing states in the presidential contest could influence governors’ race as well.
“If Republicans are fired up (at the ballot box) and Democrats are lethargic and staying home, it could tip some of the states in the Republican column” in governors’ races, Yepsen said, pointing to the tight contest in neighboring Missouri. “In a state like that, what Jay Nixon is staying awake at night thinking about is If Romney wins big enough in Missouri, that could hurt Nixon. There is an undertow.”
Kate Hansen, a Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman, said 2012 is a difficult year for Democrats, since they have more seats to defend.
But in at least three states, Democrats easily prevailed. Gov. Peter Shumlin won another term in Vermont, Gov. Jack Markell did the same in Delaware and state Sen. Maggie Hassan was elected to lead New Hampshire.
Some pundits have suggested there isn’t necessarily a national tide lifting Republicans in governor’s races so much as individual circumstances in a 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 sullied by an investigation that led to charges against her former campaign aides.
Republicans have also been aided by a cash advantage, with the Republican Governors Association raising about twice as much as its Democratic counterpart this election cycle.