WASHINGTON - In a campaign season with broad presidential implications, Democrats are working to undercut prominent Republican governors who expect to strengthen their political appeal in November's midterm elections.
Democrats have few opportunities to improve their numbers in the Senate and House, but leaders in both parties acknowledge that Democrats have a natural advantage in races for governor. Republicans have to defend 22 of the 36 seats up for election, including six in states that President Barack Obama carried twice: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin and Maine.
As a bonus for Democrats, there's even the potential of scoring an early knockout against a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender or two.
Democrats have sought to tarnish New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was re-elected last year, as he deals with home-state scandals and hope to extend the scrutiny to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. All three are potential contenders for the GOP presidential nomination.
At the same time, Republican governors - they control 29 seats - are casting themselves as can-do reformers presiding over improving economies.
The political jockeying will be on display today as most of the nation's governors gather in Washington for the annual meeting of the National Governors Association.
"The myth of Republican governors as reformers is dead," said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who leads the Democratic Governors Association.
Obama's allies jumped on the release of thousands of emails this week involving former aides to Walker. The emails appeared to mix official and campaign business while Walker was serving as a county executive and running for governor in 2010. The approach drew comparisons to their focus on investigations involving Christie, including emails indicating that former aides and allies participated in a decision to close access lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political payback.
Despite the ongoing controversy, Christie plans to maintain an aggressive national travel schedule as the top fundraiser for Republican governors. He is participating in this weekend's gathering but was expected to keep a low profile.
Obama, addressing donors Thursday at a fundraiser for Democratic governors, said his party must stay focused on the states.
"We know how to win national elections. But all too often, it's during these midterms where we end up getting ourselves into trouble because I guess we don't think it's sexy enough," Obama said. "But the fact of the matter is, that's where a lot of the action is."
Walker is facing voters for the third time in four years. He escaped a recall election in 2012, when Democrats and unions sought revenge after a bitter fight over collective bargaining rights for state workers.
In the investigation involving his former aides, Walker was never charged with any wrongdoing. The probe closed last year with convictions against six of his former aides and associates. A second investigation is underway and reportedly looking into fundraising and other activities by Walker's campaign and conservative groups.
In Ohio, Kasich is up for re-election in the perennial presidential swing state. Recent polls suggest he holds a narrow advantage over Ed FitzGerald, a little-known Democratic county executive.
A former House Budget Committee chairman, Kasich was humbled by an expensive battle with labor unions in 2011 that overturned restrictions he championed on unions representing police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers. He briefly sought the presidency in 1999, and Republicans say he might pursue it again if he wins re-election.
The GOP is waging a broad campaign to highlight improving economies and optimism under Republican governors from South Carolina to New Mexico. Republican strategists view Obama as a liability for Democrats, particularly in a number of Rust Belt states that elected GOP governors four years ago. But they acknowledge that the fall elections could influence the upcoming presidential race, when the GOP field could include Christie, Walker, Kasich and outgoing Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas.
"2014 will have a lot to do with how 2016 turns out," said former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. "If we re-elect most of our governors, and they run on their records, then the governors will become even stronger leaders of our party."
Barbour and other GOP strategists dismissed the impact of investigations in New Jersey and Wisconsin.
"They want to talk about our governors because they don't want to talk about their own," said Phil Cox, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "They've got some very vulnerable incumbents."
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