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GOP governors endure early trials, gird for 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican governors took over statehouses across the country after the 2010 elections and immediately acted on promises to usher in a new era of budget cutting and conservative labor policies. Public backlash followed just as quickly; they watched their popularity drop while Democrats talked of political retribution.

But now, as they gear up for their re-election campaigns, many GOP governors — particularly those across the upper Midwest — find themselves in positions of strength, having benefited from improving economies if not changes of heart over their policies.

Their improved standing presents stark challenges for Democrats, who had long predicted voters would reject what they called Republican overreach.

President Barack Obama's party now carries the burden not just of finding strong challengers, which is proving difficult, but also of trying to figure out how to take down governors who aren't as vulnerable as they had anticipated — Wisconsin's Scott Walker, Ohio's John Kasich, Michigan's Rick Snyder and Iowa's Terry Branstad.

They won elections as part of the GOP's banner 2010. Republicans prevailed in 23 out of 37 gubernatorial elections that year, taking control of 11 states where Democrats had held the office. Now, there are 30 Republican governors. And of those, 20 are up for re-election in 2014 — many in states that Obama carried last fall.

Democrats plan to make the case in the runup to next fall's elections that Obama — not the Republican governors — are responsible for the economic recovery.

"They'll try to take credit for the national economic recovery, but voters in these states aren't buying it," Danny Kanner of the Democratic Governors Association predicted about the GOP incumbents.

To be sure, some swing-state Republican governors elected in 2010 are in serious trouble.

Few voters say Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania and Rick Scott in Florida are doing a good job. Neither has been able to capitalize on their states' economic recovery. Corbett also faces questions about his effectiveness handling an investigation about sex abuse at Penn State University while he was attorney general. And Scott's efforts to shift to the center politically haven't seemed to help his standing.

Sensing opportunity, several Democrats are running in Pennsylvania, while big names such as Sen. Bill Nelson and former Gov. Charlie Crist are weighing Democratic candidacies in Florida.

And a few other Republican governors up for re-election have stayed reasonably popular, such as New Mexico's Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval in Nevada, which was a battleground state in 2012.

In the Midwest, the four GOP governors stand out as an important bloc as Republicans look to lay the groundwork for Midwestern victories in the presidential race in 2016, when the region will offer a significant chunk of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House.

"In a nation as closely divided as ours, a percent of the vote here or there will really matter in 2016. Having a Republican governor in a swing state can deliver that," said Phil Musser, a national Republican strategist and adviser to Martinez.

The story is remarkably similar in each of the four states, where in 2010 pro-business conservatives won seats Democrats had held. They set about reversing years of Democratic control in the name of economic competitiveness. Voters initially balked. Then the unemployment rate shrunk. Voters grew happier. And Republicans claimed credit.

Perhaps no one illustrates this dynamic better than Wisconsin's Walker.

He faced angry crowds in the tens of thousands who vowed to oust him two years ago for signing legislation that stripped public employees of their bargaining power.

Yet, Walker attributed lawmakers' closing a $3.6-billion budget gap to the measure, and he won a dramatic recall election last summer by a wider margin than his 2011 victory.

Today, Wisconsin Democrats worry they won't find a candidate up to toppling Walker. He traveled to Iowa last month and is weighing a 2016 presidential campaign, a sign his 2012 recall victory was tantamount to winning re-election, former political aide Dan Blum said.

In Ohio, Kasich also signed legislation limiting public employee unions in 2011. Thousands protested. And Kasich's opponents overwhelmingly defeated the measure the following November.

He did, however, score partial victories when the GOP-controlled House backed his effort to lower taxes on income, and the GOP-controlled Senate's similar response on business taxes. And unemployment has tumbled steadily, from more than 9 percent when Kasich took office to 7 percent in April. Last year even Kasich chided GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney for decrying the condition of the state's economy.

It's unclear how strong of a Democratic challenge he will face. Ohio's best-known Democrats — former Gov. Ted Strickland and former Attorney General Richard Cordray — have opted not to run. Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald, little known outside of Cleveland, is seeking the Democratic nomination.

In Iowa, Branstad also enacted strict budget measures. But he failed to make headway on education and business tax reform. And he wasn't able to trim unionized state employee health benefits.

This year, during the last legislative session before election-year politics take precedence, Branstad won long-sought bipartisan deals on taxes, education and health care. And he has presided over a state where unemployment has fallen below 5 percent. So far, only state Sen. Jack Hatch, a Des Moines liberal little-known statewide, has said he expects to run for the Democrats.

And in Michigan, Snyder is the Midwestern foursome's most vulnerable.

He inflamed the state's shrinking labor vote in December when he reversed course to sign legislation stripping unions of their ability to force employees to pay dues. Even so, Snyder's job approval has risen since the he signed the bill, a reflection of improving jobs numbers. Unemployment hit 11 percent in 2011 and was 8.4 percent in April.

Only Democrat Mark Schauer, a former U.S. House member from conservative western Michigan, has said he plans to challenge him.