WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democrats, facing fewer opportunities to pick up seats in the Senate and House, see a more fertile playing field in the three dozen governors' races across the country this year. As a bonus, there's even the potential of scoring an early knockout against a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender or two.
In campaigns with broad presidential implications, Democrats see encouraging signs in their fight against Republicans' hold of 29 of the nation's 50 governor's mansions. Republicans will have a large map to defend -- the GOP controls 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.
"We know how to win national elections," Obama said Thursday at a fundraiser for the Democratic Governors Association. But he said all too often, Democrats get into trouble by ignoring state races "because I guess we don't think it's sexy enough. But the fact of the matter is that's where a lot of the action is."
Part of the strategy aims to undercut a group of prominent Republican governors first elected in 2010 who have presided over improving economies and billed themselves as reformers in contrast to the dysfunction in Congress. 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 in 2016.
"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 shutter access lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political payback.
Despite the ongoing home-state scandal, Christie plans to maintain an aggressive national travel schedule as the top fundraiser for Republican governors. But he was expected to keep a low profile this weekend as governors gather in Washington, D.C., for the annual National Governors Association meeting.
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 ongoing 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. Kasich briefly sought the presidency in 1999 and Republicans say he could 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 2016 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."
The state campaigns represent an anomaly for Democrats, who face daunting challenges this year in trying to retain their Senate majority and recapture the House. In gubernatorial races, Democrats hope to go on offense.
In Pennsylvania, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has struggled to recover after supporting deep cuts to public education, making a number of verbal gaffes and lingering questions about the Jerry Sandusky child abuse investigation at Penn State, which happened while he was attorney general. Republicans hope a competitive Democratic primary might produce an overly liberal nominee who will struggle in conservative parts of the state.