NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Republican candidates for governor around the country have built an unexpectedly strong position for election this fall, helped by an improving economy, disaffection with President Barack Obama, and a national fundraising machine that is leagues ahead of the opposition.
Four years after an economic crisis and opposition to Mr. Obama's health care law propelled Republicans to capture a lopsided majority of statehouses across the country, they are faced with a staggering political task: defending 22 of the 36 executive mansions that will be up for grabs in November, led by a governor who is trying to rebound from a scandal.
While the sheer scale of Republican gains four years ago offers Democrats a wealth of opportunities to win, the political environment appears to be tilting once again in the Republicans' direction.
The recession that doomed Democrats in 2010 has shifted into a recovery, driving down jobless rates and bolstering Republican incumbents. At the same time, Mr. Obama's approval ratings have fallen even in states that he won in 2012.
And campaign money is gushing into national Republican groups that focus on state capitals, including the Republican Governors Association, whose chairman, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, has set fundraising records for the group even under the glare of multiple state and federal investigations. The association raised $100 million during the 18 months ending in June, dwarfing the amount it amassed for 2010, and had $70 million in cash at the beginning of July. The chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont, said his group would be outraised by about two to one.
The governors associations of both parties held events for donors here during the summer meeting of the National Governors Association, raising substantial amounts of money from overlapping lists of heavily regulated industries such as tobacco, health insurance and telecommunications. But Republican groups have had far greater success this election cycle in persuading the party's leading individual donors to invest in the relatively less glamorous state elections. By the end of March, eight individuals or couples -- including the industrialist David Koch, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and the hedge fund manager Paul Singer -- had contributed $1 million or more to the Republican Governors Association.
"It gives me enormous flexibility," Mr. Christie said of the association's financial advantage, noting that he would raise money in 14 states over the next two months. "We've narrowed our own map and are able to go on offense in some other states." The improving economy creates curious and somewhat contradictory political conditions for the two parties. The brightening outlook has given many Republican governors the beginnings of a comeback story to sell to their voters. That forces their Democratic opponents to play down the good job numbers as illusory, even as Democrats in Washington claim success.
At the same time, the economic turnaround is not enough to raise Mr. Obama's overall standing in several pivotal states, weighing down Democratic candidates for governor who might otherwise be in better shape.
For example, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican, was widely viewed as imperiled, but the improving economic climate in his state, where unemployment has fallen by five percentage points since Mr. Scott was elected in 2010, has lifted his prospects.
Mr. Shumlin, of Vermont, acknowledged the difficult climate, but expressed optimism about the Democrat Party's potential to make gains.
"In governors' races, they ask one simple question: Has the governor delivered on job growth, economic vitality and making investments in infrastructure, education and our kids' future?" Mr. Shumlin said.
The stakes in the country's statehouses are arguably higher than those in the battle for control of the U.S. Senate, which has consumed most of the media coverage and money from both parties this year. Washington is likely to remain gridlocked regardless of which party wins control of the Senate in November, but the success of Republican governors this fall, along with retention of Republican majorities in dozens of state legislatures, would cement the sweeping changes on economic and social issues that have been implemented in state capitals across the country. In 17 states with Republican governors up for re-election, the party also controls the legislature.
The state races will also have a major impact on state and national policies: the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the fate of big tax cuts, and further winnowing of union rights and voting access.
The landscape for governors is in some ways the opposite of the Senate map this year. While Democrats are forced to protect Senate seats in conservative-leaning states such as Arkansas and Louisiana, Republicans are doing much of the same with their governors in states that have favored Democrats in recent elections.
No Republican incumbent is as vulnerable as Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, who was elected with Tea Party support, but has seen his standing fall after making deep cuts to education. Yet the hardest-fought races are likely to take place in the Midwest, where the governors associations, business and labor are spending millions.