NASHVILLE — 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 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, Chris Christie of New Jersey.
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 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, 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, Christie, 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 in Nashville during the summer meeting of the National Governors Association, raising substantial amounts of money. But Republicans are ahead this election cycle.
"It gives me enormous flexibility," Christie said of the Republican Governors Association's financial advantage. "We've narrowed our own map and are able to go on offense in some other states."
Shumlin, of Vermont, acknowledged the difficult climate, but expressed optimism about the Democratic 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?" Shumlin said.
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 hardest-fought races are likely to take place in the Midwest, where the governors associations, business and labor are already spending millions. After failing to contest the New Jersey governor's race last year and letting a potential presidential hopeful, Christie, win by a landslide, Democrats are determined to defeat Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and snuff out his White House aspirations. Like Walker, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan has taken on unions and made himself a prime target for Democrats.
Neither of the two Midwestern Republicans, however, faces as tough a re-election battle as Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, a Democrat. His effort to reform the state's pension system has sent his popularity plummeting.
The Republican association's enormous cash advantage has allowed it to spend heavily in recent months in an early wave of advertising intended to bolster party's governors and candidates: about $25 million in 12 states, almost all of which have Republican incumbents.