Republicans make modest gains in state governor races

Wed Nov 7, 2012 4:19am EST

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(Reuters) - Republicans were poised to increase their majority of U.S. governors' offices on Tuesday, but the gains could be limited as the party's candidates fell behind in two close races in Western states.

Eleven governorships were in play on Tuesday, and Democrats were on the defensive with four of the party's incumbents stepping down, compared with just one Republican.

Republicans picked up a governor's seat in North Carolina as former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who narrowly lost a statehouse bid in 2008, notched a decisive victory over Democratic Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton. He will be the state's first Republican governor in 20 years.

McCrory had maintained a consistent lead over Dalton during the race after losing to Governor Bev Perdue by a slim margin in 2008. Perdue, the state's first female governor, decided not to seek a second term amid declining popularity.

The Republican Governors Association noted in a statement on Tuesday that the party would now hold the top job in at least 30 states, the highest number held by either party in 12 years.

"In the states, Republican governors are providing the type of results-oriented leadership that is absent in Washington, D.C.," said RGA chairman Bob McDonnell, governor of Virginia.

Still, the party's hopes for another pick-up were dashed in New Hampshire, where former state Senate majority leader Maggie Hassan won a tough contest over Ovide Lamontagne, an attorney who Hassan attacked as too conservative for the swing state.

In Washington state, where Republicans hope that moderate state Attorney General Rob McKenna will become the first GOP governor in 30 years, former Democratic congressman Jay Inslee had opened up a small lead on Tuesday night with about 60 percent of the vote counted.

Washington uses mail-in voting exclusively, and final results in the race may not be known for several days. Incumbent Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat who is retiring after two terms, won by just a handful of votes after multiple recounts and legal battles in 2004.

In Montana, where two-term Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer is stepping aside due to term limits, Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock led Republican Rick Hill, a former congressman, in early returns. That race, which Republicans also viewed as a good opportunity for a pick-up, is expected to be very close.

Elsewhere, incumbent Democratic governors in Missouri, West Virginia, Vermont and Delaware all held onto their seats, as did Republicans in North Dakota and Utah.

In Indiana, where Republican Governor Mitch Daniels is stepping down due to term limits and Democrats had once seen opportunity, Republican Mike Pence defeated Democrat John Gregg.

(Reporting by Jonathan Weber in San Francisco and Colleen Jenkins in Richmond, Virginia. Editing by Jim Loney)