CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Facing a darkening political climate, Democrats are locked in competitive governor races across New England as Republicans push their midterm offensive into one of the nation's last Democratic strongholds.
Would-be Democratic governors — Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is seeking re-election — have seen their leads shrink or disappear in recent weeks. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who is running for governor in Maine, have been stuck in dead heats for months.
Less than a week before Election Day, there are glimmers of hope for Democrats in some contests, but the tight races represent a troubling trend for a party now forced to pour time and resources into elections that were supposed to be easy wins.
"There's a lot happening in New England," said an excited Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "We're on offense in five out of six states."
Facing largely unknown GOP businessman Walt Havenstein, Hassan was expected to cruise to victory in New Hampshire. But recent internal and external polls, a fresh $1 million advertising campaign from the Republican Governors Association and a climate that increasingly favors Republicans have given Havenstein and his team confidence they could pull off an upset.
"You look at Havenstein and see governor there," said Tom Rath, a longtime Republican strategist. "Whether you agree with him or not, he's a very credible guy even though he didn't have a lot of name recognition — sooner or later that was going to change."
The regional trend is representative of Democrats' broader struggles as Republicans capitalize on President Barack Obama's poor approval ratings to try to expand the map.
The Republican Governors Association had dumped $25 million into New England governor races through Thursday, while their Democratic counterpart had spent roughly $13 million, according to officials who track political spending. The Democratic Governors Association attributes its lower spending to reserving ad space early on when it was cheaper, but in New Hampshire the DGA hasn't spent a dime while the national Republican group spent $3 million so far.
At the same time, the national mood appears to favor the GOP. An AP-GfK poll found last week that a growing number of likely voters want the GOP to win control of Congress, while 6 in 10 voters disapprove of Obama's job performance.
The president is making last-minute appearances for gubernatorial candidates in six states — three of them in New England, where he remains relatively popular. First lady Michelle Obama jumped in this week as well, campaigning alongside gubernatorial candidates in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
"You got to get it done, Rhode Island," Michelle Obama charged in her appearance with Raimondo in Providence. "Every single one of those votes matters. This election is going to be incredibly close. You hear me? Incredibly close."
After winning a competitive Democratic primary, Raimondo appeared to be in a dominant position heading into a general election matchup against the longtime Republican mayor of Cranston, Allan Fung. Democrats have a significant registration advantage in Rhode Island, while Raimondo had raised far more money.
Fung ultimately had more to spend because he accepted matching public funds, however, and the race is considered a dead heat.
It's a similar story in Massachusetts, where polling suggests Coakley is trailing Republican businessman Charlie Baker in a state where Democrats control every congressional seat and statewide office.
While there are far more Democrats than Republicans in New England, it's not unusual for voters across the region to break with their party in governor races. Among the six New England states, only voters in New Hampshire have failed to elect a Republican governor over the last decade.
Democratic officials acknowledge their challenges this election season.
"Despite a difficult environment for Democrats and an RGA financial advantage that they love to tout, we are extremely competitive in a number of states currently held by Republican governors and are well-positioned to re-elect our incumbents," said Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.
And some races may not be as competitive as the RGA's spending suggests. Especially in New Hampshire, critics charge that the organization led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, is spending big simply to curry favor with New Hampshire Republicans who will host the nation's first presidential primary election in about a year.
Democrats see a prime pickup opportunity in Maine, where Paul LePage is the only Republican governor serving in New England.
While polls suggest the three-way race is a tossup, Democratic challenger Michaud got a boost this week when independent candidate Eliott Cutler said anyone who doesn't believe he can win should vote for someone else and scaled back some advertising.
At the same time, Republicans see one of their best pickup opportunities in Connecticut, where Malloy has been locked in a virtual tie with Republican challenger Tom Foley, whom Malloy defeated by fewer than 6,500 votes in 2010. Despite the state's propensity to support Democratic presidential candidates, Malloy is the state's first Democratic governor in more than 20 years.
While campaigning in New Hampshire on Friday, Hassan said she's working hard for every vote.
"I'm just working as hard as I can to talk with the people of New Hampshire, make the choices before them clear and make sure that I'm listening to them, too," she said.
Peoples reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Erika Niedowski in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.