MIAMI (AP) — Despite a growing job market and shrinking unemployment, governors are struggling to keep their seats as voters express skepticism about the economic recovery.
Wages have stagnated or fallen for many Americans while record numbers of workers hold temporary jobs.
Economic malaise, perhaps more than any other factor, is clouding the re-election prospects for governors in both parties.
Republicans have the steeper challenge, defending 22 seats while trying to expand their map into strongly Democratic New England and battleground Colorado.
Democrats hope economic populism will help them keep 14 seats, including vulnerable governors in Illinois and Connecticut, and regain control in Florida and Michigan.
What to watch for:
All eyes will be on Wisconsin to see whether Republican Gov. Scott Walker wins a second term.
Among the crop of 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls, Walker is the lone early contender in a tight race this year. After a divisive recall attempt in 2012 over his moves to limit collective bargaining for most public workers, polls show the race against Democrat Mary Burke to be dead even. A victory could elevate Walker to the top tier among potential 2016 candidates; a loss almost certainly would dash any national ambitions.
Republicans also will be looking at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another possible contender who has much riding on Tuesday's outcome.
As head of the Republican Governors Association, Christie has worked to help the GOP defend 22 of its 29 governor's seats and expand the party's political map. Victories in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Connecticut would burnish Christie's credentials and bolster his pitch that Republicans can succeed in Democratic-leaning states carried by President Barack Obama.
TEA PARTY GOVERNORS
Republican governors swept into office with tea party support in 2010 are now facing difficult re-elections. Among them are Sam Brownback in Kansas, Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, Rick Scott in Florida, Paul LePage in Maine, Rick Snyder in Michigan and Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
A sluggish national economic recovery colors most of the battles.
Democrats have painted the GOP incumbents as too extreme, saying they have favored corporate interests over the middle class. Republicans say the governors have spurred economic growth.
Corbett is the most vulnerable and trails Democrat Tom Wolf. A loss would make Corbett the first Pennsylvania governor to lose re-election since 1970, when the state began allowing governors to serve eight years.
But most political observers are watching Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback is struggling to hold on to his job after putting in place an agenda of massive tax and spending cuts. Many Republicans have defected from him and now support Democrat Paul Davis, the state House minority leader. If Brownback wins, his victory would be seen as validation of the Kansas experiment. If he loses, he would be viewed as a lesson in the limits of conservative governance.
Both parties are targeting governor's races in the important presidential battlegrounds of Colorado, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.
Democrats and Republicans will be reviewing those campaigns for signals about the electorate going into the 2016 presidential race.
Nowhere is the battle fiercer than in Florida, the largest swing-voting state.
The fight between GOP Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist has turned into one of the most expensive and nasty campaigns in state history, with a combined spending of at least $90 million on television ads. The race is neck and neck, and Republicans and Democrats see an opportunity to control the levers of government heading into 2016.
Florida Democrats are hoping that Crist, a former Republican governor, can leverage his statewide recognition to help notch the party's first gubernatorial win in 20 years.
REPUBLICAN RESURGENCE IN NEW ENGLAND?
Republicans are pushing their midterm offensive into New England, one of the last Democratic strongholds.
Three Democrats — Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan — have seen their leads shrink or disappear in recent weeks. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Rep. Mike Michaud, running for governor in Maine, have been in dead heats for months.
Malloy's challenger, Tom Foley, lost to Malloy 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.
It's Florida, so anything can, and usually does, happen.
Republicans and Democrats say they're prepared in the event of a recount.
The Scott and Crist campaigns have designated thousands of poll watchers to monitor voting sites, but experts say a recount today would not be a replay of the 2000 presidential race, when a chaotic procedure paralyzed the political process and left voters hanging for five weeks while George W. Bush and Al Gore battled in the courts.
That experience led to an overhaul of the state's voting laws and machinery. An automatic machine recount is required if the first set of returns, due four days after the election, show that a candidate was defeated by one-half of 1 percent or less.
Follow Michael J. Mishak on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mjmishak