The major parties swapped governorships in four states, leaving Republicans in control of at least 28 executive mansions across the country with a chance to get one more, in Washington state where the final result remained unsettled Wednesday.
The GOP's advantage nationwide will continue to give the party a louder voice than Democrats in pressing for domestic policies, along with a political farm team to groom future stars who could run for the presidency.
"It gives them bragging rights. The Republican Party can argue that it has a mandate," particularly when the gubernatorial status quo is combined with the re-election of president Bush and GOP gains in Congress, said Alan Rosenthal, a political science professor and expert on state politics at Rutgers University.
The down side: Experts say that, after four difficult financial years, most governors will still struggle with the challenges of boosting their states' economies and creating jobs.
Across the 11 gubernatorial contests, the two parties spent at least $20 million, on top of the millions spent by individual campaigns. The Republican Governors Association estimated it poured in more than $12 million, while the Democratic Governors Association spent at least $8 million.
Republicans nabbed two prizes in the Midwest, recapturing the executive mansions in Missouri and Indiana, where ex-Bush administration budget director Mitch Daniels (search) unseated Democrat Joe Kernan (search). Kernan took over last year after the death of Gov. Frank O'Bannon (search).
In Missouri, Matt Blunt (search), the Republican secretary of state and son of Rep. Roy Blunt (search), won a close race against Claire McCaskill (search), the Democratic state auditor, who beat incumbent Bob Holden (search) in the Democratic primary. Blunt's win gives the state GOP full control of the Capitol for the first time in four generations.
Democrats offset those pick-ups with victories in Montana and New Hampshire, where they turned out one-term Republican Craig Benson in favor of businessman John Lynch: He became the first freshman governor in New Hampshire since 1926 to be denied a second term.
In Montana, Democrat Brian Schweitzer, a farmer-rancher, swept ahead of Bob Brown, the Republican secretary of state, giving Democrats control of the state for the first time in 16 years.
The status quo depended on the results in Washington, where Republicans hoped to pick up a state that has long been in Democratic hands. With the race too close to call, Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Christine Gregoire will wait for the count of several hundred thousand mail-in and provisional ballots. That's expected to take days.
The reality for all governors, Republican and Democrat, will be hard choices and compromises over the next few years. Many states badly need an economic or job-creation spark after a weak recovery from the recession of 2001 failed to bring them back anywhere close to the financial health they enjoyed during the 1990s.
"The common themes you see are all jobs and the economy," said John Thomasian at the National Governors Association. "They're not coming in saying we've got to attract a lot of new businesses in the states with tax breaks, but they talk about ... things to help grow the strengths of our states, and help move toward the high-technology jobs of the 21st century."