(AP) - Democrats took back the governorships Tuesday in Massachusetts, Ohio and New York and held a vulnerable seat in Michigan as elections for the top office in 36 states promised the biggest shakeup of state governments in years.
Massachusetts Democrat Deval Patrick was declared the winner in his state - he will be the first black governor of the state and the second elected black governor of any state. In Ohio, Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland easily defeated Republican Ken Blackwell. New York, as expected, chose Democrat Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general who crusaded for Wall Street and corporate reform.
All three states haven't elected a Democrat since the 1980s.
In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, long targeted by the GOP, defeated millionaire Dick DeVos.
Democrats were in sight of winning a majority of governorships for the first time since the GOP sweep of 1994, if they could pick up one more GOP seat and they hold their own in Wisconsin and Oregon. Though governors never enact national policy, they can organize ground troops for a White House race.
In a bit of good news for Republicans, the Florida contest to replace term-limited GOP Gov. Jeb Bush saw Republican Charlie Crist, the state attorney general, leading Democratic Rep. Jim Davis 55 percent to 42 percent, with nearly a third of precincts reporting.
In Illinois, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich won re-election in a contest that Republicans had at one time hoped would go their way.
Elsewhere, Republican Govs. Jodi Rell in Connecticut and Dave Heineman in Nebraska won re-election, as did Democratic Govs. Bill Richardson in New Mexico, Janet Napolitano in Arizona, Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania, Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, John Lynch in New Hampshire, Brad Henry of Oklahoma and Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming.
Also, early returns showed sitting GOP Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, Sonny Perdue of Georgia and Jim Douglas of Vermont leading.
Ten states had open seats because of retirements, term limits and primary defeat. Five other states were so competitive that incumbent governors were fighting hard to avoid being unseated.
In Massachusetts, Patrick trounced GOP Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey despite her support from outgoing GOP Gov. Mitt Romney, a potential 2008 presidential candidate. In Ohio, Strickland swept past Blackwell, the secretary of state who was criticized by Democrats for his role in overseeing the 2004 election in Ohio that was critical in securing President Bush's victory.
The biggest names were in some of the least competitive races.
Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California was safely ahead in pre-election surveys, while Mr. Spitzer had long been ahead in New York. In Texas, Perry was a favorite to beat back a Democrat challenger and two independents, including musician and comic Kinky Friedman.
The Democrats were hoping to reverse the Republican majority among governorships that the GOP has held ever since the landslide of 1994.
"We're getting help with discontent with the Iraq war and we're getting help from Washington gridlock," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, head of the Democratic Governors Association. "It's helping elect Democratic governors."
Republicans went into Election Day holding 28 governorships to 22 for the Democrats. The GOP began the year trying to hold eight open seats, while Democrats had only one. Republicans also saw another seat come open when Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski lost his primary.
The contests for those open seats were some of the closest, including:
_ Nevada, where GOP Rep. Jim Gibbons was hobbled by accusations he assaulted and propositioned a cocktail waitress. He faced Democrat Dina Titus, a state senator. They were seeking to replace term-limited GOP Gov. Kenny Guinn.
_ Iowa, where Democrat Chet Culver, the secretary of state, and GOP Rep. Jim Nussle fought for the seat left by retiring Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is exploring a possible presidential run.
Governors most at risk included Republicans Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota and Robert Ehrlich in Maryland. Also in close contests, though the latest surveys showed them slightly ahead, were Democrats Jim Doyle in Wisconsin and Ted Kulongoski in Oregon.
And a few states that strategists expected to stay safely Republican wound up competitive.
In Alaska, Republican Sarah Palin unseated unpopular Gov. Murkowski in the GOP primary and faced Democratic former Gov. Tony Knowles. In Idaho, GOP Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter was in a close contest with Democrat Jerry Brady, a former newspaper publisher.
The contests could break the record for women governors. Eight women governors now hold office, one fewer than the record. Four women were in the running as major-party candidates.
Though the parties pour in money to win a majority of gubernatorial races, governors can't enact national policy. Still, they can strengthen a party's grass roots, turn out votes for presidential contests, and cultivate future national leaders. Their decisions shape policy on health care, taxes and other domestic issues, and often touch citizens more directly than Washington.