WASHINGTON -- Republicans are poised to topple at least a dozen Democratic governors next month, and that could cause President Barack Obama and his party major headaches far beyond this year's elections.
A cadre of new GOP governors, including some in battleground states Obama won two years ago, could complicate his efforts to deliver benefits to voters and campaign effectively in 2012. They could also help create Republican-friendly House seats in next year's once-a-decade redistricting process.
In the final weeks of this year's contest, Obama is campaigning hard for Democrats coast to coast, well aware of the worrisome signs for the future. So far, his results seem mixed, and some candidates seem wary of him.
Democrats are at risk of surrendering governorships in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oregon, New Mexico and Maine, among others. Obama carried all those states under Democratic governors in 2008. And all will be competitive in a 2012 re-election contest except, presumably, his home state of Illinois.
Republican governors already have replaced Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia, states that Obama also carried two years ago.
Elsewhere, Democrats are struggling to win a once-promising gubernatorial race in Florida, another swing state that has proved crucial in presidential races. Democrats might replace GOP governors in California, Hawaii and a few others states this fall. But Minnesota is the only state in that category that seems likely to be seriously contested in the 2012 presidential race.
As Obama tries to help Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates, he often visits states that will be vital to his re-election hopes. This year he has traveled four times each to Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin, five times to Pennsylvania, and six times to Ohio, where he plans to campaign again this weekend in Cleveland and Columbus.
The president's schedule "is driven entirely by how to best help Democrats in 2010," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. He said it's not surprising that competitive states this year will also be competitive in 2012.
Next month's governors' races also have big implications for U.S. House elections from 2012 through 2020. The House's 435 seats are reapportioned every decade, after each census. States will redraw their districts next year in a process that often is intensely political, with borders crafted to help or hurt a party, or even a particular politician.
Most governors have extensive power to influence the process, including the right to veto plans they dislike. That means Obama could face a more Republican-leaning House in 2013 if he wins re-election.
The redistricting process will be especially brutal in states whose sluggish population growth will cost them House seats. Newly drawn maps can determine which party's incumbent is tossed out. These states include Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan, where Democrats risk handing the governors' seats to Republicans next month. New Jersey also will lose a House seat.
In all, states that Obama carried in 2008 are projected to lose a net of seven House seats. That means those states will award seven fewer Electoral College votes than they did two years ago.
Perversely, perhaps, there could be some good news for Obama in the Republican landslide that many foresee next month. If Republicans take over the House, voters may hold them partly responsible for government impasses and shortfalls. Obama might be able to use a Republican-run House as a political foil, just as Bill Clinton did in his 1996 re-election, two years after his party suffered devastating congressional losses.
In the immediate future, it's unclear how much Obama can help his party's gubernatorial candidates. Some, like Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, have embraced the president, saying the partnership helps their states.
But Florida Democratic nominee Alex Sink has generally avoided Obama during presidential visits. In a TV ad, she said Republican nominee Rick Scott "seems to think running for governor is all about President Obama," whereas she is focused on Florida schools, jobs and tax relief.
Without question, governors can help their party's president or presidential nominee.
They can tout the administration's policies on issues such as stimulus spending, which might include well-publicized public works projects that create jobs. Conversely, a governor can criticize and fight a president's initiatives, undermining his success.
In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie recently canceled construction of a $9 billion rail tunnel connecting his state and New York City, a priority for Obama. Under White House pressure, Christie has since agreed to rethink the decision.
As leaders of their state political parties, governors also can steer resources to a presidential campaign that the out-of-power party may have trouble matching. In pivotal states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, for example, Obama benefited from hands-on help in 2008 from governors Strickland and Ed Rendell -- even though both men originally supported Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Now Obama faces the prospects of running in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, Iowa, Maine and other states where new governors and their political apparatus will seek to defeat him.
"The stakes for the White House in the governors' races couldn't be higher," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist who has worked with presidential and gubernatorial campaigns.
The White House's Pfeiffer said "winning the governorship of a state is always helpful for the presidential election," but he noted that Obama carried several states with GOP governors in 2008.
And what of the tea party two years from now? Pfeiffer said those libertarian-leaning candidates may help Republicans win races this year but might prove too extremist for "the broader electorate that turns out in presidential election years."
"People rarely ride tigers without getting bit," Pfeiffer said.