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GOP governors miss out on 2014 conservative wave

A surprising number of GOP governors are fighting for their political lives this year.

Four years after a Republican wave brought in GOP governors in 10 states where Democrats had previously held power, many of those who won office thanks largely to a backlash against President Obama are in danger this time. With upsets for Democrats in these races within reach, this could be one bright spot in a year that is threatening to be terrible for the party.

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While some, like Republican John Kasich in Ohio, are likely to survive the challenge – a victory that could bolster talk of a presidential bid – the many tight races featuring Republican incumbents can be seen as part of a course correction in states that have supported Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

“Governors' races are separate from federal races in that they’re not as defined by natural partisan inclination,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election analysis blog, told mnsbc. Republicans in Democratic-leaning states like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania “won in 2010, which probably is a worse environment for Democrats than this year ism" Konik said. "They all took over from two-term Democrats; all those states were probably ready for a change, and they’ve all had their problems in office."

Here are the GOP governors facing the toughest races this year, as well as one who has managed to dodge most of the problems his colleagues face.

Rick Scott, Florida: Scott, who narrowly won in 2010 despite the overwhelming Republican wave that year, has been unpopular for much of his time in office. And his recent behavior in debates with Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor now challenging Scott as a Democrat, has made matters far worse. Scott admitted at a debate Tuesday that his attorney general once postponed an execution in order to attend a political fundraiser. This startling statement followed another debate last week when Scott refused to go on stage because Crist had a small electric fan at his podium.

Scott, a multimillionare former hospital executive who spent $75 million of his own money to win in 2010, is now tied with Crist at 44% -- a number that suggests voters are trying to decide which candidate they dislike less rather than picking someone they actually support. 

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Scott Walker, Wisconsin: Walker, once widely seen as a potentially formidable GOP presidential contender in 2016, is now fighting for his political life back home.  Political observers agree that he has to beat challenger Mary Burke, who has been essentially tied with Walker in the polls since April, or his national political future is over.

A recent Marquette Law School poll showed Walker and Burke in a dead tie at 47%, poll director Charles Franklin said.  The race at this point will likely be decided by turnout rather than either candidate swaying the handful of undecided voters in the state.

Walker has been a polarizing figure since he won in 2010: he has signed legislation restricting abortion access and voting rights and has rolled back environmental protections. But his biggest vulnerability is on his job creation -- Burke is making sure that Walker's promise to create 250,000 new jobs in his first term is coming back to haunt him. So far, the state has added less than half that number, but Walker insists his record is strong. 

After stripping public sector unions of their right to bargain collectively in 2011, Walker survived a recall election and has so far remained untouched by two separate criminal investigations. Six of his former aides and associates were convicted in one investigation, and the second is currently on hold after a judge’s order. 

Walker’s presidential ambitions, Kondik told msnbc, will live or die on what happens on Nov. 4, and other potential candidates like fellow Wisconsinite Rep. Paul Ryan are already angling to take his place in line. “Part of the reason his name has sort of faded is that his close race meant he had to focus closer to home," Kondik said of Walker.

Rick Snyder, Michigan: Snyder in 2010 ran as "one tough nerd," promising results rather than ideology. But instead, Snyder dramatically reduced workers’ rights, signed legislation allowing unelected emergency managers to make decisions about city finances, made changes to education funding and enacted restrictions on abortion. He’s still selling himself as a pragmatist this time, but his record has weighed him down against his Democratic challenger, former Rep. Mark Schauer.

Schauer has gotten traction with his argument that economic gains in the state have been limited to the wealthy. Many Michigan residents are still hurting, Schauer says, with residents of Detroit struggling to access basic services like running water. Still, Kondik says Snyder is likely to pull off a victory here, in part because Schauer has not been as dynamic an opponent as Burke has been in Wisconsin.

Paul LePage, Maine:  LePage, the surprise winner in a multi-candidate field in 2010, is widely disliked in Maine. But he may win re-election thanks to the many of the same political quirks that elected him four years ago. LePage’s hard-line, bombastic social conservatism is out of step with many Maine voters, whose libertarian leanings have produced a long line of more moderate statewide leaders.

LePage has a long history of insulting constituents, legislators and members of the press. He also once compared the IRS to the Gestapo, told members of the NAACP to kiss his butt, and suggested he would tell President Obama to go to hell. He's also opposed expanding Medicaid, slashed environmental protections and attacked public schools.

Why is someone like LePage still a contender? He narrowly defeated Independent candidate Eliot Cutler in 2010, and Cutler is running again this year along with Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud. Polls show Michaud running ahead of LePage, but support for Cutler is drawing Democrats away from Michaud. Without Cutler, Michaud would have a comfortable lead overall. LePage could indeed win himself another four years and have more opportunities to hurl offensive insults at state legislators as he did at state Sen. Troy Jackson, whom LePage said “claims to be for the people but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”

John Kasich, Ohio: One blue state Republican governor who has managed to do what others have not is John Kasich. He started his term with a Wisconsin-style anti-union bill, but since then has tempered his approach to governing. He now seems to be coasting to re-election, and could earn a dark horse spot in the presidential primary field. Oddly enough, Kasich is benefiting from a voter revolt earlier in his term: his anti-union measure was overturned by public referendum in 2011 in a landslide, which means voters in Ohio never experienced the change Kasich was seeking.

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Selling himself as a moderate this year, and without a strong challenger, Kasich hasn’t had to defend his more moderate pitch. And the Democratic candidate, Ed FitzGerald, has proven so weak Kasich has risked angering conservatives for taking federal Medicaid money because he knows he can win without them. For Kasich, unlike his 2010 compatriots Walker and Snyder, establishing conservative credentials in 2011 turned out to be less important than having popularity to burn in 2014.