"Independents are breaking decisively for Democrats," Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman told CBS News. "Those who were deciding (at the) last minute are also breaking decisively for the Democrats."
A string of victories in Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, Arkansas, Colorado and Maryland meant Democrats will control the governorship in at least 28 states. They also held onto vulnerable seats that had been targeted by Republicans in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
In all the Democrats gained six governorships and lost none.
Democrat Deval Patrick was declared the winner in Massachusetts — 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, to replace retiring Republican Gov. George Pataki.
Massachusetts and Ohio haven't elected a Democrat since 1986. New York last elected one in 1990.
In Colorado — which voted Republican for president in the last three elections — Democrat Bill Ritter defeated GOP Rep. Bob Beauprez for the seat left open by term-limited GOP Gov. Bill Owens. Arkansas chose a Democrat — attorney general Mike Beebe over Republican Asa Hutchinson — for the first time since 1992.
Democrats also turned out GOP Gov. Robert Ehrlich of Maryland, the lone party switch that wasn't in an open seat.
CBS has projected that Democrats will win governors' races in 19 states: Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming. Republicans are projected to hold onto 12: Alabama, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas.
Though governors never enact national policy, they can organize state parties to rally around a White House race. They can also 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.
The person who sits in the governor's office also can have an impact on elections, says CBS News political analyst David Jones. Control of state governments is important for redistricting and, he adds, citing Ohio and Florida, "We've seen instances in which it can be important who's in charge of supervising elections."
Democrats were jubilant.
"From here on out, we need a politics that binds us together, a politics that's forward-thinking, a politics that asks not, 'What's in it for me?' but always 'What's in it for us," Spitzer said in prepared comments.
Two vulnerable Democratic governors in the Great Lakes turned back well-funded Republican challenges. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, long targeted by the GOP, defeated millionaire Dick DeVos, even though DeVos put more than $35 million of his own money toward his campaign. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle defeated GOP Rep. Mark Green. Democrat Ted Kulongoski was ahead in the polls in a tough challenge in Oregon.
Republicans remained strong in some of the nation's biggest states. They got good news in Florida, where Republican Charlie Crist, the state attorney general of Florida, defeated Democratic Rep. Jim Davis in the contest to replace term-limited GOP Gov. Jeb Bush.
In California, the nation's best-known governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, easily won re-election. The former action star defeated Democrat Phil Angelides, the state treasurer.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, won re-election. He fended off challengers including musician and writer Kinky Friedman.
Ten states had open seats because of retirements, term limits and primary defeat. 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.
In Massachusetts, Patrick trounced GOP Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey despite her support from outgoing GOP Gov. Mitt Romney, a potential 2008 presidential candidate. The last elected black governor was L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia who left office in 1994.
Two other black candidates — both Republicans — lost. In Pennsylvania, former NFL star Lynn Swann was swamped by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. 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.
Only 39 percent of Ohio voters polled said they were very confident in the voting process. "People who were not very confident that their votes would count overwhelmingly went for Strickland," says CBS News political analyst Sam Best.
A tight race emerged for Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota, slightly trailing Democrat Mike Hatch, attorney general.
In Illinois, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich won re-election in a contest that Republicans had at one time hoped would go their way. In Iowa, Democrat Chet Culver, the secretary of state, held the seat left open by retiring Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is exploring a presidential race.
Competitive contests continued for three open Republican seats, including:
The contests could break the record for women governors, depending on the outcome in Alaska and Nevada. Eight women governors now hold office, one fewer than the record — though that number won't fall following the re-election of Granholm in Michigan.