Democrats celebrated the re-election of Washington state's Gov. Chris Gregoire and wins in two open gubernatorial contests, including the election of the first female governor of North Carolina.
Republicans said they were lucky to hold onto four incumbent governorships amid a national Democratic onslaught.
At the end of an Election Day in which 11 governorships were decided, the Democrats won seven.
Gregoire beat Republican Dino Rossi in a rematch of their historically close race four years ago. She thanked supporters in a victory speech, saying she looked forward to working with president-elect Barack Obama in January. The campaign, she said, had been "a long haul."
Gregoire, a former state attorney general, also emerged the victor against Rossi in their 2004 contest by the closest percentage margin of any governor's race in U.S. history — just 133 votes out of about 2.8 million cast, after two recounts and an unsuccessful Republican court challenge.
Four incumbent Republican governors were easily re-elected Tuesday at the same time several GOP incumbents in the House and Senate lost seats.
In North Carolina, where Democrats have held the governor's seat 88 of the last 100 years, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue defeated Republican challenger Pat McCrory, the longtime mayor of Charlotte. Perdue succeeds Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, who is stepping down because of term limits.
Perdue ignored predictions early in her political career about difficulties winning election as a woman. Running for governor, she pitched her reputation as a problem solver after years in state government.
"I haven't run simply because I'm the first woman candidate running, but I hear it everywhere I go," she said Tuesday. "Little girls and little boys, just say `Wow, is it possible?' So, yeah, it's exciting, mighty exciting."
Said McCrory: "This was not the night we had planned, but I accept the voters' conclusions from North Carolina."
The Democrats' biggest prize came in Missouri, where state Attorney General Jay Nixon easily beat Republican U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof. The seat opened when Republican Gov. Matt Blunt declined to seek re-election.
"Loudly and clearly, the people of Missouri went to the polls and voted to take our state in a new direction, and that's exactly what they'll get," Nixon said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Overall, eight incumbents were re-elected. In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels easily turned back a Democratic challenger hoping to benefit from a strong turnout for Obama.
In Vermont, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas was re-elected to a fourth two-year term after fending off challenges from two rivals.
Among other incumbents, Democrats in Montana, West Virginia and New Hampshire won re-election by a wide margin, as did Republicans in North Dakota and Utah. In Delaware, Democrat Jack Markell easily won the open seat.
The races were a prelude to 2010, when a majority of states elect governors who will help preside over the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts.
The tough campaigns in North Carolina and Washington offered hints of the battle to come, as the national Republican and Democratic governors' associations spent about $4 million on each of their candidates in both of the states.
Democrats said Tuesday's results gave them momentum heading for 2010. The Republican Governors Association said its group is on track to regain the majority of governorships it lost two years ago.
"By anyone's scorecard, to have all our incumbents re-elected in this Democratic wave is a testament to our governors and to our committee," said Nick Ayers, executive director of the GOP group.
Nixon and Hulshof focused their campaigns on the economy, education and health care while casting each other as big spenders incapable of changing Missouri's Capitol.
In Indiana, Daniels defeated Democrat Jill Long Thompson, a former congresswoman who trailed in fundraising and didn't air campaign ads for several weeks. She was banking on voter discontent with Daniels, who outspent his Democratic rival by at least $10 million.
In the race for the open seat in Delaware, Markell, the state treasurer and former Nextel executive, easily defeated Republican Bill Lee, a former judge. Term limits prohibited Gov. Ruth Ann Minner from running again.
In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin, a former state lawmaker and secretary of state, defeated former Republican legislator Russ Weeks and Jesse Johnson, the Mountain Party's nominee.
In New Hampshire, Gov. John Lynch beat state senator Joe Kenney to win a third two-year term. In North Dakota, Gov. John Hoeven, a banker-turned-politician, defeated Democratic state Sen. Tim Mathern.
In Utah, Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, defeated Democrat Bob Springmeyer, a Salt Lake City management consultant.
In Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer beat state Sen. Roy Brown, with Schweitzer promoting increases in oil and gas production and a freeze in college tuition during his first term.
After winning, Schweitzer promised to reach out to those who had voted for Brown. "I will be their governor, too," he said.