Their majority of gubernatorial seats larger by one, Democrats are taking aim at key states in 2010, including California, Minnesota and Connecticut.
Republicans, who successfully re-elected four incumbents on an election night of big losses elsewhere, want to win back Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, among others.
At stake is control over the redrawing of legislative and congressional maps and the chance to influence the 2012 presidential election through governors offices and fundraising machines.
At the end of an Election Day in which 11 governorships were decided, eight incumbents were re-elected, split evenly between the two parties. Democrats won the three governors' posts where no incumbent was running, and flipped one of those — Missouri — from Republican to Democratic hands.
Both parties optimistic
But Tuesday's results gave both parties reason to be optimistic about 2010.
Democrats increased their advantage over Republicans to 29-21 nationally with the Missouri win. They kept the seat in Democratic hands in an open race in North Carolina, electing Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue that state's first female governor, and re-electing Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire in a rematch of her bitter 2004 race.
Republicans were pleased to hang onto their four incumbent seats amid a Democratic rout from the presidency through Congress.
In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels easily turned back a Democratic challenger hoping to benefit from a strong turnout for Barack Obama, who turned that red state blue.
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, Republicans in North Dakota and Utah won by wide margins, as did Democrats in Montana, West Virginia and New Hampshire. In Delaware, Democrat Jack Markell easily won the open seat previously held by a Democrat.
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 — key to enabling one party or the other to win dominance in statehouses and the Congress.
Governors play key role
Governors also often play a bigger role in how Americans live their lives than the federal government, particularly in such areas as health care, schools and higher education.
Democrats said Tuesday's results gave them momentum for the future. The Republican Governors Association said its group is on track to regain the majority of governorships it lost two years ago.
Thirty-six states elect governors in 2010. Democrats and Republicans have raised record amounts of money anticipating those elections.
Next year, Democrats will defend an open seat in Virginia they've held for eight years. In 2010, they'll try to keep seats in Republican-leaning states like Arizona, Kansas and Tennessee, all of which voted for John McCain on Tuesday.
Republicans are hoping to keep California, Hawaii and Minnesota in Republican hands in 2010 and win back Pennsylvania and Ohio, which Republicans held from 1992 to 2006.
The Democrats' biggest prize Tuesday came in Missouri, where state Attorney General Jay Nixon easily beat his Republican challenger. The seat opened up when Republican Gov. Matt Blunt declined to seek re-election.
The Washington governorship was decided earlier than some had predicted, as Gregoire beat Republican Dino Rossi in a rematch of their bitterly close race four years ago.
In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin easily beat two challengers to win a second term.
In New Hampshire, fellow Democrat Gov. John Lynch won a third two-year term. In North Dakota, Republican Gov. John Hoeven, a banker-turned-politician, won re-election, as did Utah's Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore.
In Montana, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer won re-election after promoting increases in oil and gas production and a freeze in college tuition during his first term.