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GOP replays 2010 strategy at state level

NASHVILLE — Republican candidates for governor around the country have built an unexpectedly strong position for election this fall, boosted by an improving economy, disaffection with President Obama, and a national fund-raising machine that is leagues ahead of the opposition.

Four years after an economic crisis and opposition to Obama’s health care reform propelled Republicans to capture a lopsided majority of state houses across the country, they are faced with a staggering political task: defending 22 of the 36 executive mansions up for grabs in November, led by a governor who is trying to rebound from a scandal.

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While the sheer scale of Republican gains four years ago offers Democrats a wealth of opportunities to win, the political environment appears to be tilting once again in the Republicans’ direction.

The recession that doomed Democrats in 2010 appears to be shifting into a recovery, driving down jobless rates and bolstering GOP incumbents. At the same time, Obama’s approval ratings have fallen even in states that he won in 2012.

And campaign money is gushing into national Republican groups that focus on state capitals, including the Republican Governors Association, whose chairman, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, has set fund-raising records for the group even under the glare of multiple state and federal investigations.

The association raised $100 million during the 18 months ending in June, dwarfing the amount it amassed in 2010, and had $70 million in cash at the beginning of July. The chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont, said his group would be outraised by about two to one.

The governors associations of both parties raise substantial amounts of money from overlapping lists of heavily regulated industries such as tobacco, health insurance, and telecommunications. But Republican groups have had far greater success this election cycle in persuading the party’s leading individual donors to invest in the relatively less glamorous world of state elections.

By the end of March, eight individuals or couples — including the industrialist David Koch, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and the hedge fund manager Paul Singer — had contributed $1 million or more to the RGA.

“At worst we probably are the same, and, ideally, if things work out, there are two or three more Republican governors,” said Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican, assessing how the current divide of 29 Republican governors and 21 Democratic governors may appear next year.

The improving economy creates curious and somewhat contradictory political conditions for the two parties. The brightening outlook has given many incumbent Republican governors the beginnings of a comeback story to sell to their voters. That forces their Democratic opponents to play down the good job numbers as illusory, even as their fellow Democrats in Washington claim success.

Meanwhile, the economic turnaround is not enough to raise Obama’s overall standing in several pivotal states, weighing down Democratic candidates for governor who might otherwise be in better shape.

For example, Governor Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican, was widely viewed as imperiled, but the improving economic climate in his state, where unemployment has fallen by five percentage points since Scott was elected in 2010, has lifted his prospects.

Shumlin, of Vermont, acknowledged the difficult climate, but expressed optimism about the Democrat Party’s potential to make gains.

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