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Republicans make modest gains in state governor races

By Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Weber

(Reuters) - Republicans gained control of one more governorship on Tuesday, bringing the number of U.S. states with a Republican governor to the highest number held by either party in 12 years, while Democrats appeared close to winning two tight races in the West.

Eleven governorships were in play on Tuesday, and Democrats were on the defensive with four of the party's incumbents stepping down, compared with just one Republican.

Republicans picked up a governor's seat in North Carolina as former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who narrowly lost a statehouse bid in 2008, notched a decisive victory over Democratic Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton. He will be the state's first Republican governor in 20 years.

McCrory had maintained a consistent lead over Dalton during the race after losing to Governor Bev Perdue by a slim margin in 2008. Perdue, the state's first female governor, decided not to seek a second term amid declining popularity.

The Republican Governors Association noted in a statement on Tuesday that the party would now hold the top job in at least 30 states, the highest number held by either party in 12 years.

"In the states, Republican governors are providing the type of results-oriented leadership that is absent in Washington, D.C.," said RGA chairman Bob McDonnell, governor of Virginia.

Still, the party's hopes for another pick-up were dashed in New Hampshire, where former state Senate majority leader Maggie Hassan won a tough contest over Ovide Lamontagne, an attorney whom Hassan attacked as too conservative for the swing state.

In Washington state, where Republicans hope moderate state Attorney General Rob McKenna will become the first Republican governor in 30 years, former Democratic Representative Jay Inslee held a lead of about 2.5 percent on Wednesday with about 60 percent of the vote counted.

Washington uses mail-in voting exclusively, and final results in the race may not be known for several days. Incumbent Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat who is retiring after two terms, won by just a handful of votes after multiple recounts and legal battles in 2004.

In Montana, where two-term Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer is stepping aside due to term limits, Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock clung to a 49 percent versus 47 percent lead over Republican Rick Hill, a former congressman, with more than 80 percent of the vote counted early Wednesday. Republicans had also viewed that race as a good opportunity for a pick-up.

Elsewhere, incumbent Democratic governors in Missouri, West Virginia, Vermont and Delaware all held onto their seats, as did Republicans in North Dakota and Utah.

In Indiana, where Republican Governor Mitch Daniels is stepping down due to term limits and Democrats had once seen opportunity, Republican Mike Pence defeated Democrat John Gregg.

(Reporting by Jonathan Weber in San Francisco and Colleen Jenkins in Richmond, Virginia. Editing by Jim Loney and Cynthia Osterman)

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