The most anticipated story of the 2010 midterm cycle was not the potential for Republicans to take the House or the Senate, but the gains that the GOP expected to make in State Houses around the country.

Of this cycle’s 36 gubernatorial races, only Arkansas and Hawaii had been solidly in the Democratic column. Republicans are poised to gain at least eight governorships and may accumulate even more in races that are polling too close to call. Arkansas was a hold for Democrats, and only Hawaii was a sure pickup. Democrats have remote chances of gaining back the governorships of Minnesota and California.  

But poll numbers released this week indicate that Democrats have stopped the bleeding. This is most evident in the Maryland and Colorado races, where the GOP was making steady gains.

In Colorado, a plagiarism scandal that has resonated with the public has rocked likely GOP nominee Scott McInnis (R) and deeply hurt his chances of clinching the nomination (the details of this scandal were outlined in a prior Campaign Insider Blog Post here). His Republican primary challenger, Dan Maes (R), is not controversy-free himself, but he is polling ahead of McInnis for the nomination. Maes won his party’s nomination at the Colorado Republican Convention.

The Democratic nominee for Governor of Colorado, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (D) is now polling stronger than both Maes and McInnis and seems likely to prevail in the general election.

In Maryland, Governor Martin O’Malley (D), had been polling well against former Governor Robert Ehrlich (R) for months. In late June, Ehrlich began to show some life, narrowing the gap and then pulling ahead by early July. Erlich’s most recent strategy, identify when and where something breaks down and get there as fast as possible to point the finger at O’Malley, has not yielded the goodwill Erlich’s advisors had likely hoped it would. Meanwhile, O’Malley’s opposition to the controversial addition of slot machines in the Arudel Mills Mall seems to have some traction. The slot machines will be approved or denied by Maryland voters in a referendum this fall. Largely due to these two factors, the race is back to a statistical dead heat.

The significance of the governor’s races cannot be underestimated. They are likely indicators of how local representative’s races will fall in November. New governors will have unparalleled influence over how the redistricting will be conducted following the results of the 2010 census.

By creating regional districts with dominant demographic features, a “gerrymandered” district can be a significant factor that determines who is elected and/or returned to Washington. Furthermore, the more GOP governors are elected, the stronger the Republicans potential field of Presidential nominees becomes.

In a year without much good news for the Democratic Party, the gubernatorial races are looking better for the party than they did 3 months ago. That’s one thing DNC Chair Tim Kaine can shout from the rooftops, or at least on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. 

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com