Over the past seven months, Democratic fortunes have improved in almost half of the 14 gubernatorial races in 2011 and 2012.

Most of the shifts since our last assessment in December appear to stem from localized factors rather than a national trend. Still, Democrats can feel some relief that several of their candidates have made marginal improvements just a few months after a devastating midterm election.

The nine Democratic seats up in 2011 and 2012 were all considered "in play" just seven months ago. Today, we rate only seven races as being in play, with Democratic fortunes improving to one degree or another in Kentucky, North Carolina, Delaware, Montana, Vermont and West Virginia.

Among the gubernatorial races currently considered competitive, Republicans have improved their position most in Washington state. Meanwhile, the five Republican seats up in 2011 and 2012 remain solidly in the GOP camp.

In all, four contests will be held in 2011 -- Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia -- with 10 more slated for the 2012 presidential election year. Two states with races in 2012 hold elections every two years -- New Hampshire and Vermont.

As always, our handicapping of gubernatorial races -- based on interviews with a range of state and national analysts -- works in two ways. First, it categorizes every seat as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic.

Second, it ranks each seat in order by the likelihood of being won by a Republican, with No. 1 being most likely to be won by a Republican and No. 14 being most likely to be won by a Democrat.

If our prognostication is sound, then after Election Day, we should be able to draw a line somewhere in the tossup category and find all the seats above that line won by a Republican and all the seats below that line won by a Democrat. (In our 2010 gubernatorial handicapping, only one state, Illinois, ended up on the wrong side of that divide.)

If our current ratings are accurate, the GOP can expect to pick up between zero and three seats. If Republicans were to gain a net of three seats, it would push GOP control from 30 Republican governors, 19 Democratic governors and one Independent to 33 Republicans, 16 Democrats and one Independent.

The key to the Democrats' improved outlook doesn't have much to do with national trends -- not even with the re-election efforts of President Obama, whose presence on the ballot and whose turnout machine is expected to fire up the Democratic base in many states.

The reason for the disconnect is that a number of the states where Democrats saw improvements are places where Republicans often run strong in federal races. In these same places, Democrats can only win the governorship by distancing themselves from the national party. This is the pattern followed by incumbents Jay Nixon in Missouri, Earl Ray Tomblin in West Virginia and Steve Beshear in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the GOP is pleased with the outlook in Washington state, where Democrats have had a lock on the governorship since the 1980s. Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna has demonstrated an ability to win Democratic votes, and strategists feel he can do so again.

Here are the current rankings.

Safe Republican

1. Utah (R-held; previous rating: 1). GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, fresh off a 2010 victory to fill the remaining two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman's term, will face the voters again in 2012 for a full four-year term. Right now, a primary challenge seems unlikely, and with a thin Democratic bench -- one of the few credible candidates, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, is considered unlikely to run for governor -- another victory appears likely.

2. Mississippi (R-held; previous rating: 2; 2011 election). The contest to succeed two-term Republican Gov. Haley Barbour will almost certainly be decided in the Republican primary, which has become a face-off between Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis. Bryant has strong establishment support, while Dennis has been courting Tea Partiers. In the general election, Bryant in particular would be a big favorite against either of two potential Democrats, Delta businessman Bill Luckett or Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree.

3. Louisiana (R-held; previous rating: 3; 2011 election). GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal should have an easy re-election in 2011. The strongest potential Democratic challengers have decided to sit the race out, and the one declared candidate -- teacher Tara Hollis -- is a political unknown. One Democratic name being floated is term-limited state Sen. Rob Marionneaux, who is known for taking on big fights, such as an indoor smoking ban and a phase out of the state income tax. But observers think he's more likely to run for sheriff of his home parish. Other possibilities include Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans. A potential wild card is John Georges, a businessman who is best known for his self-financed, long-shot bids for governor in 2007 and for New Orleans mayor in 2010. His plans, and even his party affiliation, remain unclear at this point.

Likely Republican

4. North Dakota (R-held; previous rating: 4). In 2010, then-Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple succeeded fellow Republican John Hoeven as governor when Hoeven was elected to the U.S. Senate. Dalrymple hasn't officially said whether he'll run for a full term in 2012, but most observers expect him to. If so, he'd face Paul Sorum, a Fargo architect with Tea Party support, and others in a primary. On the Democratic side, the big question remains whether former state attorney general and tax commissioner Heidi Heitkamp will enter the race. The scuttlebutt is that she's interested, but even if she gets in, winning the North Dakota governorship is an uphill climb for any Democrat - and Dalrymple has only helped his standing with his leadership role after severe flooding hit the state this spring.

5. Indiana (R-held; previous rating: 5). U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, buoyed by his national profile as a GOP spokesman and his fundraising network, is a strong favorite to succeed GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels. The likeliest Democratic nominee, folksy former state House Speaker John Gregg, has a conservative profile that won't win him much love within his party's base, but which offers at least a sliver of opportunity in the general election. For Gregg to catch fire, Pence would probably have to stumble badly, something considered unlikely given his surefooted communications skills and conservative track record.

Lean Republican

6. North Carolina (D-held; previous rating: 6). In our previous ratings, first-term Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue looked all but dead in the water. Since then, she's vetoed a series of bills passed by a new and aggressive Republican Legislature, whose approval ratings are on the decline. Perdue has cast 15 vetoes so far, targeting bills on voter ID, abortion and unemployment benefits. Gone is talk that the Democrats would have a better shot if she were ousted in a primary. The leading Republican -- former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who lost narrowly to Perdue in 2008 -- remains a strong foe, though some speculate that he could face primary opposition from the right. A July poll by the conservative Civitas Institute found McCrory up by 20 points, but observers sense that the race has become closer than that. Perdue is hoping for a boost from Obama -- who chose Charlotte as the site of the Democratic National Convention in an effort to win it for the second straight time -- as well as support from voters who may not be wild about her but who think there needs to be a check on the GOP-controlled Legislature.


7. Montana (D-held; previous rating: 7; shift from lean Republican). In Montana, which leans Republican in federal races, the Democrats are racing to hold onto the governorship once popular, and populist, two-term Gov. Brian Schweitzer departs. But the race isn't looking half bad for Democrats right now. The party is increasingly hopeful that first-term state Attorney General Steve Bullock will run. A June poll by Public Policy Polling found former GOP U.S. Rep. Rick Hill -- who could face competition for the GOP nod -- up by only two points, 39 percent to 37 percent.

8. Washington (D-held; previous rating: 10). Recently, two-term, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire opted to forgo a run for a third term in 2012. Washington state hasn't elected a Republican governor since John Spellman in 1980, but GOP state Attorney General Rob McKenna is running, giving Republicans high expectations. He's expected to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee. Inslee's an experienced politician, but his long association with Washington, as well as the Democrat's long reign in power, gives McKenna an opening. Even some Democrats agree that this race is no better for their side than a tossup.

Lean Democratic

9. West Virginia (D-held; previous rating: 9; shift from tossup; 2011 election). Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, needs to defend the seat he inherited when Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin was elected to the U.S. Senate last fall. In a state where Democrats have an edge for statewide and legislative offices -- and where Republicans are doing increasingly well in federal races -- Tomblin is well positioned to keep an edge, especially after a reasonably good session in which he cut food taxes. He'll face drilling executive Bill Maloney, who surprised establishment choice Betty Ireland, a former secretary of state, by ousting her in the GOP primary. Maloney, whose race is self-funded, has little track record as a politician, so it's unclear whether he and his money can make it a competitive race.

10. Missouri (D-held; previous rating: 11). Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon continues to retain the upper hand in his quest for a second term -- impressive, given the difficulties that Democrats have had in the Show Me State in recent election cycles. Nixon has been such a centrist that it sometimes seems as if he has stronger support from Republicans than Democrats. He only burnished his credentials with his response to a series of natural disasters, including the devastating tornado in Joplin. By contrast, Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder's support within his own party is soft, following a run of gaffes and a controversy over questionable expenses he billed to the state. Missouri voters aren't enamored with Democrats these days, but Nixon seems to have placed enough distance between himself and his party to be able to survive even a challenging political environment.

11. Kentucky (D-held; previous rating: 8; shift from tossup; 2011 election). Even some Republicans worry that this contest is slipping away, despite the state's conservative lean in recent cycles. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has led by double digits in a series of public polls and has posted strong numbers both in fundraising and public approval. State Senate President David Williams, meanwhile, has problems from both his moderate and conservative flanks, and his long record as a legislator leaves both ends with ample material to attack him with. Somewhat improbably, Beshear looks like a pretty strong favorite at this point.

12. New Hampshire (D-held; previous rating: 13). Democratic Gov. John Lynch already defied state history in 2010 by winning a fourth, two-year term. He hasn't confirmed a run for a record-extending fifth, but many observers expect that he will. If Lynch does run again, he stands to benefit from a divided field: Two-time statewide conservative candidate Ovide Lamontagne is running, but it is possible so will 2010 gubernatorial nominee John Stephen, former U.S. Rep. and current state Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, and Kevin Smith, executive director of Cornerstone Action, a conservative group that attacked Lynch and the Democratic-led Legislature throughout the 2010 cycle. Moreover, the newly Republican Legislature - which has put forward an aggressively conservative agenda in a state that until recently had been trending moderate -- provides Lynch with a useful foil, enabling him to argue that he's an essential barrier to total Republican control. Lynch would also benefit from President Obama, who is expected to campaign hard in the swing state. If Lynch doesn't run, there would likely be a wide-open primary, possibly featuring some combination of former state Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan, former state Sen. Burt Cohen and Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of Stonyfield Farm, an organic yogurt producer.

Likely Democratic

13. Vermont (D-held; previous rating: 12; shift from Lean Democratic). Democrat Peter Shumlin narrowly won the 2010 gubernatorial race, flipping the seat to the Democrats after eight years under Republican Jim Douglas. So far, Shumlin has made no major errors, the GOP hasn't coalesced around an opponent, and 2012 will be a year when both Obama and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders will be on the ballot.

14. Delaware (D-held; [revious rating: 14; shift from lean Democratic). In a state that has been trending Democratic, Gov. Jack Markell continues to be in good shape to win a second two-year term.