After a record-setting number of 37 governorships on the 2010 ballot, it is something of a letdown to see a mere 14 statehouses up for grabs in the off-year election of 2011 (just 3) and the 2012 general election (11 more). Statehouse contests are intrinsically interesting, and voters take them seriously. People know they can survive almost any talkfest in the 100-member U.S. Senate, but their one-and-only state chief executive makes a great deal of daily difference to their lives.

Fortunately, about half the roster of gubernatorial match-ups promise to be competitive and well worth a look. There are 9 Democratic seats up to 5 Republican seats. Three incumbents are term-limited (Mitch Daniels, R-IN, Haley Barbour, R-MS, and Brian Schweitzer, D-MT), and at least one more governor is expected to retire, Chris Gregoire (D-WA). At least at the starting gate, two Democratic incumbents are considered highly vulnerable, Govs. Beverly Perdue of North Carolina and Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia.

It is too soon to say precisely, but the Crystal Ball’s early line suggests the Republicans may pad their current 29-to-20 statehouse edge over the Democrats by one to three. (Independent Gov. Linc Chafee holds the Rhode Island governorship.)

Here is how we see the gubernatorial contests as the election cycle begins. Just as we stressed in the previous week’s coverage of upcoming Senate races, we expect our ratings to change repeatedly as candidates drop in and out, and as issues and scandals develop or fade. This first take is descriptive, not predictive.

Governor Ratings

Delaware: Gov. Markell starts the cycle in very strong shape. With each passing cycle, Delaware seems to turn more Blue. Republicans have a weak bench in the post-Mike Castle era.

Indiana: With the unexpected decision of Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman (R-IN) to step aside for health reasons, it is assumed that U.S. Rep. Mike Pence will drop his designs on the White House and run to succeed fellow Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels. This assumption may not be true; Pence appears genuinely torn between the two contests, even though any House member is most unlikely to win the Presidency. (Yes, we know about James A. Garfield—131 years ago.) In any event, if the governorship is his final goal, Pence will be the frontrunner over defeated 2010 Democratic Senate candidate Brad Ellsworth or Congressman Joe Donnelly (D), but both Democrats are credible and Indiana surprised everyone by voting narrowly for President Obama in 2008. We’ll see.

Kentucky: One of three 2011 contests in this table, Kentucky has turned deeply Red, so any Democrat has to struggle here. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) gets mixed reviews for his first term, and is only a nominal frontrunner over State Senate President David Williams (R). Beshear has been stockpiling campaign money in anticipation.

Louisiana: Gov. Bobby Jindal is a heavy favorite to win a second term in November 2011. The Democrats have no obvious, willing candidate, at least not so far.

Mississippi: Gov. Haley Barbour has made a solidly Republican state even more Republican. The operating assumption by just about everyone is that the eventual GOP nominee—so far Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and businessman Dave Dennis have thrown their hats into the ring—will hold this seat in the age of Obama, as the president is deeply unpopular in the Magnolia State. If Democrats come up with a strong candidate, we’ll reconsider. The options for Democrats so far include attorney Bill Luckett and Hattiesburg mayor Johnny DuPree. This is the third of the November 2011 gubernatorial contests.

Missouri: Narrowly lost by Barack Obama in 2008, the Show Me State has not taken to the Democratic president and has moved clearly right. Nonetheless, Gov. Jay Nixon (D) has maintained his popularity in his first term, and must be rated the initial favorite over Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R). We’ll watch the coattail effect here, however.

Montana: Two-term Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) has been consistently well-liked in this normally Republican Western state, but one doubts he’ll be able to transfer his popularity to a Democratic successor. Barack Obama came within 2.2% of carrying Montana in 2008, yet few expect him to do that well in 2012—assuming a competitive race for the White House. Thus, former Republican Congressman Rick Hill is considered the early frontrunner.

New Hampshire: Gov. John Lynch (D) held on to win by 7.5% in 2010, but a fourth-term was not easy for Lynch to secure. Will he run for another two-year term in 2012? No one knows. If he does, he’ll rate as the early favorite, but his status could be shaky if resurgent Granite State Republicans find a strong candidate and have a winning presidential nominee.

North Carolina: The highly competitive Tar Heel State hasn’t had a GOP governor since Jim Martin left in early 1993. The latest beneficiary of the Democratic statehouse trend was Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue in 2008, yet she has had a troubled first term so far and the polls have shown her well below 50% in job approval. Republicans took both houses of the state legislature in 2010 and the GOP is determined to end the Democratic string of gubernatorial victories at five in 2012. Republicans may run their 2008 candidate, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who held Perdue to a 3% margin of victory. Can Perdue capitalize on a GOP legislature, arguing she’s needed to check them? It may be her best chance of reelection.

North Dakota: Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) was the hidden victor in November 2010, when Gov. John Hoeven (R) won a U.S. Senate seat. Dalrymple recently succeeded Hoeven in mid-term, and is the presumed favorite to win a full term in 2012. Some have suggested Dalrymple will run against U.S. Senator Kent Conrad (D) instead, but it is hard to imagine a new governor turning right around and campaigning for another office. It is unclear if Democrats can find a plausible gubernatorial nominee, whatever happens.

Utah: The Tea Party has made noises about challenging newly elected Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in a convention in 2012, and that should not be lightly dismissed since they ousted U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett (R) just that way in 2010. Still, Herbert has been popular since he succeeded Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) in the summer of 2009, when Huntsman resigned to become President Obama’s ambassador to China. Having secured a half-term last November in a landslide, Herbert seems to be in very good shape to get a full term in 2012. Democrats are not a factor statewide in Utah.

Vermont: Newly elected Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) will probably be secure in this liberal state. The last one-term governor defeated for reelection was Republican Ray Keyser, Jr., who served from 1961-1963. Normally, Vermonters will give a governor two or three two-year terms, at the least.

Washington: This is likely to be one of the most competitive gubernatorial elections in the country in 2012. After two terms, Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to retire. She has never achieved deep popularity—in part because she was unable to overcome the controversial way she became chief executive in the extremely close, disputed election of 2004. Normally, one would think the Republican nominee, likely to be state Attorney General Rob McKenna, would have an edge. It may work out that way. But Congressman Jay Inslee, the probable Democratic candidate, will be a fierce competitor in a state that has become a Democratic stronghold. President Obama is the favorite to win Washington again in 2012, creating coattails for Inslee. The last Republican to serve as governor in this state was John Spellman, a one-termer elected in 1980. This is the longest gubernatorial dry spell for the GOP in the nation—but sooner or later, dry spells end. Will 2012 be the year?

West Virginia: With Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin’s election and swearing-in to the U.S. Senate in 2010, State Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin (D) became governor. Tomblin is little known and starts out his term without wide popularity. Moreover, some insist that a special election must be held quickly to fill the governorship—though the state constitution and laws are, to put it mildly, confusing on that point. As our accompanying chart shows, other Democrats are lining up to challenge Tomblin (as many as five), and Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, daughter of former two-term GOP Gov. Arch Moore and ex-West Virginia Secretary of State Betty Ireland, may run in this increasingly Republican state. Basically, anything can happen, and it is too early to offer a guess about the Mountain State.