Even Republicans were looking at New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, as a lock this fall to succeed retiring Gov. David Paterson and claim the seat long held by his famous father, Mario Cuomo.
Once Republican Scott Brown showed that Democrats in Massachusetts couldn't hold the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat, however, what seemed politically impossible in the 2010 elections has at least some plausibility.
After courting Steve Levy, a county executive from populous Long Island, to switch his registration from Democrat to Republican and run for governor, the GOP's new message to Cuomo is: Game on.
"This is just one of those really great stories, where you find a candidate who fits what's needed by the state and has a record to prove it," said New York GOP chairman Ed Cox.
Thirty-seven states are electing governors this year. To be sure, Cuomo is still favored to win in heavily Democratic New York. But Levy is among a handful of promising dark horse gubernatorial hopefuls across the country — challengers or open-seat candidates — who are well-regarded by party leaders and who, like Brown, could pull off an upset.
The group includes Republicans like Chris Dudley, a former NBA star who has vastly out-raised other GOP candidates vying for the open seat in Democratic-leaning Oregon, and Susana Martinez, a Hispanic district attorney hoping to succeed outgoing Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson in New Mexico.
Democratic Party leaders are optimistic about Scott Heidepriem, a state legislator running for the open governor's seat in Republican-leaning South Dakota, and Peter Corroon, the mayor of Salt Lake County challenging incumbent Utah GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.
The most promising dark horse candidates share similarities regardless of party.
They are proven fundraisers who can keep pace with or often out-raise their higher-profile opponents. They are running as pragmatic problem-solvers who can appeal to voters across the political spectrum. And they stress fiscal conservatism on the campaign trail while largely avoiding divisive social issues.
"The most important thing for a dark horse candidate is that they have a record of fiscal conservatism and a vision for how to move the state forward," Republican strategist John Weaver said. "That's how dark horses can come out of right field and lead the field, because they are talking about what people care about this year."
Weaver is advising Levy as well as two other potential dark horse gubernatorial candidates — Republican Rick Snyder in Michigan and Tim Cahill, the state treasurer and Democrat-turned-independent running in Massachusetts.
While Republican Charlie Baker is mounting a strong challenge in Massachusetts to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, Cahill's blue-collar background and message of fiscal austerity have made it a credible three-person race.
In Utah, Corroon was re-elected with 66 percent of the vote in 2008 in a county home to about 40 percent of the state's population. Utah is a conservative state, but Corroon said in an interview that voters still prefer moderate governors. Corroon insisted that he, rather than Herbert, was a true heir to former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman, who left the post last year when President Barack Obama named him ambassador to China.
"Our message is what people care about," Corroon said. "It's the basics — jobs, a strong education system, good quality of life and a proven track record as a fiscal conservative."
If Levy in New York represents Republicans' best hope for winning a populous blue state, Democrats are hoping to pull off a similar upset in the biggest of all red states, Texas. There, former Houston Mayor Bill White is challenging three-term incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who won a contested three-way primary last month with some help from conservative tea party activists.
The bald, soft-spoken White lacks Perry's charisma and take-no-prisoners campaign style, and he has remained relatively quiet while Perry's campaign has pounded White as a "liberal trial lawyer" and repeatedly questioned why he won't release his tax returns. That's left some Democrats to worry that White's modest demeanor may not be up to the challenge.
Others say White's temperament will ultimately prove to be a good thing, arguing that voters — especially the growing number of independents in Texas — have grown weary of Perry's fiery partisanship and are seeking a nonideological alternative.
"Luckily, this is not a a Hair Club for Men commercial. And Perry's schtick is beginning to wear on people here," Democratic strategist Jeff Crosby said. "Perry has positioned himself so far to the right that the state is open to a Democratic candidate who can appeal to the middle ground."
In an interview, White said his record in Houston establishes him as a dependable manager and fiscal steward. "We built up budget surpluses while cutting tax rates and bringing people together to get things done."
Levy makes a similar case for his candidacy in New York, citing his record of cutting taxes and spending in massive Suffolk County, which has a population larger than 11 states.
"This is a year where the budget debacle is everything, and an ardent fiscal conservative with a proven executive record can win it," Levy said. He noted he won the Democratic, Republican and Conservative Party endorsements when he ran for re-election as county executive in 2007.
Levy must still get on the ballot as a Republican and run in a contested primary against former Rep. Rick Lazio and Carl Paladino, a billionaire developer who has pledged to put $10 million of his own money in the race.
But the GOP establishment is firmly behind Levy. Republican Governors Association Chairman Haley Barbour helped recruit Levy and has been calling party leaders across the state on his behalf.