Voters in 37 states marked their ballot for gubernatorial candidates on Tuesday. Democrats currently hold 26 out of 50 but look likely to lose perhaps a dozen, offset by pickups in mostly obscure places like Hawaii, as good a place to be dumped by a wave as any.

Governors’ races often get a bit lost in the brouhaha, yet they can vividly affect the national landscape. Why? Successful presidential candidates tend to rise from the state executive ranks: think Bill Clinton (Arkansas) or George W. Bush (Texas). So both Democrats and Republicans are about to gain an infusion of new talent.

Secondly, governors play a vital role in redrawing boundaries for congressional seats, enabling all kinds of partisan shenanigans (say a prayer of thanks for the independent Australian Electoral Commission). Most importantly, tonight’s incoming governors, particularly if they represent important swing states, loom as key players in 2012. They can activate their grassroots organisation to get voters to the polls for a presidential candidate. And, as seen in the whisker-tight Gore-Bush Florida battle in 2000, pull strings over what votes get counted and how.

Which is shorthand for saying that tonight, it’s all about the Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida governorships, folks. If Barack Obama goes two for three in 2012, he’ll almost certainly stay president. In Florida, Republican Rick Scott leads 51-46% with a healthy 34% of the vote counted at Crikey‘s deadline. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, it’s too early to discern trends but election-eve polls pointed to GOP victories in both.

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Another intriguing storyline tonight is how many Sarah Palin-endorsed candidates get up. “Mama grizzly” central looks like being South Carolina where the GOP’s Nikki Haley bids to succeed Mark Sanford (famous for tearily confessing to visiting his Argentine mistress when he was meant to be hiking the Appalachian trail), Haley, a Sikh-turned Christian, is exotic even by South Carolina’s standards.

Palin plucked her out of nowhere several months ago, vaulting her to a primary win. But right now, she is in a dogfight against Democrat Vincent Sheheen, trailing 52-46% with a third of the vote counted. It’s fair to say a loss would somewhat dim the Palin star. Still, later tonight, another Palin-endorsee, the GOP’s Susana Martinez, is likely to become the nation’s first Hispanic female governor.

Other races worth noting: Massachusetts, where Obama’s buddy Deval Patrick should be taken to the brink but hold on. Democrats are already writing off Illinois thanks to the Blagojevich stench, while Republicans seem likely, on polling, to secure pickups in Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and finally Maine, where a Tea Party favourite, Paul LePage, looks unassailable. Democrats may get some revenge with a thumping win for Andrew Cuomo in New York and pickups in Connecticut, Hawaii and Vermont. Despite spending something like Africa’s entire GDP in California, polls show former eBay CEO Meg Whitman falling just short to Democrat Jerry Brown in California. We will know in another couple of hours.

Finally, there are the various kooky state ballot initiatives. Some tenuous predictions: Rhode Island will vote to change its official title away from “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”, due to the unflattering slavery allusions. Illinois will approve a new mechanism allowing voters to recall a disgraced governor. Missouri will rein in abusive dog breeders. Oklahoma will give the thumbs down to Sharia law. And California will narrowly decide not to go to pot.