Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, have risen into leading roles in their national parties' fight for power in the 2012 elections and their missions carry significant consequences for both politicians and the states they lead.
The once friendly rivals from opposites banks of the Potomac have been put in charge of their parties' efforts to win governors' offices across the country and their political fortunes now depend largely on the ability of each to best the other. The two long-time politicians will go head-to-head raising funds and campaigning in nearly a dozen states with contested gubernatorial races, elevating their rivalry from amicable ribbing to a high-stakes showdown.
"When they cross swords, mainly on politics, they do it in a good-natured fashion," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "But in the end, at least politically, results will matter. Either the Democrats or the Republicans are going to do better in the 2012 elections, so one of them can crow and the other will eat crow."
The stakes are high for both men. McDonnell, elected last week to a full term as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has been talked about as a potential vice presidential pick. O'Malley, who is leading the Democratic Governors Association, has been mentioned as a future presidential contender or cabinet secretary should President Obama win a second term.
And with the governors elevated onto the national stage, the consequences are just as great for their states.
O'Malley has openly embraced President Obama and the agenda of national Democrats. He led the effort to approve college tuition breaks for illegal immigrants in Maryland, and is now calling for legalization of same-sex marriage and expanding green energy initiatives.
McDonnell, on the other hand, has been a vocal opponent of the Obama administration, challenging the federal government on health care and the environment, among other issues, and enters 2012 with a newly controlled Republican statehouse primed for a more conservative agenda.
As O'Malley portrayed Republicans as captives of the Tea Party, McDonnell took potshots at Democrats for fumbling the economic recovery and inflating the national deficit. When O'Malley hailed Obama's health care reforms as a boon for Maryland, McDonnell last week issued a scathing retort of the changes the reforms will wrought on states.
Analysts say the growing partisanship is typical of governors looking to build reputations that extend beyond their statehouses.
"They are becoming more partisan both because they can and because of national political aspirations," said Jeremy Mayer, a political scientist at George Mason University. "They don't need the other party anymore."
Despite the broad political implications, O'Malley shrugged off the notion of a rivalry with McDonnell.
"We're glad to have Virginia as a neighbor," O'Malley told The Washington Examiner while on a six-day trade mission in India. "When your neighboring states are strong, the region is better for it.Maryland is a leader in terms of its economic strengths and our focus is on creating jobs."
But McDonnell's camp said the juxtaposition is nearly impossible to ignore. And his administration has demonstrated few reservations in poaching companies from Maryland to bring to Virginia, which analysts commonly label as the more business-friendly of the two states.
"If states are laboratories of democracies, you're going to see what things look like in two very different labs," said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin. "I don't know the last time you've had this clear of a contrast for voters to witness."
Governors from both sides of the aisle acknowledged the importance of the Washington-area executives in shaping the 2012 political landscape and beyond.
"[O'Malley is] very forthright," said Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat. "He takes on people like [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie when they're unfairly attacking programs that will help working people."
Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker said McDonnell, who helped Virginia Republicans take control of the state Senate this year, has a knack for recruiting effective candidates.
"You can have all the money in the world but if you don't have good candidates you're not going to win," he said. "The warmup was 2011; the big test is going to be 2012."