That Obama benefited from economic arguments doesn't sit well with Republicans who used high unemployment and rising deficits as an exceptionally effective political hammer in 2010, among them Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who replaced a Democratic governor as part of a class of pro-business, fiscal-hawk Republicans that included Walker, Rick Snyder in Michigan and John Kasich in Ohio.
"Obama got the credit for what we Republican governors have accomplished," Branstad said. "We're the ones who have made the tough decisions, and our states are coming back."
So what happens when those Republican governors are up for re-election in two years?
There's a clue in how Wisconsin voters treated Walker, who survived a bitter recall spurred by his efforts to strip collective bargaining rights from state workers as part of his plan to balance the state budget. He has focused tightly on job creation ever since, and the GOP kept control of the Wisconsin statehouse on Tuesday.
There's another in the dance that Kasich performed when campaigning for Romney in Ohio, balancing criticism of Obama's stewardship of the nation's economy while touting the stronger recovery taking place in his state.
"Just thinking about 2014, the economy's going to be better. So is the outlook for the state," said Matt Cox, a Republican strategist in Ohio. "Suddenly, it's going to be tough for Democrats."
There's also warnings in Tuesday's results for candidates in the Midwest who stray from the economic argument — especially for Republicans.
In Iowa, voters also retained a state Supreme Court justice despite a campaign by gay-marriage opponents upset with his role in a 2009 decision that legalized it.
In Minnesota, Republican lawmakers misread the public by trying to ban gay marriage and impose new voter restrictions through ballot measures. Both failed as voters also returned Democrats to power in the statehouse.
"There are three groups that Republicans are failing with: young people, women and minorities," said Charlie Weaver, a former chief of staff to ex-GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "Those two amendments managed to offend all three of those groups. If Republicans can't figure out a way to appeal to those three groups, they're going to become irrelevant."
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.