The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The most popular governor in the country? You probably haven’t heard of him.

The nation's governors are gathering in Washington this weekend for the National Governors Association's winter meeting. What better time to take a look at the most popular governors in the country!

Glancing back at the last time we did this rundown in the spring of 2012, we're struck by how quickly the political fortunes of governors can change. Back then, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) was just months removed from an embarrassing repeal of a signature law to curb collective bargaining. Now, he's bounced back and is in a strong position for reelection.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was facing a recall. Now he's favored to win a second term and may even run for president. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was No. 2 on our list. But he's not there anymore on the heels of a traffic scandal that has damaged his standing.

Our rankings take into account several different factors in determining popularity and success, ranging from approval rating to difficulty of what they have attempted to do legislatively to the political lean of their states.

Below is our top 10 — a list that is admittedly subjective in some measure. As always, let us know what we missed in the comments section.

To the Line!

10. (tie) Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D): Perhaps the most unorthodox governor on this list, Beshear has succeeded as a Democrat in a deep red state and easily won reelection in 2011. He has also embraced Obamacare and President Obama himself, so we'll have to see whether that has any effect on his popularity. A GOP poll from August suggested that Beshear was doing very well, with a 56 percent approval rating and just 34 percent unfavorable.

10. (tie) Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R): Kasich is on this list because of the political hole he has dug himself out of during the past couple of years. He reached a low in 2011 when his law to curb public employees' collective bargaining abilities was repealed. But since then, he's found his footing against the backdrop of a recovering economy in Ohio.  His decision to go against the GOP grain and embrace Medicaid expansion may prove a savvy move come November in this swing state. Kasich faces a potentially competitive challenge from Democrat Ed FitzGerald. But a recent poll showed the Republican leading and sporting a respectable 51 percent/36 percent approve/disapprove split.

9. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R): There was a reason why the entire Nebraska political universe was waiting to see whether Heineman would announce a Senate run last year: His popularity would have cleared the field for him. Heineman decided not to run, and these days he's winding down the end of his second full term and pushing for tax relief legislation.

8. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D): A recent poll showed nearly six in 10 voters were ready to reelect Cuomo. And his favorability was the highest it had been in nearly a year. He's favored to win a second term this fall, and despite liberal grumbling about him, remains a budding national figure in the Democratic Party. The thing is, unlike other governors from populous states, Cuomo has shown almost no outward interest in broadening his national profile.

7. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R): The former three-term lieutenant governor and congresswoman has always been popular back home. The latest public poll on her is from early 2013, when she had a 65 percent approval rating. That was down slightly — from a high of 69 percent. Fallin faces state Rep. Joe Dorman (D) this year but is heavily favored to win a second term.

6. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R): Pretty much since the day she was elected, Martinez has been viewed as a rising star. And she hasn't looked back. Recent polling showed her approval rating fell somewhere between 55 and 62 percent. Martinez is doing it in a swing state, no less. She's found a good balance between satisfying the left (she embraced Medicaid expansion) and the right (she signed a corporate tax cut bill). Martinez is expected to comfortably win reelection this year. The big question is what she does after she's done being governor. She doesn't sound like a pol with big national ambitions. But there will surely be a prime seat at the table for her within the party — if she wants it.

5. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R): Speaking of not drawing much opposition, Sandoval has  drawn basically none. And the filing deadline is less than a month away. The idea that Democrats might not be able to even field a candidate in a blue-trending swing state like this is a testament to Sandoval's popularity, with an approval rating that has regularly reached into the 60s and a disapproval rating that has rarely cracked 30 percent.

4. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D): Here's a telling sign that a governor is popular: A leading candidate to succeed him puts that governor front and center in a TV ad. That's exactly what former congressman Mike Ross (D) did with a recent commercial in which Beebe touts his candidacy. Arkansas has trended increasingly Republican in recent years. Beebe may be the last of his kind — a moderate Democrat with broad statewide popularity. Ross, who is doing well in the polls, hopes that's not the case.

3. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R): A late 2012 poll from independent pollster Mason-Dixon showed Dalrymple's favorable rating at 61 percent, with just 10 percent unfavorable, and there's little reason to believe anything has changed since then. It's a great time to be governor of North Dakota, that's for sure.

2. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R): Mead is quietly earning a great reputation, though there's not exactly a ton of public polling in Wyoming. A bipartisan poll in early 2012 showed him with astounding numbers — 77 percent approval and just 11 percent disapproval. Those numbers were the best in the country, according to a New York Times review last year. He's heavily favored to win reelection this year and hasn't drawn much opposition.

1. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R): A poll last month showed Herbert's favorable rating at a sterling 73 percent, and he destroys all potential 2016 opponents in a head-to-head matchup. Yes, this was the reddest state in the 2012 election, but Herbert's popularity even outpaces his predecessors.