WASHINGTON — Republicans swept the governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia Tuesday, ending Democratic rule in both states and launching what they hope will become a comeback heading into next year's mid-term elections for control of the U.S. Congress.
In a setback, however, a Republican-backed third-party candidate failed to capture a vacant House seat in upstate New York, handing it to Democrats for the first time in more than a century.
In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie ousted incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in a close contest. In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell easily defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds in a state where the incumbent Democrat was term-limited.
How much the results reflected on voters' satisfaction with President Barack Obama was debatable. They did, however, signal that Republicans have more energy and momentum than the Democrats do, potentially crucial as both parties prepare for next year, when 36 of 100 Senate seats and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election.
The votes were an early test of which party is doing better with independent voters and of whether the Democrats can turn out African-Americans and young voters in anywhere near the numbers they did in 2008 with Obama on the ballot.
Republicans emerged ahead on both tests, as independents swung into their column by a roughly 2-1 margin in both states. At the same time, turnout by younger voters and African-Americans dropped as a share of the total from 2008 levels.
"It is a stark contrast to where the energy and intensity were in Virginia just a year ago," said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.
In Virginia, McDonnell ran on the promise of improving the economy and transportation, but also waded into national issues to oppose Democratic proposals on the environment and health care.
His win stopped a string of Democratic victories in a state that was a poster child for the Democratic Party's hopes of eroding the Republican base in the South. Republicans swept all three statewide races Tuesday — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — for the first time since 1997.
The Democrats had been on a winning streak in the state, taking the governor's office twice, winning both U.S. Senate seats for the first time since 1970 and going Democratic in the 2008 presidential contest for the first time since 1964.
Virginia has a long history of voting against the party in power in the White House, most recently electing two Republicans during Democrat Bill Clinton's two-term presidency, then electing two Democrats during Republican George W. Bush's eight years in the White House.
However, Virginia has emerged as more of a national bellwether in recent years, as its vote for Obama in 2008 was closer to his national average than any other state. "It's the ultimate swing state," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
In New Jersey, a state that went for Obama by 15 percentage points last year and which hadn't elected a Republican governor in a dozen years, Christie vowed a smaller, leaner state government and promised to rein in the state's high taxes.
It was bound to be a tough year for the Democrats in both states given a deep recession, but particularly in New Jersey, where 68 percent of voters said heading into the election that the state was on the wrong track.
Since the 1950s, 13 governors have run for re-election with numbers as bad, said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. Only two have won — former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, both in 2006, a big Democratic year.
"It's a very tough thing to do," Mellman said.
Whether the two governor's races were a referendum on Obama was unclear, however.
About 4 in 10 Virginia voters said Obama was a factor in their vote, splitting almost evenly for and against the president.
Obama did campaign in both states for the Democratic candidates and helped raise money for their campaigns.
There were few signs, though, that he'd managed to turn on and turn out the same kind of support he won for himself, particularly from core Democratic voters.
McDonnell and Christie didn't campaign hard against Obama. They stuck largely to local issues, though McDonnell did criticize Democratic proposals on the environment and health care in Washington.
Of course, they could count on a Republican backlash against Democrats anyway, particularly among angry voters drawn to Tea Party protests in the spring, energized by town hall meeting protests against the Obama agenda this summer, and excited this fall by the conservative coup against a moderate Republican candidate in a special congressional election in upstate New York.
White House aides, perhaps anticipating losses for their party, downplayed the significance of all of Tuesday's elections.
"We don't look at either of these gubernatorial races or the or the congressional race as something that portends a lot for our legislative efforts going forward or political prospects in 2010," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
In New York's 23rd Congressional District, Republicans lost a seat they'd controlled for more than a century after a fight that drove their candidate from the race. Obama created the vacancy by appointing moderate Republican Rep. John McHugh to become Secretary of the Army.
Democrat Bill Owens narrowly defeated Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. The Republican candidate, state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, under fire from conservatives and slipping in the polls, dropped out of the race over the weekend.
The biggest impact of the New York race is within the Republican Party, where conservatives such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hammered Scozzafava as a RINO — Republican in Name Only — because she supports abortion rights, gay rights and some tax increases.
With Hoffman's defeat, it isn't clear whether conservatives will be emboldened to challenge more moderate Republicans next year.
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