The GOP wrested political control Tuesday from Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey, a troubling sign for President Obama and his party heading into an important midterm election year.
Republican Bob McDonnell's victory in the Virginia governor's race over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, and Republican Chris Christie's ouster of New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was a double-barreled triumph for a party looking to rebuild after being booted from power in national elections in 2006 and 2008.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Maine voted to repeal a state law that would allow same-sex couples to wed.
And Democrat Bill Owens captured a GOP-held vacant 23rd Congressional District seat in New York in a race that highlighted fissures in the Republican Party and illustrated hurdles the GOP could face in capitalizing on any voter discontent with Mr. Obama and Democrats next fall.
California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, also a Democrat, won a special election to a vacant congressional seat, Ohio voters approved casinos and a slew of cities selected mayors, including New York, which gave Michael Bloomberg a third term. (See more key election results)
Exit polls results in both Virginia and New Jersey showed many reasons for Democrats to be concerned and for Republicans to be optimistic, particularly about independents - the crown jewel of elections because they often determine outcomes.
In Virginia, McDonnell's decisive 66 percent majority of the independent vote was a key to his victory.
"McDonnell's victory in this off-year election has as much to do with who didn't vote as who did," CBS Poll Analyst Fred Backus said. "African Americans broke overwhelmingly for Deeds, but though they make up 20 percent of Virginians and voted proportional to their population in 2008, they made up just 15 percent of the voting population today in Virginia. Voters under 30 made up only 10 percent of the voters in Virginia - half the percentage that turned out in 2008 - and nearly half of those who did show up to the polls voted for McDonnell." (Read more on why McDonnell won in Virginia)
In New Jersey, independents made up 28 percent of the electorate and backed Christie over Corzine by 60 percent to 30 percent.
"Corzine's performance among independents was 21 points lower than Mr. Obama's last fall when 51 percent of New Jersey independents backed him," CBS Poll Analyst Jennifer De Pinto said. "Also, moderates, who made up 45 percent of the electorate, narrowly backed Christie by 48 percent to 45 percent. Mr. Obama won the support of New Jersey moderates last year."
"New Jersey's electorate was older and slightly more conservative than last year. Voters were looking for change, but while change represented the Democrat, Barack Obama a year ago, New Jersey voters saw Christie, the Republican, as the change agent this time around," De Pinto added. (Read more on why Christie won in New Jersey)
In both states the economy topped the list of issues that mattered most to voters in their choice for governor - in Virginia health care was second, while in New Jersey the second choice was property taxes.
Exit polls also showed the impact of Mr. Obama on the race. Majorities of voters in both states said the president was not a factor in their vote. Those who said Mr. Obama was a factor in New Jersey divided as to whether their vote was a vote for the president or against him. In Virginia, slightly fewer voters said their vote was for Mr. Obama than against him. (Read more analysis of the exit polls in both states)
The outcomes in Virginia and New Jersey were sure to feed discussion about the state of the electorate, the status of the diverse coalition that sent Mr. Obama to the White House, and the limits of the president's influence - on the party's base of support and on moderate current lawmakers he needs to advance his legislative priorities.
The president had personally campaigned for Deeds and Corzine, seeking to ensure that independents and base voters alike turned out even if he wasn't on the ballot - and voters still rejected them. Thus, the losses were blots on Mr. Obama's political standing to a certain degree and suggest potential problems ahead as he seeks to achieve his policy goals, protect Democratic majorities in Congress and expand his party's grip on governors' seats next fall.
"Bob McDonnell's victory gives Republicans tremendous momentum heading into 2010," declared Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. "His focus on ideas and pocketbook issues will serve as a model for Republicans running next year."
On CBS' "The Early Show" Wednesday morning, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele proclaimed that the GOP has "found its voice again."
Also on "The Early Show," Mr. Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, played down the results, saying, "I think generally these elections tend to be overrated in terms of what they mean later."
Democratic victories in both Virginia, a new swing state, and New Jersey, a Democratic stronghold, in 2005 preceded big Democratic years nationally in 2006 and 2008.
Tuesday's impact on Mr. Obama's popularity and on the 2010 elections could easily be overstated. Voters are often focused on local issues and local personalities.
"I'm not one who thinks that local candidates are ever helped out much by a national candidate who comes in. These two races in both Virginia and New Jersey were so much about local issues -- about property taxes, about the economy," CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer said.
"Predicting national trends from off year elections is like predicting the World Series winner from Spring training," added CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield.
CBS News political director Steve Chaggaris says that Republican excitement will be tempered by the reality of the continued debate within the Republican Party about whether to emphasize its right-wing base or to soften up in an attempt to appeal to more moderates.
"McDonnell's success was partly based on downplaying his social conservative views and making a somewhat moderate play for independent votes," he writes in his analysis.
As for New Jersey, Chaggaris notes that Corzine's popularity had been dropping for a while.
"Corzine's unpopularity going into Tuesday's election cannot be underestimated," he wrote in his analysis of the race. "Simply put, New Jersey voters have been looking at other options for a while."
CBSNews.com Election Night Coverage:
All Election Night 2009 Results
Republicans Sweep N.J., Va. Gov. Races
N.Y. Democrat Owens Wins House Seat
Maine Voters Reject Gay Marriage
Breckenridge, Colo., Votes to Legalize Pot
Atlanta's Race For Mayor Heads To Runoff
What McDonnell's Win Means for the GOP, Obama
Corzine's Fall Has Been Festering for a While
What Doug Hoffman's Loss Means to Conservatives
Lessons for the White House from '09 Election Results
Why Christie Won in New Jersey
McDonnell Won Due to Turnout, Independents
Exit Polls in Va. and N.J.: The Obama (Non) Factor?
Michael Steele: GOP Has "Found Its Voice Again"
David Plouffe: Obama "Delivering on His Promise"
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