WASHINGTON – Independents who swept Barack Obama to a historic 2008 victory broke big for Republicans on Tuesday as the GOP wrested political control from Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey.
Conservative Republican Bob McDonnell’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and moderate Republican Chris Christie’s ouster of unpopular 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 voters rejected a state law that would allow same-sex couples to wed. If supporters had prevail, it would have marked the first time that the electorate in any state endorsed gay marriage.
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 Obama and Democrats next fall.
California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, also a Democrat, won a special election to a vacant congressional seat.
The outcomes of Virginia and New Jersey were sure to feed discussion about the state of the electorate, the status of the diverse coalition that sent Obama to the White House and the limits of the president’s influence.
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.
Interviews with voters leaving polling stations in both states were filled with reasons for Democrats to be concerned and for Republicans to be optimistic, particularly about independents.
Independents were a critical part Obama’s victory in Virginia, New Jersey and across the country. But after more than a year of recession, they fled from Democrats in the two states, where the economy trumped all.
The Associated Press exit polls showed that nearly a third of voters in Virginia described themselves as independents, and nearly as many in New Jersey did. They preferred McDonnell by almost a 2-1 margin over Deeds in Virginia, and Christie over Corzine by a similar margin.
Last year, independents split between Obama and Republican John McCain in both states.
In Virginia, McDonnell won by big margins in rapidly growing, far-flung Washington, D.C., suburbs – places like Loudoun and Prince William counties – that Republicans historically have won but where Obama prevailed last fall by winning over independents and swing voters. Republicans swept all three statewide Virginia offices up for election: governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
In both states, the surveys also suggested the Democrats had difficulty turning out their base, including the large numbers of first-time minority and youth voters whom Obama attracted.