Voters' persistent economic concerns delivered stark electoral setbacks to Democrats and laid a marker for tough obstacles President Obama faces heading into next year's crucial midterm elections.
Republican Bob McDonnell trounced Democrat Creigh Deeds for governor of Virginia. And Republican Chris Christie defeated Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey, a heavily Democratic state that should have been easier but for Corzine's unpopularity.
Still, the news wasn't all bad for Democrats. In New York's 23rd Congressional District, Democrat Bill Owens had a substantial lead over Conservative Doug Hoffman.
In California, Democrat John Garamendi was expected to win the open House seat vacated by Ellen Tauscher, a Democrat who joined Obama's State Department.
Republican leaders were swift to seize upon electoral wins, including three statewide races in Virginia, as proof that Obama's popularity is on the wane.
The Democrat won the state in 2008, reversing decades of Republican domination in presidential elections, and made multiple appearances on Deeds' behalf.
“The Republican Party's overwhelming victory in Virginia is a blow to President Obama and the Democrat Party,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. “It sends a clear signal that voters have had enough of the president's liberal agenda.”
But several factors played out in Tuesday's election results. The bad economy, a migration of independent voters toward Republican candidates, and a lackluster pair of Democratic gubernatorial candidates helped deliver the quirky, off-year election in part at least to the GOP.
Gary Langer, pollster for ABC News, said the prevailing mood among voters was a “vast, economic discontent.” With the Democrats in the majority in Washington, voters who said they were very worried about the economy were casting their lot with Republican candidates.
Economic worries are a major worry for Democrats heading into the 2010 midterms. With unemployment expected to rise next year and economic recovery only sputtering along, the party in power could find itself punished by voters turning to the other party for better results.
In addition, exit polling showed an enthusiasm deficit among Democrats, notably in Virginia, where Republicans who supported John McCain for president last year turned out to vote in higher numbers than Democrats who said they voted for Obama.
In New Jersey, independent voters surged toward Christie, a disturbing trend for the administration and especially the Democratic Party, which has long held the state in its column. Obama made multiple appearances in support of Corzine, including a swing on Sunday.
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs took pains to distance Obama from culpability, repeatedly dodging questions about whether the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races were a referendum on the president's policies.
“I don't think looking at the two gubernatorial races, you can draw with any great insight what's going to happen a year from now, any more than … I can tell who's going to win next year's World Series,” Gibbs said.
The president, who campaigned for both Corzine and Deeds but was reportedly not an enthusiastic supporter of either, also demurred when asked what the results might say of his tenure.
Still, it's a powerful question. Obama won the presidency with the support of independent voters, and Democratic congressional candidates may see their fortunes rise or fall on his popularity.