WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama's political clout was on the line Tuesday as Virginia and New Jersey chose governors in contests that could serve as warning signs for Democrats about the public's mood heading into an important midterm election year.
Elsewhere, Maine voters weighed in on same-sex marriage in a closely watched initiative, and New York and California picked congressmen for two vacant seats. A slew of cities selected mayors, and Ohio voted on allowing casinos.
One year after Obama won the White House in an electoral landslide and Democrats expanded their majorities in Congress, much of the focus was on Virginia and New Jersey, where Democratic control was in danger despite hefty campaigning by Obama himself. The outcomes 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 on the party's base of support.
Democratic victories in both states in 2005 preceded big Democratic years nationally in 2006 and 2008.
Tuesday's impact on Obama's standing and on the 2010 elections can easily be overstated. Voters are often focused on local issues and local personalities. Indeed, most people in Virginia and New Jersey, say they're not casting ballots because of their feelings about the president.
Yet, national issues, like the recession, were clearly a factor, with voter attitudes shaped to some degree by how people feel about the state of their nation - and their place in it.
It was also difficult to separate Obama from the outcomes after he devoted a significant chunk of time working to persuade voters to elect Democrat R. Creigh Deeds over Republican Bob McDonnell in Virginia and re-elect Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who was in a three-way race with Republican Chris Christie and independent Chris Daggett.
The president campaigned in person for both Deeds and Corzine and was featured in their advertisements. He characterized the two as necessary allies in the White House's effort to advance his plans. And he deployed his political campaign arm, Organizing for America, in an effort to ensure the swarms of party loyalists and new voters he attracted in 2008 turned out.
He also spent energy trying to ensure the Democrats would pick up the GOP-held vacant 23rd Congressional District seat in New York, where Democrat Bill Owens faced conservative Doug Hoffman.
In doing so, Obama raised the stakes of a low-enthusiasm off-year election season.
Thus, any Democratic losses would be a blot on Obama's political standing to some degree and would signal trouble ahead as he seeks to advance his agenda, protect Democratic majorities in Congress and expand his party's grip on governors' seats next fall.
Obama needs all the lawmakers he can get to pass his legislative priorities of health care and climate change, but defeats Tuesday could make it much harder for him to persuade moderate Democrats from right-leaning states and conservative districts, who are hearing from voters worried about his expansion of government at a time of rising deficits, to get on board.
Defeats also could tease out upcoming problems for Democrats, particularly in moderate districts and in swing states like Ohio, Colorado and Nevada, as they defend their turf next fall. In 2010, most governors, a third of the Senate and all members in the House will be on ballots.
New Jersey is a traditional Democratic-leaning state with an incumbent Democratic governor.
But Virginia is a new swing state and has trended Democratic in recent elections after being reliably Republican in national races for many years. It's home to a slew of northern bellwether counties filled with independents who carried Obama to victory last fall, the first Democrat to win the state in a White House race since 1964. Rapidly growing counties like Loudoun and Prince William, exurban areas outside Washington, D.C., swung toward Democrats in the 2005 governor's race, previewing an Obama win three years later.
A loss in Virginia could suggest that the diverse coalition that Obama cobbled together last year in Virginia and elsewhere - blacks, Hispanics, young people, independents and Republican crossovers - was a one-election phenomenon that didn't transfer to the Democratic Party when Obama wasn't on the ballot.