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, a troubling sign for the president 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.
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 and on moderate current lawmakers he needs to advance his legislative priorities.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Maine voters weighed in on same-sex marriage that was too close to call Tuesday night, and New York and California picked congressmen for two vacant seats. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg won re-election, giving him the third term he began seeking last year in pushing for a change to the city's term-limits law.
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. Thus, the losses suggested potential problems ahead as Obama seeks to achieve his policy goals, protect Democratic majorities in Congress and expand his party's grip on governors' seats next fall.
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 — the crown jewel of elections because they often determine outcomes.
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.
Tuesday's impact on Obama's popularity and on the 2010 elections could easily be overstated. Voters are often focused on local issues and local personalities.