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Original Message Election 2009: McDonnell leads in Virginia
By LIZ SIDOTI, AP National Political Writer Liz Sidoti, Ap National Political Writer
25 mins ago

WASHINGTON Republican Bob McDonnell opened a lead in early counting in Virginia's governor's race Tuesday as independent voters swung behind the GOP and fled Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, a reversal from a year ago when they catapulted President Barack Obama to the White House.

New Jersey decided whether to stick with unpopular Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, while voters elsewhere cast ballots in local races.

Democrats had won big victories in Virginia in 2006 and 2008, but interviews with voters leaving polling stations in the swing state on Tuesday were filled with signs of possible trouble for Obama and his party heading into an important midterm election year.

The exit polls showed that nearly a third of voters described themselves as independents the crown jewel of elections because they often determine outcomes and they preferred McDonnell by almost a 2-1 margin over Deeds. The surveys also indicated that the Democrats had difficulty turning out their base, including the swarms of first-time minority and youth voters whom Obama attracted as part of his diverse coalition.

More than four in 10 voters in Virginia said their view of Obama factored into their choice on Tuesday, and those voters roughly split between expressing support for Obama and voting against him. People who said they disapprove of Obama's job approval voted overwhelmingly Republican, and those who approve of the president favored Deeds, the Democrat.

After more than a year of recession, the economy trumped all other issues for voters in exit polls.

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 substantial 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 as well as on moderate lawmakers he needs to advance his legislative priorities.

As if on cue, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid indicated Tuesday that lawmakers may not complete health care legislation this year, missing Obama's deadline on his signature issue and pushing debate into a congressional election year.

Democratic victories in both Virginia and New Jersey 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 Deeds over McDonnell in Virginia and re-elect Corzine of New Jersey, who was in a three-way race with Republican Chris Christie and independent Chris Daggett.

While much attention was focused on those races, discussions on Twitter emphasized the same-sex union initiative in Maine, with the phrases "VoteNoOn1" and "Maine" landing in the site's top trending topics. The measure would repeal a bill passed by the Legislature allowing same-sex marriages.

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.

That's the race that highlighted fissures in the Republican Party between conservatives and moderates, illustrating problems the GOP could have in capitalizing on any discontent with Obama and Democrats that Tuesday's results may show.

With so much involvement in so few races, 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 achieve his policy goals, 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.

Republican victories in one or more races could energize a GOP that's lost back-to-back national elections, just as it seeks to raise money and recruit candidates to prepare for next year. Triumphs, particularly in the open-seat contest in Virginia, could provide a model for how to win elections in a time of recession and war.

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.
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