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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Controversial ballot measures aimed at banning abortion in Mississippi and reducing public sector union power in Ohio were soundly defeated on Tuesday in local elections that cheered President Barack Obama's Democratic party.
Democrats and Republicans split the two races for governor on the ballot, with Kentucky Democratic governor Steve Beshear handily winning re-election and Mississippi Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant victorious in Mississippi.
Neither result changed the balance of power, with Bryant succeeding popular outgoing Governor Haley Barbour in Mississippi. But the outcome means Republicans will hold a 29 to 20 lead in governors going into the presidential election cycle in 2012, with Rhode Island held by an Independent.
The nationwide local elections were the last before the presidential primaries and caucuses begin in January.
"The surface headline in 2011 was a good election for Democrats. But dig just a little deeper and you see that the middle story is swing voters," said John Avlon, senior columnist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast.
"Republicans are being put on notice for being too extreme and reaching too far, but Democrats should not misread this as an overall victory."
Labor unions and abortion rights supporters were elated with the results in the two states. This was tempered by a separate vote in Ohio soundly rejecting a requirement in Obama's signature health care reform law that everyone have health insurance.
Ohio is a key swing state won by Obama in the 2008 election, and the strong effort by organized labor turned back the Republican effort to reduce the power of public sector unions in the state. The Republican-backed law lost by about 60 to 40 percent.
Union leaders, who have suffered defeats in Wisconsin and some other states this year, hailed the result.
"Today's defeat of (the Ohio union measure) is a major victory for working families in Ohio and across the country," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
Ohio Governor John Kasich, who championed the anti-union measure, said the result "requires me to take a deep breath and to reflect on what happened here."
The anti-union law was a centerpiece of the Kasich legislative agenda. The law passed the Republican-dominated assembly in the spring. But opponents were able to gather 1.3 million signatures to put it on the ballot.
While massive union protests against a similar law in Wisconsin earlier this year grabbed national attention, Ohio is more important to unions.
The state has 360,000 public sector union members and the fifth largest number of total union members in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The other closely watched ballot initiative on Tuesday was in Mississippi, where voters were asked to decide whether human life begins at conception, the so-called "personhood amendment" to the state constitution.
If it had passed, Mississippi would have been the first U.S. state to define a fertilized egg as a person, a controversial concept aimed at outlawing abortion, some types of birth control and infertility methods that result in the loss of embryos.
Anti-abortion groups were poised to try to pass such measures in other states.
But the measure went down to defeat with 58 percent opposed and 42 voting in favor, with 80 percent counted. Some voters said the measure was too extreme and were worried about the domino effects of a sweeping constitutional amendment.
There were elections for mayors in eight of the nation's largest 25 cities on Tuesday and incumbents won in Houston, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Baltimore and Charlotte, North Carolina. The incumbent in San Francisco, the first ethnic Chinese mayor in the city's history, was leading in early returns.
Political analysts also were studying the contests for state legislative seats in Virginia and Iowa.
Republicans were trying to win a majority of seats in the Virginia Senate, which would be a bad sign for Obama, who won Virginia in 2008 and hopes to do so again in 2012. Returns from the Virginia Board of Elections late on Tuesday showed Republicans gaining two seats, which would leave the state Senate tied. But one of the seats was closely contested.
Democrats won a special election for an Iowa state Senate seat, keeping their thin 2-seat majority in the chamber. Republicans, who control the Iowa House, had hoped to use a victory to try to overturn the state's approval of same sex marriage.
In another high profile local race, a powerful Republican state Senate leader who spearheaded Arizona's controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants appeared headed for defeat in a recall election, according to early election results.
Writing by Greg McCune. Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan, Patricia Zengerle, Colleen Jenkins, Verna Gates, Ian Simpson. Kay Henderson; James Kelleher; Karin Matz and Lauren Keiper; Editing by Jerry Norton and Peter Bohan