WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans seeking a comeback from recent losses may pick up the governors’ seats in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday in campaigns that tested the limits of U.S. President Barack Obama’s influence.
Democrats were bracing for the unhappy possibility they could go down to defeat not just in those two states but in a congressional district in upstate New York where a conservative candidate was leading.
The election outcome could give some clues as to the national mood a year after Obama was elected president and a year before 2010 congressional elections that will represent the first clear referendum on Obama’s time in office.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed the potential impact of the governors’ races on Democrats and the 2010 elections.
“I don’t believe that local elections in New Jersey and Virginia portend a lot about legislative success or political success in the future,” he said.
While local factors influenced all three races, the weak state of the U.S. economy was an overarching issue that played a role in each state.
In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell was leading Democrat Creigh Deeds by double digits in opinion polls as Virginians trooped to the polls — an opportunity for Republicans a year after Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since 1964.
Two appearances on Deeds’ behalf by Obama appeared to have little impact, as Democrats suffered from a lack of enthusiasm without Obama on the ticket. Republicans were energized by the chance to take back the governor’s seat, held by Democrats the past eight years. Voting ends at 7 p.m. EST (0000 GMT) and the winner could be known a few hours later.
In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie has been running neck-and-neck with Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, the former Wall Street executive who has pumped $23 million of his own money into his campaign. A poll released on Monday gave the Republican a slight lead.
Independent candidate Chris Daggett trailed, and a key question concerned how many of Daggett’s supporters would abandon him for Christie or Corzine and sway the race.
Obama campaigned with Corzine on Sunday and made a last-ditch appeal for the Democrat.
“We will not lose this election if all of you are as committed as you were last year,” he said. “So I want everybody in this auditorium to make a pledge that in these next 48 hours, you will work just as hard for Jon as you worked for me.”
New Jersey polls close at 8 p.m. EST but it could be some hours before the outcome is clear.
While a Virginia loss for the Democrats could be considered fairly predictable in a state long considered a Republican stronghold, a defeat in New Jersey would be seen as a bigger blow to the party because the state leans Democratic. Obama won it by 16 points last year.
“If the Democrats win New Jersey and lose Virginia, I would basically say, no harm, no foul,” said Democratic strategist Doug Schoen. “The only real adverse impact is if the administration loses two campaigns, especially one they’re heavily invested in New Jersey.”
Steny Hoyer, the Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, said Democratic losses in the governors’ races would not slow Obama’s domestic agenda in Congress, particularly the raging battle over a healthcare overhaul.
“The campaign has not been about that. Their ads have not been about that. That’s not part of the campaign,” he said.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared headed to victory over Democrat Bill Thompson after engineering a rules change to allow him to run for a third term and spending millions of his own money. As of last month, the billionaire mayor had spent $85 million to Thompson’s $6 million.
A wild race was taking place in New York’s 23rd congressional district for a House seat left vacant when Obama picked Republican John McHugh as his Army secretary.
Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman was leading Democrat Bill Owens slightly in the traditionally Republican district. The race took a bizarre twist over the weekend when Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava withdrew because of flagging support and endorsed the Democrat.
Democrats charged the race was an example of how divided the Republican Party has become between conservatives and moderates as it tries to rebound from losing control of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008.
Hoffman had been endorsed by conservative Republicans such as Sarah Palin, last year’s Republican vice presidential nominee.
“If you look at what I think is likely to happen next year, you already have some Republicans who are more aligned with the very conservative element of what’s happening in New York, saying, ‘This is a model for what you’ll see throughout the country,’” the White House’s Gibbs said.
In Maine, a “citizen’s veto” is on the ballot to overturn a May 2009 law allowing same-sex marriage. If the law is upheld Maine would become the sixth U.S. state to allow gay marriage, but the first to approve such a law at the ballot box — a potential turning point for gay rights after a stinging 2008 defeat in California. Polls close at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT Wednesday).
Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst in New York, Donna Smith in Washington, and Ros Krasny in Boston; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech