By seizing gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans on Tuesday dispelled any notion of President Obama's electoral invincibility, giving the GOP a lift and offering warning signs to Democrats ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.
Republican leaders were quick to cast Tuesday's outcome as a rebuke of Obama, nearly a year after his election.
"It sends a clear signal that voters have had enough of the president's liberal agenda," Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele said after Robert F. McDonnell emerged as the winner in Virginia.
Still, Democrats could take some solace in Tuesday's results, as the party swiped a traditionally Republican House seat in the far north of New York. The contest drew wide notice as moderates and nationally prominent conservatives waged a fierce battle over the future of the Republican Party. With 92% of the precincts reporting, Democrat Bill Owens had 49% to Conservative Doug Hoffman's 45%.
In Virginia, McDonnell took 59% to Democrat R. Creigh Deeds' 41%, in nearly final returns. In New Jersey, Republican Christopher Christie took 49% to Jon Corzine's 45%.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Democrats easily held onto an open congressional seat when Lt. Gov. John Garamendi defeated Republican David Harmer. With 72% of the precincts reporting, Garamendi led, 53% to 42%.
History suggests that off-year elections are far from predictive. In 2001 -- at a like point in Republican George W. Bush's presidency -- Democrats won the governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, then lost House and Senate seats a year later.
But even before a single vote was cast Tuesday, Democrats had cause for concern.
With Obama slipping in polls and many voters unhappy with the Democratic-run Congress, "it's been increasingly clear over the last few months that Democrats were likely to have a tough midterm next year," said Charlie Cook, who handicaps races nationwide for his nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "What we've seen tonight doesn't dispute that assumption."
Tuesday's gubernatorial results certainly won't help Democrats. Perceptions are important in politics -- often more so than reality -- and the GOP's success, including a sweep of all three statewide offices in Virginia, should boost the party's fundraising and candidate recruitment in the coming weeks.
More significant was the makeup of Tuesday's electorate in Virginia and New Jersey, states Obama carried a year ago. It was whiter than the electorate that turned out in 2008 to make Obama the first black president in the nation's history, and suggested the difficulty that Democrats could have attracting minority voters without the president atop the ticket.
Also worrisome for Democrats was the sentiment among independents, the voters who swing between parties and often decide elections. They went overwhelmingly Republican in Virginia and New Jersey; if that dynamic carries over to next year, it could mean serious losses for Obama and Democrats fighting to keep their majorities on Capitol Hill.
"Democrats who look at 2006 and 2008 and assume there was some kind of permanent change should be shaken out of their lethargy," said Mark Mellman, a party strategist, referring to years when Democrats won control of Congress and the White House, respectively. "It doesn't mean we're going to lose in 2010, but we'd be very foolish to simply assume we're going to win."
Both major parties invested millions of dollars in the gubernatorial contests, aiming not just to push their candidates first across the finish line but also to shape the way the results are interpreted ahead of the midterm vote, when most governors, a third of the Senate and all 435 House seats will be on the ballot.
In the short term, the off-year results will surely color perceptions within the Washington Beltway, as Obama and the Democratic-run Congress strive to pass landmark healthcare reform legislation, then turn to a major bill to fight global warming. The outcome, amplified in the echo chambers of cable TV, talk radio and the partisan blogosphere, is unlikely to make things easier for the White House and its allies.
"While the results weren't primarily about President Obama, Republicans will now be energized and Democrats will have to spend the next few weeks explaining what went wrong," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "The results can only further frighten Democrats on Capitol Hill from swing and GOP-leaning districts."
There is a danger in reading too much into the elections, given the differences between the two gubernatorial contests, which were shaped far more by personalities and parochial interests than any overarching national themes.
In New Jersey, Democrat Corzine sought to salvage his candidacy by declaring Obama a full partner in his governorship. In Virginia, Democrat Deeds offered only halfhearted support for the president, a sentiment the White House returned in kind.