Democrats won governerships in New Jersey and Virginia in off-year elections this week, while voters in California voted against ballot initiatives supported by GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
While some of the winning Democrats said their victories were due, in part, to voter fatigue over bitter politics and dissatisfaction with President Bush and his party, others say the individual state elections are not a referendum on the president.
"Nine out of 10 people, if you ask them on the street in New Jersey and Virginia, say, 'why are you selecting your choice for governor,' they would not say 'George Bush,' they would say, 'who is for lower taxes, who is going to be a better governor. Who is going to make the freeway?'" Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told FOX News on Election Day. "People vote for their governor who they want to govern their state and take care of the issues that affect them. Garbage pickup, safety, police, fire, all of those things."
He added: "I'm not saying that President Bush doesn't have trouble in the polls right now, but to interpret a governor's race is somehow a referendum on him is foolishness."
Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine easily won the New Jersey governor's seat after an expensive, mudslinging campaign, trouncing Republican Doug Forrester by 10 percentage points. Late polls in the race had put Forrester seven points behind, but within the margin of error.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine won a solid victory in GOP-leaning Virginia, beating Republican Jerry Kilgore by more than 5 percentage points. Even though President Bush publicly threw his support behind Kilgore when he showed up at an election-eve rally for the candidate, Democrats crowed that the president's support for the former state attorney general only spurred more Kaine supporters to the polls.
"People who thought the election of a Democratic management team was a fluke, we proved the naysayers wrong, we proved them wrong," Kaine said during his victory remarks. "We proved that Virginians want a government that puts partisanship aside, we proved that people, than ideological bickering."
Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard and co-host of FOX News' "The Beltway Boys," said, "Obviously, in Virginia, President Bush was a little bit of a drag ... but that was not pivotal in the election" because Kaine was simply a better candidate than Kilgore.
"I think the biggest defeat was for Arnold Schwarzenegger in California ... clearly, some of Arnold's magic is gone," Barnes added.
Schwarzenegger, who is up for re-election next year, failed in his push to rein in the Democrat-controlled Assembly. Three of his ballot measures flopped: Capping spending, removing legislators' redistricting powers and making teachers work five years instead of two to pass probation for tenure. Another measure he supported was too close to call.
A separate measure that would have required abortion providers to notify a parent when a woman under 18 was seeking an abortion also failed.
Elsewhere, Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage, Maine voted to preserve the state's new gay-rights law, and GOP Mayor Michael Bloomberg easily clinched a second term in heavily Democratic New York.
"I love this city even more today, if that's possible, than I did four years ago," Bloomberg said at his victory celebration. "I will continue to lead it honestly and independently by always putting people's interests ahead of the political interests."
Foretelling of 2006?
Democrats said the results were the first steps toward bigger victories next year — when control of Congress and 36 governors seats are at stake — and for the 2008 presidential race.
"I believe national Republican politics ... really had an effect in Virginia and California," said Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean. Voters "don't like the abuse of power, they don't like the culture of corruption. They want the nation to go in a different way."
Former Texas gubernatorial candidate Gary Mauro, a Democrat, said both Corzine and Kaine ran as "common-sense Democrats."
"Republicans thought they had a clear shot at both those governorships. They lost those governorships ... the cultural divide was really emphasized in these elections between these two parties," Mauro said, suggesting for 2006. "You can't bet the farm off your election results but I think it looks good fo the Democrats."
But Republicans warned against reading too much into two governorships that started the day in Democratic hands and ended that way. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner was barred by law from seeking a second term, and New Jersey acting Gov. Richard J. Codey opted not to run.
"It's not some type of trend," said GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, noting that both seats were won by Democrats in 2001 when Bush's popularity was high. Still, he acknowledged the defeats — and said they could help rally the GOP base next year. "I don't think anybody will be complacent now."
White House spokesman Trent Duffy couched the Kilgore defeat by saying that Kaine "ran as a Republican," wearing his "faith and family values on his sleeve." The candidate's right-leaning positions on issues from gun rights to tax cuts also helped him win, Duffy said.
After the 2004 elections, Democrats acknowledged that Republicans fared better, in part, because they appealed to not only to religious conservatives but to other voters who consider religion and faith a vital part of their lives.
Duffy also noted that Democrat Warner's high approval numbers aided Kaine's victory, though the White House does not see Kilgore's defeat as indicative of the tide beginning to turn to the Democrats nationally. Kaine's victory was likely to boost Warner's profile as a possible 2008 presidential candidate.
Down and Dirty Races
Both governors' races were marked by record-breaking spending and vicious personal attacks.
In Virginia, Kilgore's campaign ran an ad claiming Kaine, a death penalty opponent, would have refused to execute Adolf Hitler, while Forrester quoted Corzine's ex-wife as saying he had let down his family and he would let down New Jersey.
In his concession speech, Forrester urged Corzine to bring the state together. Corzine acknowledged that the campaign had been painful.
"Sometimes, innocent bystanders are hurt in politics. ... Some seen, some unseen. And I hope we can push beyond this," he said, appearing with his three grown children.
Corzine also fired a shot at Bush.
"Tonight I want to thank the people of New Jersey to reject the Bush-[Karl] Rove tactics in politics, it's bad for democracy, it's bad for New Jersey, it ought to stop in its tracks and it did here tonight," he said.
Warner — who had campaigned hard for Kaine — declared: "Tonight, Virginians from one end of our commonwealth to the other said no to negative campaigning."
Corzine and Forrester, both multimillionaires, spent upward of $70 million to succeed Codey, who assumed the office last year when Democratic incumbent Jim McGreevey resigned over a homosexual affair.
A voter survey in New Jersey found women favored Corzine by more than 20 points while men narrowly preferred Forrester. Two-thirds of Hispanics and nearly all blacks favored the U.S. senator, while whites and wealthier people split their votes between the candidates. Self-described independents favored Corzine narrowly over Forrester.
Most voters said Bush was not a factor in their choices Tuesday, according to the survey conducted Tuesday by the AP and its polling partner, Ipsos. The survey was based on interviews with 1,280 adults throughout New Jersey who said they voted in the governor's election.
Survey results were weighted to age, race, sex, education, region and 2004 vote. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
Fred Malek, who served as campaign manager in 1992 for George H.W. Bush and was the 1988 director of the Republican National Convention, said the good economies in Virginia and New Jersey likely helped the incumbent party. Bush initiatives like his tax cuts will help Republicans elsewhere to keep their seats in 2006, he added.
Corzine, as governor, will have the power to choose a successor to fill his unexpired Senate term. The seat will be up for election in a year, but whoever Corzine appoints will likely have a big advantage in that election.
Early Wednesday, results were still being tallied on whether public-employee unions had to get members' permission before their dues could be used for political purposes.
In other races:
—Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was in a tight race with challenger Freman Hendrix, a deputy mayor under Kilpatrick's predecessor. Both men are Democrats. The Justice Department had sent monitors in to investigate potential absentee ballot voting irregularities after the elections supervisor was queried on her sending out unsolicited ballots.
—San Diego surf-shop owner Donna Frye, a maverick Democratic councilwoman who nearly won the mayor's race in a write-in bid last year, lost to Republican Jerry Sanders, a former police chief backed by the city's business establishment.
—In Minnesota, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly conceded the election to former City Council member Chris Coleman, saying the people have spoken. Coleman, a Democrat, routed Kelly by a more than 2-to-1 margin in unofficial returns with most precincts reporting. Ahead of the election, independent polls showed voters were primed to fire Kelly, and most cited his 2004 endorsement of the Republican president as the reason.
—Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Houston Mayor Bill White all handily won re-election.
FOX News' Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.