Democrats cleaned up big in off-year elections from New Jersey to California, sinking the candidate who embraced President Bush in the final days of the Virginia governor's campaign. They also turned back GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's efforts to limit the power of California's Democratic leaders.
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. Polls in the last week had forecast a much closer race.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine won a solid victory in GOP-leaning Virginia, beating Republican Jerry Kilgore by more than 5 percentage points. Democrats crowed that Bush's election-eve rally for the former state attorney general only spurred more Kaine supporters to the polls.
In California, Schwarzenegger 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. Another measure he supported was too close to call.
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.
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."
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."
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.
Warner — who had campaigned hard for Kaine — declared: "Tonight, Virginians from one end of our commonwealth to the other said no to negative campaigning." Kaine's victory was likely to boost Warner's profile as a possible 2008 presidential candidate.
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 President 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.
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.
In California, where Schwarzenegger faces re-election next year, the four ballot measures he pushed were seen as a referendum on his leadership. Three failed and a fourth — requiring public-employee unions to get members' permission before their dues could be used for political purposes — was too close to call.
In other races:
—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.